I normally don’t get excited for any notifications I get on my phone (yay, someone just looked at my LinkedIn profile), but this week I was generally psyched when an alert popped up on my iPhone that Black Bird episode 4 was ready to stream on Apple TV Plus.
I was a bit skeptical about this show heading into it, but now that I’m a few episodes in? I’m really enjoying Apple's latest series, a dark and gritty prison drama that’s inspired by true events. In fact, I’d say that Black Bird has a slight edge over Only Murders in the Building right now as my favorite show (yes, they are two very opposite sides of the same crime coin).
Why Black Bird is so compelling
Black Bird is a limited six-episode series on Apple TV created by Dennis Lehane that centers on Jimmy Keene (played by Taron Egerton), a cocky drug runner who gets sentenced to 10 years in prison. But then Jimmy is offered a chance to commute that sentence — if he’s willing to transfer to a much worse prison chockfull of the criminally insane — to elicit a confession out of suspected serial killer Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser).
I’m not going to give away any spoilers here, but I initially had trouble buying Hauser as Larry. I only know him from his limited appearances on Cobra Kai. If you're like me, you might think “I’m supposed to buy this party animal as evil?” as I did.
But then, I started watching. I quickly became engrossed by Hauser’s slow and creepy high-pitched speech, his crushing lonliness and the character’s belief that he’s unable to distinguish between reality and his dreams. Not enough to sympathize with the horrifying allegations against him, of course, but Black Bird really makes you understand his motivations.
Another very pleasant surprise is Greg Kinnear, who I honestly have not seen in anything since his guest spot on Friends. First, my wife and I couldn’t start talking about how much he hasn’t aged. Then, Kinnear starting digging into the case and poking the literal bear that is Larry, and I appreciated the combination of his usual smirking charm with his dogged determination — inspired by protecting the likes of his own daughter from seeing Larry released into the wild.
And really it’s the performance of this ensemble cast that keeps me coming back for more. From the guilt-ridden father of Jimmy played by the late Ray Liotta to the lead FBI agent Lauren McCauley played by Sepideh Moafi. She plays the perfect foil to Keene, pricking his arrogance while preparing him for the challenge of a lifetime.
Last but not least is Taron Egerton, who delivers a physique and snark that almost seems like an audition for Wolverine in Marvel’s X-Men. And as Black Bird evolves and Jimmy Keene attempts to befriend a monster you can see Egerton’s slick high school football star veneer get chipped away in real time.
Black Bird reviews: what the critics think
Critics generally have nothing have high praise for Black Bird, as it currently has a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes from critics. And the audience score is nearly as high, at 94%.
Peter Travers at ABC News says that “You’ll hang on in breathless suspense as Taron Egerton’s drug runner gets a shot at freedom if he can work a confession out of his serial-killer cellmate (a brilliant Paul Walker Hauser). And the great Ray Liotta as an ex cop deserves a posthumous Emmy."
Over at The Washington Post, Inkoo Kang writes that Black Bird is "clearly (if competently) padded out into a six-hour drama with a movie’s worth of twists and turns, 'Black Bird' is most compelling not as a psychological profile of a disturbed anomaly but as a study of societal failure."
Not everyone loves Black Bird, though. Richard Lawson at Vanity Fair says that "While Lehane and director Michaël R. Roskam conjure up an effective mood of unease and horror, Black Bird’s wallow in depravity, wading in deeper and deeper as it goes, proves less enlightening, less thought-provoking than its creators no doubt hoped."
Should you watch Black Bird?
Overall, I've fallen down the rabbit hole with Black Bird in the best possible way. But this is not a show for everyone. If you don't like violence or dark themes, this is not the show for you. But if you're looking for a show that's expertly acted and written, Black Bird will win you over. And it's a big reminder why Apple TV Plus is one of the best streaming services around.