I mean this as a compliment: Black Bird is not a tasteful show. There’s lead character Jimmy Keene, a former high-school football star turned drug dealer with a body chiseled from marble who likes his music loud and his liaisons dirty.
There are the needle drops, smacking you over the head with Guns N’ Roses’ “Mr. Brownstone” and REO Speedwagon’s “Don’t Let Him Go” and Soundgarden’s “Fell on Black Days,” each with lyrics that speak directly to the plight of the protagonist.
There’s Jimmy’s opposite number, suspected killer Larry Hall, a serial confessor to crimes he didn’t commit who likes to cruise around in his Dodge van asking female passers-by about their “boobies.”
There’s the overall sense that we’re watching something sordid and sleazy, even — strike that, especially — when the Feds sweep in with their big offer to Jimmy: Befriend Larry, get him to confess to another murder, and get out of jail free. It’s so grotesquely transactional that you want to pull away from the screen lest you be coated in a thin layer of slime.
To all this, I can only say, great job! I’ve watched several “based on a true story” crime dramas over the past few months, most of which (Tokyo Vice, We Own This City, Under the Banner of Heaven) I liked, and at least one of which (Candy) I adored. But except for Jon Bernthal’s material in We Own This City, none of them had the swaggering bravado of this pilot episode. Credit to writer/creator Dennis Lehane and director Michaël R. Roskam: This one stands out in a crowded field.
As a matter of plot, it’s easy enough to summarize. Taron Egerton and his abs star as Jimmy Keene, an all-American cop’s son with a “million-dollar smile” and at least that much in income from dealing coke. An early scene in which his supplier tortures an old childhood friend of his who stole from them both establishes the kind of value he places on lives not his own: three kilos, no more and no less.
After a long night of having sex with a waitress and an early morning fixing a protein shake, he’s swarmed and arrested by cops who can barely contain their joy over finding his cache of firearms along with the drugs. It’s the guns that will set him up for a hefty sentence unless he cops a plea. But he gets fooled by the prosecutor on the plea deal. Instead of the five years (four after good behavior), his cop father Jim senior (the late Ray Liotta) promised him he’d face, he walks right into a ten-year sentence.
He holds up well enough in prison by going into the rental business: He rents other inmates copies of porn magazines in exchange for money he uses to procure healthier food. It’s a decent racket, but it’s clear he doesn’t have it in him to do this for ten full years.
That’s when he’s approached by FBI agent Lauren McCauley (an impressive Sepideh Moafi), who introduces him to the deal that powers the show: voluntarily enter a maximum-security facility, befriend a killer named Larry Hall, come up with the location of one of his suspected victims’ bodies, and earn a full commutation.
Jimmy, being Jimmy, at first tells his new friends to go fuck themselves. But after more of the same-old, same-old in his regular prison, the opportunity to get out before his ten-year term expires becomes too tantalizing to pass up. He’s not given the assignment right away — “We’re looking at more than one applicant for the position,” McCauley tells him — but he does begin to study the file on the case.
By this point in the episode, we’ve learned a bit more about that case through flashbacks to a time period several years earlier, during which small-town detective Brian Miller (Greg Kinnear, affable as always) begins to piece together a trail that leads from a dead body in a nearby cornfield to a loser named Larry Hall from a few hours away. According to the local cops, Larry’s a harmless dork with enormous sideburns (“Burnsides” is the preferred nomenclature, he says) who enjoys doing Civil and Revolutionary War reenactments when he’s not driving around aimlessly in his van looking for spare parts and women to harass. Played by Paul Walter Hauser, Larry is maybe the lowest-energy killer you’re ever going to meet; his voice never raises above the level of a mumble, even when he admits to Miller that he kills women in his dreams.
But Miller is a problem-solver, as we learn from a smart bit of physical business in which he fixes his office window while on the phone with a cop in Larry’s hometown. (There’s a lot of very shrewd character work being done in little gestures and line-reading choices like that; the sharp, cruel way Jimmy cuts off his father’s longtime girlfriend when she comes to tell him that his dad has had a stroke is another.) If there’s a way to get to the bottom of the case, you can trust Miller will find it. And if that way involves Jimmy, well, there’s your story.
For amateur students of serial killers, Larry is a familiar type: a shlub with delusions of grandeur (neatly encapsulated in those burnsides) who may have killed more women than he’s convicted of, or fewer than he confesses to. Who knows? Attention-seeking behavior, serially confessing to cops just to be around important men with guns and made to feel like the star of the show, is par for the course.
What’s more surprising is that deeply unlikeable star turn from Egerton as Jimmy. It’s next to impossible to relate to this guy, with his godlike body, thousand-watt smile, and bone-deep conviction that he’s too special to put up with all this shit. Maybe he’s got that last bit in common with Larry — maybe they both see themselves as the show’s star — and maybe that’s how they’ll connect in the end.
Regardless, this is a strong start for the show, leaning heavily on the stranger-than-fiction crime-movie premise and a facility for establishing the nature of its characters right out of the gate. A more tasteful show would have slow-rolled it instead of bursting out of the gate like this. I, for one, am glad I’m not watching a more tasteful show. Murder is not a tasteful business.