I still miss Mindhunter. Netflix’s serial killer profiler drama from director-executive producer David Fincher, which ran for two excellent seasons in 2017 and 2019, is, in my opinion, the best drama series Netflix has ever made, and one of only two Netflix dramas that would have fit in on HBO at its most prestigious (for the record, the other is The Crown). The show had tremendous psychological depth and Fincher’s signature attention to detail. But my favorite thing about Mindhunter was its extraordinary ability to create edge-of-your-seat tension out of people talking in a room. The scenes in which FBI investigators Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) interview convicted serial killers like Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton) about what makes them tick are absolutely riveting bits of filmmaking that work like mini-plays where the action rises and falls within the conversation: great actors playing off each other with great dialogue. I really loved Mindhunterand I’m always on the lookout for shows that give me that same feeling.
I’m very pleased to say that Black Birdwhich releases its final episode today, gives me that elusive Mindhunter sensation. The Apple TV+ limited series is another prison-set show that probes deep into the mind of a serial killer and that feels like it could have been an HBO show (that’s no coincidence; it’s executive produced by former HBO CEO Richard Plepler, a man with excellent taste in television).
Set in the late ’90s, Black Bird is an adaptation of a memoir by James Keene, who’s played by Taron Egerton. Jimmy is cocky Chicagoan who gets a 10 years in prison without parole for drug dealing and weapons possession. He’s a charming man who can talk to anyone and get them to open up, so FBI agent Lauren McCauley (Sepideh Moafi) recruits him for a secret mission. In exchange for a commuted sentence, Jimmy has to go deep cover in a maximum security prison with the worst of the worst and get Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser), a suspected serial killer of teenage girls, to tell him where the bodies are buried before Hall’s conviction for kidnapping and rape is overturned on appeal.
Hall is a seriously creepy guy, with Civil War facial hair, an off-putting childlike affect, and a disturbing attitude of misogyny. He admires Jimmy, who reminds him of his beloved twin brother Gary (Jake McLaughlin), who doesn’t have Larry’s developmental disabilities. But Larry is savvier than he seems. Jimmy has to try every manipulative tactic he can think of to get Larry to trust him, and time is running out.
The show’s action unfolds in conversations between Jimmy and Larry, long scenes where who has the upper hand keeps changing. The actors masterfully interpret the dialogue provided to them by creator Dennis Lehane, the acclaimed crime novelist and writer for The Wire. The always-excellent Hauser gives the showier performance, delivering twisted serial killer philosophy in a high, reedy voice, but Egerton is riveting as well, externalizing Jimmy’s inner turmoil as his conversations with Larry force him to reckon with his own traumatic childhood, his issues with women, and the possibility of redemption. Egerton is so muscular that he looks like he’s auditioning for a superhero movie, and his muscles, in addition to being physical and psychological armor for Jimmy to protect him from getting hurt like he was growing up, are just really impressive to look at.
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The show also has excellent supporting performances from Moafi, an actress I was previously unfamiliar with and am now a big fan of, who knows how not to get manipulated by Jimmy; the ever-reliable Greg Kinnear as Brian Miller, a local detective working with Agent McCauley on investigating Larry; and the late Ray Liotta in his final TV role as Jimmy’s father, Jim Sr. Liotta is excellent, as he always was, as a retired cop in failing health haunted by the choices he made that contributed to his son’s fate.
Black Bird is like Mindhunter in all the best ways, but it’s like it in a less fortunate way, too. Mindhunter never got a huge audience, and Netflix notoriously barely promoted it, especially in Season 2. Black Bird, too, has been under-promoted. There’s a far-from-zero chance that this is the first you’re hearing about it. But don’t let what happened to the under-appreciated Mindhunter happen to Black Bird. Now that the whole show is out, watch it on Apple TV+, and then tell everyone you know who likes heavyweight grown-up dramas that they have to watch it. There’s a lot of TV out there, some of it good and more of it mediocre, and hidden gems like Black Bird shouldn’t stay buried.
All six episodes of Black Bird are now streaming on Apple TV+