Apple TV’s Black Bird Is Too Invested in Its Gory Details

One of the more missed series from Netflix’s short-lived golden age is mindhunter, a strange and chilling look at criminal profiling. Based on real history, the series follows two FBI agents as they go about the exacting and psychologically fraying work of interviewing serial killers to learn what makes them tick. The more they understand about these anomalous figures, the more, they hope, they can prevent future killers from lurking undetected for years.

picking up where mindhunter—which ended after two seasons, for murky reasons—left off is the new Apple TV+ series black bird (July 8), which similarly concerns a man trying to unlock the mind of a potential killer in search of truth. This time, though, it’s a criminal doing the investigation: Jimmy Keene (Taron Egerton), a real-life convicted drug dealer who was enlisted by the FBI to befriend and subtly interrogate a suspected serial killer, Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser), in the hopes that Hall might reveal where his victims are buried.

In order to do so, Jimmy must be transferred to a fearsome maximum security prison, navigating myriad threats without many resources all while trying to ingratiate himself to Hall, whose seeming childlike gentleness is immediately betrayed by the prurience of his obsessions. Hall is suspected—and yet, to this day, not convicted—of raping and murdering dozens of women throughout the Midwest. He has confessed to some of these crimes before, but has always recanted, leaving a maddening void of doubt at the center of a national investigation. Hall will be in prison for the rest of his life on a kidnapping conviction, but the disappearances and likely murders of many missing young women have never been successfully pinned on him.

knowing that makes watching black bird a little frustrating; like zodiac before it, we know there will be no concrete resolution at the end of the story. what writer Dennis Lehane goes for instead is a kind of thematic conclusion, one about the awful unknowability of wickedness and danger in the world. A little of that observation goes a long way. While Lehane and director Michael 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.

mindhunter walked a delicate line between sensitivity and morbid fascination. black bird attempts a similar trick, but makes the wrong calculations. Most glaringly, an episode in which Keene finally gets Hall to let loose with a grisly recounting of a murder is complemented by narration and imagery meant to honor the life of the girl he allegedly killed. Here is the humanity that has been lost here, the show insists. But it plays like a halfhearted concession to decency—an attempt to offset the vulgarity of Keene, and us in the audience, leaning across the table to better hear Hall as he details his violent ideas about sex and women.

That’s the essential problem of black bird. The FBI needs to know what Hall did in explicit terms, and Keene wants to communicate that information so he can get his long prison sentence commuted. Thus, we in the audience develop an insatiable appetite for the same lurid clarity, one that has us passively rooting for these confessional conversations to plunge further and further into the ghastly. This is a gory-details show dressing itself up as thoughtful prestige; sordidness is its chief raison d’etre, rather than empathetic illumination.

The show works far better as mere grim thriller. There is a particular dread to narratives like this, in which someone willingly descends into hell with only the thinnest of lifelines waiting to yank them out. Keene is chosen for his gentle charm of him: he’s cocky and muscled and handsome, a former high school football player turned illicit playboy. Egerton sells that swagger well, while keenly understanding that one of the journeys of the show is watching Keene lose his confident strut dele as he’s laid low by the darkness of his mission dele. And, of course, by the personal demons now required of most TV drama, many of them relating to his father dele —a bumbling and tortured former cop played by the late Ray Liotta. That backstory psychology doesn’t really need to be in the show, and it’s threaded in clumsily.

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