TV’s biggest craze these days is true-crime stories, especially TV shows about psycho killers. The series Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story was Netflix’s second-most popular English-language series ever, so popular that only the protests of victims’ families halted the brisk sale of Dahmer Halloween masks. A Morning Consult poll found that 62 percent of Americans love psycho killer shows, for interesting reasons. The psychology of the killer is what draws 89 percent of fans, while 84 percent like the suspense, and 72 percent say serial killer stories teach them about the scary world we now live in. Such paranoia no doubt made The Watcher, the true-crime story about a stalker who drove a couple (played by Naomi Watts, 54, and Bobby Cannavale) out of their dream home and almost out of their minds, a smash hit that displaced Dahmer – Monster as Netflix’s No. 1 show.
The Dahmer show certainly delivered suspense, his weird mind was interesting and, like The Watcher, his story speaks to the nation’s current apocalyptically paranoid mood. But it got mostly negative reviews from critics, and it fell short of great drama, because serial killers are empty at the core, not fully people at all. Ted Bundy called his homicidal urge “the entity,” but really he was a nonentity. Even Bundy didn’t have a clue about his own psychology and, like Dahmer, his enacted fantasies were essentially meaningless.
But Black Bird, a less well-known true-crime show on Apple TV, got a near-perfect 97 percent critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes, because it has a more recognizably human dimension. Stephen King called it “brilliant and riveting. A Dennis Lehane masterpiece.” Its creator, Lehane, also gave us Mystic River, Gone Girl and Shutter Island, and cowrote The Wire and Boardwalk Empire.
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Black Bird is based on the memoir In With the Devil: A Fallen Hero, a Serial Killer, and a Dangerous Bargain for Redemption, by journalist Hillel Levin and Jimmy Keene. Keene, a charismatic football player and a cop’s son, got busted for drug dealing, but the FBI offered him his freedom if he went to a terrifying maximum security prison and pretended to befriend Larry Hall, accused of killing 20 young girls.
Black Bird has a much stronger narrative drive than the Dahmer show, with far more suspense. And it’s infinitely more fascinating as a psychological drama. The killer, brilliantly and eerily played by Paul Walter Hauser, who won fame in 2019’s Richard Jewell (about the eccentric Atlanta security guard falsely accused of the 1996 Olympics bombing), is an intriguing enigma, at one moment weirdly meek and vulnerable, then confessing to lurid murders — and then saying they were just dreams. Hall was in prison for kidnapping, but getting him to confess to murder was a cat-and-mouse game.
Still more fascinating is the psychology of Jimmy Keene, the cocky athlete and shallow womanizer turned convict who entered the killer’s cell and mind. At first, Lehane was repulsed by Hall’s story and didn’t want to write it. But he was drawn in by Jimmy. “He’s the callow boy who is asked by the village to go out and kill the monster that’s threatening it,” Lehane told writer Steve Weintraub in a Collider interview, “and he goes out through the dark forest into the dark cave and confronts the monster, and he comes back and now he’s a man. He’s been changed by the experience.” Hall represents the nadir of toxic masculinity, but Jimmy was rather toxic himself. “There’s nothing more toxic in male nature than the serial killer of women. … [T]hey find a little more common ground than they expected.”
Further deepening the appeal is Keene’s relationship with his dad, Big Jimmy Keene (Goodfellas’ Ray Liotta in one of his last, most moving roles). Big Jimmy was a cop with a shady past — his grandpa was an Al Capone crony — but in Black Bird he’s a good egg at heart, and he’s dying. You can see why his son is motivated to get out of prison before he’s gone. Greg Kinnear, 59, plays a local detective determined to crack the case, opposed by small-town officials convinced Hall is just a local nut case seeking attention, and Sepideh Moafi is magnetic as the female FBI agent immune to Jimmy’s charm and bending him to her will — to his benefit. They’re like an ace sleuthing team from the series True Detective.
Dahmer — Monster is worth watching for its suspense, and The Watcher for its exuberantly odd blend of stalker drama, references to a real-life serial killer case, supernatural tinges, over-the-top emotions à la American Horror Story, and vividly strange characters and unresolved mystery at times almost worthy of Twin Peaks.
But Black Bird is the serial killer drama that delivers the whole package: skillfully orchestrated suspense, deeply involving psychological drama and insightful lessons about the world we live in.
Tim Appelo covers entertainment and is the film and TV critic for AARP. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at Amazon, video critic at Entertainment Weekly, and a critic and writer for The Hollywood Reporter, People, MTV, The Village Voice and LA Weekly.