The week in TV: Black Bird; The Baby; Ghislaine Maxwell: The Making of a Monster and more

Black Bird (Apple TV+)
The Baby (Sky Atlantic/Now TV)
Ghislaine Maxwell: The Making of a Monster (Channel 4) | All 4
Storyville: In the Morning You Wake (to the End of the World) (BBC Four) | iPlayer

It’s been a week for scary monsters, some imagined, others horribly real. In the new Apple TV+ US true crime six-parter Black Bird, Paul Walter Hauser plays Larry Hall, suspected rapist and murderer of young girls. Hauser’s semolina pallor, vacant eyes and civil war re-enactment mutton chops seem almost too central-casting serial killer – until you check out Hall’s real-life mugshot and gape at the resemblance. Then there’s Hall’s voice: a submissive, quavering incel-whinny that turns forceful, lewd, suddenly exploding into rage a la Annie Wilkes in Misery.

Hall was known to detectives (played here by Greg Kinnear and Sepideh Moafi) for confessing to crimes for attention, then slyly retracting: “They’re just dreams.” Enter Jimmy Keene (Taron Egerton from Rocketman). A swaggering con – James Dean strut, Johnny Cash pompadour – serving 10 years for a drugs and guns bust, Keene could walk free if he transfers prisons to befriend Hall and coax him into confessing. Inspired by Keene’s autobiographical book In With the Devil, and developed by writer Dennis Lehane (Shutter Island; Mystic River), Black Bird becomes a wade through the darkest slurry of human nature, a sick game of cat and mouse that reduces cocksure Keene to a broken, sobbing heap in his cell.

An evil baby causing mayhem? Count me in

It isn’t perfect. There are slides into saccharine hamminess and a sluggish pace: it takes the best part of the opening double episode to get Keene and Hall together. Arguably we’re all serial-killered out anyway – there are only so many smug, gloating psychopaths blaming poor potty training that TV schedules can take. However, Black Bird is a cut above, hitting the Mindhunter/True Detective American gothic sweet spot of thriller-cum-analysis. There’s the sense of Hall’s mask peeling back one sticky millimetre at a time, and the Egerton-Hauser double act burns through the screen like acid.

There’s also the final TV performance from Ray Liotta, whose death in May was such a gut punch; playing Keene’s cop father, his depiction of flawed paternal love is as stirring a farewell bow as this fine actor could have wished for.

I loved the sound of Sky Atlantic’s eight-part horror-comedy The Baby: an “evil baby” causing mayhem – count me in. Created by Lucy Gaymer and Siân Robins-Grace, The Baby even nicks The Omen’s red-horror title graphics, which shows it has a sense of humour about itself.

The start of the opening double episode (all are available to stream) doesn’t disappoint: a runaway woman backs over a cliff, followed by a crawling baby. The latter falls into the arms of late-thirtysomething Natasha (Michelle de Swarte), who is so anti-baby she bluntly suggests to a pregnant friend that it isn’t too late for a termination. It becomes clear that the baby is both killer and parasite. A mysterious older woman (Amira Ghazalla) tells Natasha he must die.

In this way, the baby serves as a hormonal Damien-proxy, a transgressive riposte to idealised parenthood. A complex subtext weaves throughout: the monstering of “unnatural” non-maternal women; the chaos of parenthood; postnatal depression and beyond. Tanya Reynolds (Sex Education) appears in one episode in a thrillingly baroque backstory. When people treat the baby as Natasha’s child, you wonder: is she in the grip of postpartum psychosis?

Frustratingly, too large a section gets bogged down by an overworked, dull storyline about Natasha’s estranged mother (Sinéad Cusack) and a hippy commune. The Baby works best as a waspish parable about unnatural motherhood. De Swarte is great: uncouth, acerbic, conversing with the tot inappropriately: “Are you fucking with me?” Saltier dialogue (“Home time, you little cunt”) and a plot to stab the baby may go too far for some, but it’s also where the comedy feels blackest and boldest.

Ghislaine Maxwell has now been sentenced to 20 years for sex trafficking and other offences relating to sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Erica Gornall’s three-part Channel 4 documentary Ghislaine Maxwell: The Making of a Monster probes how she ended up there. It takes us from her privileged/toxic upbringing as the favourite child of media baron Robert Maxwell, to Oxford University and London society, to her father’s death and the scandal of the stolen pension funds, when Ghislaine Maxwell decamped to New York, falling in with Epstein as a kind of social/sexual fixer.

Now a familiar story – is there any modern photo more infamous than the one of Prince Andrew with 17-year-old Virginia Giuffre? – it’s well told here. The wide range of interviewees includes survivors and those who knew Maxwell in better times. I say “better”: one person recalls her pressuring other women at a party to allow blindfolded men to guess their identity by feeling their naked breasts. Watching documentaries such as these, the only thing pulsing through stronger than sex is money. It seems inconceivable that someone born into wealth would knowingly destroy lives to keep plonking her ultra-privileged backside on superyachts. But, increasingly, that seems to be the case with Ghislaine Maxwell.

The BBC Four Storyville documentary On the Morning You Wake (to the End of the World) uses audio interviews and computerised imagery to tell the real-life story of the day in 2018 when the inhabitants of Hawaii were mistakenly sent texts informing them that a nuclear attack was imminent. For the 38 minutes it took to be revealed as a false alarm, people cried, prayed, panicked and shoved children into storm drains. One elderly woman, a survivor of Hiroshima, didn’t want to survive.

The documentary is based on a virtual reality project of the same name, and while some images are eerie and evocative – a translucent boat; spectral cars on a highway – others are murky and distracting. Running at 35 minutes, it’s worth a look as a kind of bite-size War of the Worlds. A spoken-word poem by Jamaica Osorio drives home the central message – a wakeup call about nuclear weapons – of yet more monsters in our midst.

What else I’m watching

Freddie Flintoff’s Field of Dreams
(BBC One)
The former England cricket captain is concerned that the game is too posh. In this three-part docuseries he forms a team of novice teenagers from his home town of Preston; no one has heard of him, eyebrows are raised at cricket whites, but the passion isn’t long in coming.

Boys from the Blackstuff
(BBC Two)
A welcome re-run of Alan Bleasdale’s classic 1980s series about the devastating human cost of unemployment. It’s introduced by Bernard Hill, who so memorably portrayed Yosser “Gis a job” Hughes.

Love Island
Temperatures have risen since the women went to Casa Amor, but not in that way. A row broke out among the men over who is “fake” – a reality TV accusation tantamount to murder. Ironically, it’s the least fake moment of the series so far.

Star ratings (out of five)Black Bird ★★★★
The Baby ★★★
Ghislaine Maxwell: The Making of a Monster ★★★
On the Morning You Wake (to the End of the World) ★★