In an age where Star Wars and superheroes dominate the cultural conversation, there’s currently a genre that feels sneakily more omnipresent than any intellectual property. Though you likely have a coworker or neighbor that only knows Baby Yoda from the memes, there’s a big chance that same person has binged The Devil Next Door and is ready to share their opinions, or they can’t wait to start watching The Confession Killer. True crime has always been a popular genre for American audiences, but in the streaming age, it seems more lucrative and mainstream than ever.
True crime is having such a cultural moment that the phenomenon has spread across platforms. True crime podcasts, most notably 2014’s Serial, became watercooler topics and led to series loosely and directly inspired by the format, like HBO’s The Night Of and the third season of True Detective, or spawned direct adaptations, like Dirty John and Homecoming. Fledgling Apple TV+ sees an avenue to cash in on both trends, adapting Kathleen Barber’s 2017 true crime-inspired novel Are You Sleeping, which zeroes in on the act of crime podcasting itself, with the new series Truth Be Told.
Octavia Spencer, who also serves a producer on the series, stars as Poppy Parnell, a Bay Area journalist who rose to prominence covering the 1999 murder of author and Stanford professor Chuck Buhrmann. Poppy’s polarizing coverage played a major role in the conviction of the victim’s 17-year-old neighbor, Warren Cave (played as an adult by Aaron Paul), when Poppy dubbed the teen a “monster.” However, new evidence uncovered 19 years later suggests that a witness, Chuck’s then-teenage daughter Lanie (Lizzy Caplan), was coached when giving her statement. It leads Poppy to consider her role in possibly putting an innocent young man behind bars and motivates her to start an investigatory first-person podcast to reopen the case.
While true crime fiends will likely lap Truth Be Told up, the series struggles with tone, unable to decide whether it wants to be a thought-provoking thriller or campy, trashy fun. For instance, Warren’s decisions since he’s been incarcerated complicate Poppy’s feeling of moral obligation to find the truth, and the viewer’s feeling of whether Warren even deserves redemption. It’s truly compelling, weighty stuff, but it sits beside other elements that seem ripped from a daytime soap and add to the overall impression of a lack of narrative focus. Poppy’s twisty-turny investigation splits time with an ill-conceived love triangle and the struggles that arise in Poppy’s family when she returns to the Bay Area after years of being away, and it’s unclear if these plotlines will ever connect with the main storyline. There’s also a missing person and faux-British assumed identity thread. If it sounds goofy, that’s because it is.
In the three episodes screened for review, Poppy’s podcast either opens or closes the episodes, setting the stage and the focus for each installment. The narrative device works well overall, but dips into being too meta when the characters and subjects of the podcast discuss the latest episode or the impact that the series is having on their lives. Still, the Caves, including Warren’s police officer father and cancer-stricken mother, and the Buhrmanns are the series’ most interesting characters, especially when the show uses them to illustrate the ways in which a family’s perception of their own tragedy is morphed and distorted by the media.
The performances are solid throughout, especially from Caplan, who’s asked to do quite a lot, and Elizabeth Perkins, who plays Warren’s mother with lived-in world-weariness. Though his role feels tacked on, it’s also nice to see Mekhi Phifer age into something of a character actor. Honestly, Truth Be Told does have enough stars and hooky cliffhangers that suggests it would be perfect for the binge-watch treatment, except Apple TV+ is only releasing the first three episodes on its premiere date and then will release subsequent episodes weekly. While that release schedule works well for event series like Disney+’s The Mandalorian, I feel like it could hurt Truth Be Told.
Like most of Apple TV+’s offerings, Truth Be Told feels like it would be a winning entry in the primetime network TV schedule, but it’s far too middling to be a draw for a brand-new streaming service with limited titles. Then again, never underestimate the public’s appetite for true crime stories.
Nick Harley is a tortured Cleveland sports fan, thinks Douglas Sirk would have made a killer Batman movie, Spider-Man should be a big-budget HBO series, and Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson should direct a script written by one another. For more thoughts like these, read Nick’s work here at Den of Geek or follow him on Twitter.