True crime is everywhere these days. It’s unofficially America’s obsession, and in the age of endless streaming options, there’s no shortage of movies, TV shows, and documentaries that document, recreate, or parody grisly murders or shocking tales of abuse.
Entering into the already overcrowded genre is Based on a True Story, which, ironically, is not based on any true story, but is instead a totally fictionalized account of two desperate podcasters who find themselves knee-deep in a murder case. You’re probably asking, “Do we need another true crime show?” — and if you’re not, you should be. But from its first episode to its shocking finale, Based on a True Story distinguishes itself from the rest of the pack. Hiding beneath its sunny California visuals and acerbic jokes is a cutting satire about the true crime industry, and how we, as consumers of entertainment fueled by real-life tales of suffering and death, might be just as guilty as the criminals behind those gruesome acts.
Based on a True Story has a, pardon the pun, killer hook: a desperate couple recruit a serial killer, the Westside Ripper, to help them succeed in the cutthroat world of true crime podcasting. The couple in question, Ava and Nathan Bartlett, might appear to be unlikable, as they are at times selfish, too career-driven, and desperately want to be accepted by their happier and wealthier friends.
To the show’s credit, it doesn’t do much to idealize them. Yet the Bartletts are always relatable; you understand their desires for a better life. Ava, who is about to give birth to her first child, naturally wants to do better at her job as a real estate agent to secure a future for her growing family. Nathan just wants to hold on to the job he has as a tennis instructor at a swanky Southern California country club, and feels it slipping through his fingers when a younger, hungrier rival takes it from him. The Bartletts’ quiet desperation sets up the stakes involved — the quest for a better life — that pretty much anyone can understand. Who doesn’t want to improve their lives? And to get it, what would you do to achieve it? The Bartletts answer these questions with acts that increasingly test their morality, and make the audience question their own as well.
The show wouldn’t work if we don’t buy who these characters are and understand their motivations, so it’s a good thing Based on a True Story cast two of the best TV actors around in the lead roles. As Ava, Kaley Cuoco continues her impressive evolution as a comedienne who is lately drawn to roles with an edge to them. Audiences may always remember her as The Big Bang Theory‘s Penny, but with her starring turn as Cassie in the HBO Max series The Flight Attendant and now as Ava, she has grown into an actress who isn’t afraid to embody characters who are messy and unlikable.
Likewise, Chris Messina’s Nathan is far from the lovably grouchy doctor he played on The Mindy Project. Beneath his docile, middle-class suburban husband exterior, Nathan possesses an untapped desire for violence that doesn’t make him that much different from the murderer he’s investigating. It’s that delicate tightrope walk between being appealing and having a willingness to show revolting behavior that makes both Cuoco and Messina so good in Based on a True Story, and it’s what helps make the show both plausible and entertaining.
If you haven’t heard of Tom Bateman, don’t worry, neither had I before watching this show. Think of him as Andrew Garfield‘s sexier, more sinister younger brother. Bateman plays Matt, a divorced plumber who befriends the Bartletts when he fixes their leaky toilet. Because this is a mystery show, he is inevitably seen as one of the suspects, and like his more famous co-stars, he has to be believable both as a romantic interest and as a cold-blooded killer.
That he succeeds is a testament to Bateman’s uncanny ability to be both charming and dangerous at the same time. There’s a scene that occurs later in the show when Matt has to seduce a woman at a true crime convention in Las Vegas and intimidate her enough to expose her as a fraud who has been lying about surviving an attempted murder by the Westside Ripper. I can’t think of many established actors, let alone relatively new ones like Bateman, who could pull that scene off, but Bateman does so with such flourish that you walk away impressed. If there’s any justice in the world, Bateman would become a star after this show. He’s that good.
If Based on a True Story‘s premise sounds familiar, that’s because it shares a similar plot to one of the most popular shows on TV. Yet whereas Only Murders in the Building aims for a cozy, Agatha Christie-type murder mystery in each of its two seasons, Based on a True Story aims to be much more biting in its satire on the true crime industry. It directly implicates the audience in the crimes they love to watch, read, or hear about, and questions the entertainment value in a genre that is dependent on the real-life suffering of its victims.
This no more evident than in the show’s fourth and fifth episodes, titled “The Survivor” and “Ted Bundy Bottle Opener,” which take place at a fictional Crime Con in a neon-lit Las Vegas. It’s here where Based on a True Story‘s intentions are laid bare, with satirical jabs at the relentless merchandising of serial killers like Ted Bundy and the lampooning of podcasters like My Favorite Murder‘s Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark. As Bateman’s Matt points out in the fifth episode, an entire industry relies on a steady stream of “fresh content” to stay profitable, and this realization spurs the Westside Ripper to keep spilling blood to remain relevant (and make some money in the process). The show says that it’s not just the killer who’s responsible for these heinous acts, but also the voracious audience who wants to hear and read about them. It’s a stinging indictment, one that is unexpected and more than welcome in a genre that needs a good kick in the pants.
Yes. The first season consists of eight episodes, with each episode hovering around the 30-minute mark, which is just enough time to build up the plot, provide proper character development for the leads and the sprawling supporting cast, and move the narrative along at a brisk pace. Each episode ends on an effective cliffhanger that makes you want to watch the next episode as soon as possible.
More importantly, the performances by Cuoco, Messina, and Bateman, combined with the excellent satire on true crime and the genuinely intriguing murder mystery that unfolds throughout the first season, make Based on a True Story the perfect must-see summertime viewing. It’s funny and unsettling at the same time, and is a true standout in the Peak TV era of seemingly endless content.
All eight episodes of Based on a True Story‘s first season are now available to stream on Peacock.
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