Fans of shows like Only Murders in the Building and Poker Face will appreciate the absurd story and dark humor in Based on a True Story. In the comedy thriller, co-produced by Jason Bateman, a couple strikes a deal with a serial killer to make a true crime podcast together.
As expected, however, the grandiose plans of becoming the next big (albeit anonymous) names in the true crime podcasting world don’t quite turn out like any of them hope they would. For the opportunistic couple, their lives will be forever changed.
Kaley Cuoco’s Ava and Chris Messina’s Nathan are struggling to keep up with mounting bills while their wealthy friends live lavish lifestyles. Nathan, a former tennis star, is demoted at work, and Ava, a real estate agent, continues to be relegated to renting apartments instead of selling expensive mansions. Ava, whose pregnancy almost seems like an afterthought for the couple (and the story, overall), finds escapist joy in one place: her love of true crime podcasts.
As if things couldn’t get any worst, they run into a plumbing snag at home. The plumber who arrives, Matt (Tom Bateman), is non-stereotypically young, attractive, and a huge fan of Nathan’s. Using this to his advantage, Nathan strikes a deal: he’ll give Matt free tennis lessons in exchange for his plumbing work. Matt agrees, and the two men hit it off swimmingly. Their business deal quickly turns to friendship as they spend their evenings at the local pub drinking beer and shooting darts.
Meanwhile, a serial killer is on the loose in town, nicknamed the West Side Ripper. Naturally, Ava is obsessed with and follows the story closely. When Nathan admits that he bumped into the latest victim, a woman named Chloe (Stranger Things‘ Natalie Dyer), in the bar the same night she was murdered, and Matt left shortly after she did, Ava panics.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to put two-and-two together. Being the true crime sleuth that she is, Ava drills Nathan on everything he knows about Matt. He left his old hometown because someone died in his building. All it takes is a quick Google search of unsolved murder cases in that area to pull up a match, further convincing Ava that Matt is the killer. Analyzing more evidence – scratches on his arms he claims were from his cat (when he doesn’t have one) and a blue plastic boot cover at the crime scene just like the ones he wears to work – and Nathan realizes Ava is right.
Do they immediately turn him in? This would be the logical next step, but the opportunistic couple takes another route. Ava wants them to use their knowledge of who the killer is to start an anonymous podcast interviewing him about his life and motives, which she believes will be the Holy Grail of true crime podcasts. In exchange, they won’t go to the police, but Matt must also promise not to kill again. Knowing Matt has a son, they believe this might incentivize him to play ball. After some convincing, Nathan finally agrees with Ava’s morally corrupt plan, believing it could be the thing they need to finally put them in a comfortable financial position. If capitalizing on America’s obsession with true crime, and profiting from a killer, is the only way to do it, so be it.
Matt isn’t initially on board, but when he finally agrees, he aggressively takes over. He wants to decide on the name of the podcast, choose the location where it’s recorded, the equipment used, transition music, and even have a say in the final cut. Ava and Nathan oddly did not anticipate how the project would fuel the ego of a narcissistic and cold-blooded killer who now feels like he’s a superstar. As an insurance policy, when Matt is questioned by police (along with everyone else who was in the bar that night), the crafty killer uses Nathan as his alibi. This makes it near impossible for Nathan to turn on Matt without implicating himself in the process.
Despite its revelatory subject matter, episode one of the podcast, mixed in with millions of others in the growing genre, does not go viral. It barely gets 100 listens. Infuriated, Matt promotes the podcast via an impromptu session at a true crime convention (audio only, of course, with his voice altered). He purports to be behind the death of the young woman the night before who was claiming to be his only surviving victim. He’s angered that she was selling books about her faked brush with death and tarnishing his good name. How dare she suggest he would be sloppy enough to let someone get away? The obsessed attendees eat it up, and the podcast numbers go through the roof. Based on a True Story has now become a household name.
But in today’s social media-centric world, you can be canceled in a heartbeat. One Tweet from Jessica Alba and the rest of the righteous Twitterverse weighs in, chastising not only the killer but also the people behind the podcast who are giving him a platform. Even if it’s fake, it’s deplorable that someone would profit from the gruesome deaths of others. They’re just as guilty as the killer himself. iTunes removes the podcast and it’s the nail in the coffin.
Still, Matt is convinced there are ways around the cancel culture, people who still want to hear his story, and a need for “fresh” content. Despite his deal with Ava and Nathan, he continues to break the rules. When Ava’s friend Ruby (Priscilla Quintana) figures out she and Nathan are behind the podcast and Matt is the killer, she threatens to go to the police if they don’t cut her in. Matt catches her before she has the chance and delivers her dead body to Ava and Nathan’s new beach house doorstep, leaving them to literally clean up their own mess.
Based on a True Story ends frustratingly, feeling unfinished. After getting rid of Ruby’s body, Ava and Nathan spend the evening mopping up her blood from their new beach house floor. They are caught in the act by Ruby’s unstable husband Simon (Aaron Staton) who is naturally curious about whose blood they’re cleaning, but the scene cuts before they answer.
Over at their main house, Ava’s younger sister Tory (Liana Liberato) is cleaning up when Matt approaches her from behind, seductively kissing her. Tory doesn’t know Matt’s true identity. In fact, at an earlier dinner party (with Matt present), she called the killer sick and demented and opined that the people helping him were even worse.
Does Matt kill Tory? The scene cuts before anything suspicious happens. If he does, it would be a terrifyingly dark turn for the show and a clear signal of his control over Ava and Nathan. A killer can’t change his stripes but he can re-channel his energy for a while. Matt could prove more dangerous than ever if he becomes obsessed with turning his West Side Ripper persona into a number-one true crime “hero,” by any means necessary.
All he needs, after all, is fresh material to dish up to die-hard fans happy to pay into a private subscription-based model. Whether or not Ava and Nathan want to be part of the experience anymore is irrelevant. It’s Matt’s podcast now, and they may have to start playing by his rules.
There’s no word yet on a season 2 renewal, but fans are hopeful they’ll see the troubled couple and narcissistic killer return to take another crack at the dark underbelly of the true crime podcasting world.
Based on a True Story season 1 is now streaming on Peacock
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