With the release of the first three episodes of the limited series Truth Be Told on Friday, Apple TV+ throws its hat into the overpopulated crime-drama ring. The cultishly irresistible genre has yielded countless hits for other platforms, like HBO’s True Detective and Big Little Lies, along with true-crime adaptations like Hulu’s The Act and Netflix’s Mindhunter. Netflix in particular seems to have cornered the market most effectively this year, producing two gorgeous, moving series rooted in failures of the criminal justice system: Ava DuVernay’s powerhouse portrayal of the Central Park Five, When They See Us, and the quietly heartbreaking Unbelievable, starring newcomer Kaitlyn Dever.
Unfortunately, in spite of its stacked cast, Truth Be Told is a muddled, soapy disappointment. Based on the novel Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber, the 10-episode series is about a decades-old murder for which an innocent man was framed and given a life sentence, but it is also about prison violence, Nazis, an evil twin, questionable journalistic ethics, fractured familial ties, corrupt cops, a car accident, and terminal cancer. And it’s all unnecessarily framed by a fictional true-crime podcast. So yeah, it’s a lot.
From producer and writer Nichelle Tramble Spellman (The Good Wife), the series stars Octavia Spencer as Poppy Parnell, an award-winning veteran journalist who has worked at The New York Times and now hosts a popular true-crime podcast. It’s implied that Poppy’s career took off in the late ‘90s because of a series of negative articles she wrote profiling Warren Cave (Aaron Paul), a teenager at the time who was sentenced to life in prison for killing his neighbor. Now, 19 years later, new evidence suggests that Warren is innocent, and Poppy decides to re-investigate the murder on her podcast to help clear his name. Lizzy Caplan (and Lizzy Caplan in a blonde wig) plays Lanie and Josie, the estranged twin daughters of the victim, Chuck Buhrman. Other impressive supporting players are Michael Beach as Poppy’s husband, Elizabeth Perkins as Warren’s mother, and standout Ron Cephas Jones as Poppy’s father, a dementia-ridden former member of the Black Panthers.
The performances, especially from Spencer and Jones, provide the show’s strongest moments. The most emotionally rich plotline revolves around their fraught father-daughter relationship, compromised further when Poppy’s family learns that the inmate she is trying to free is a member of the Aryan Brotherhood in San Quentin. Playing Poppy’s sister, Haneefah Wood (Baskets) gets to showcase her talent in an especially moving wordless montage, and Elizabeth Perkins is a delightful addition to any show. Yet, this stellar cast is not enough to save Truth Be Told from its oversaturated, burdensome plot and overdramatic script.
There undoubtedly is cultural insight to be mined from depicting the effect that a virally popular true-crime podcast, one that is ravenously consumed by the masses for purely salacious entertainment and debated among strangers in endless Twitter threads, has on the lives of the actual people connected to the crime. But Truth Be Told is not the right vehicle for that discussion. For one thing, the murder of Chuck Buhrman is a wholly fictional crime, as made apparent by the insane red herrings, bad disguises, and the melodramatic role of addiction and adultery among middle-class white suburbanites.
The main issue, though, is we are told that Reconsidered, Poppy’s podcast, has millions of fans, but at least in the first three episodes, we never see any proof of this. There is no glimpse into online discourse surrounding the case or examples of how the newly uncovered information affects the world beyond the show’s main players. In one episode of Reconsidered, Poppy basically alleges that the local police chief committed the murder and threw his own teenage son in jail as a sacrifice. Why does literally no one care except the police chief himself? That seems like the kind of major accusation that, if disseminated to millions of listeners, would trigger some kind of community response!
There are still plenty of episodes left for the show to prove me wrong and, given the promising talent of the cast and my personal love of crime shows, I hope it does. But as it stands, the podcast framing of Truth Be Told seems at best like a half-hearted attempt to separate itself from other crime shows by adding a trendy 21st-century twist, and at worst, a thinly veiled device to allow Spencer to explain the plots and themes in lieu of conveying them organically.
Truth Be Told marks another substandard entry into Apple TV+’s lineup of original content. Since launching just over a month ago, the new streaming platform has failed to make a mark with its releases. The Morning Show, the highly anticipated drama about a daily news show reeling from the #MeToo ousting of its Matt Lauer-esque anchor (Steve Carrell), has rightfully received lukewarm reviews, though Jennifer Aniston is excellent. Unexpectedly, the best show so far is the quirky, queer, pop music-inflected Dickinson. However, to triumph in the cutthroat streaming wars currently dominated by Baby Yoda, terrible Christmas movies, and the nostalgic appeal of rewatching The Office for the hundredth time, Apple TV+ is going to have to step up its original content game.