Peacock presents a bloody, clever satire about America’s favorite documentary genre.
Delia, oh, Delia, Delia all my life/If I hadn’t have shot poor Delia/I’d have had her for my wife/Delia’s gone, one more round, Delia’s gone.”
“Oh, listen to my story, I’ll tell you no lies/How John Lewis did murder poor little Omie Wise.”
Look, America likes a murder story. Before you could pull up your podcast app of choice and select from one of the hundreds of true crime podcasts, choose a documentary series on any of several streaming services, or read a book (trashy or otherwise) about the wildest and wooliest cases, people got their gruesome details from chapbooks or murder ballads, like the two quoted above. Johnny Cash (singing about the murder of Delia Green) and Doc Watson (the murder of Omie Wise) were feeding an appetite that has always been a part of human nature. We like being horrified and fascinated, to feel smug when we figure something out, or to have a secret sense of relief that these things aren’t happening to us.
Of course, the ugly side of this obsession is that these aren’t fictional stories. The recaps and the long-form articles and the “10 pages of colored photos!” are things that have happened to actual people. When there’s merch for serial killers and merch for shows about serial killers, where does the line between curiosity and rubbernecking blur? And what happens when talking about murder has been commodified, say by a podcast with millions of downloads and plenty of advertisers? Who are the bad guys then? (Note: The murderer is always one of the bad guys)
Peacock’s Based on a True Story is a breezy, bloody look at true crime obsession and the lies that we tell ourselves when we’re determined to have our way. Nathan and Ava Barlett (Chris Messina and Kaley Cuoco) are a Los Angeles couple experiencing many problems all at once. Nathan, a former tennis champ turned coach after a career-ending injury, has just lost his job at a fancy country club, demoted to teaching kids’ classes after management replaces him with a hot young 25-year-old. Ava, who is expecting their first child, is a realtor who cannot seem to sell any houses, herself demoted at work to apartment showings. Ava’s favorite hobby is true crime: she always has a podcast on and the theme of her girls’ nights with best friend Ruby (Priscilla Quintana) is “wine and crime.”
When the universe decides to pile plumbing problems on top of everything else, the Bartletts hire plumber Matt (Tom Bateman) who swiftly becomes friends with Nathan. Engrossed in news stories about local serial killer The Westside Ripper, Ava comes up with a podcast idea that just might change the life trajectories of all three.
That’s…really all you will want to know about Based on a True Story, plot-wise, before going in. Created and written by Craig Rosenberg, who also executive produces fellow bloody satire The Boys, Based on a True Story is a binge-able good time with plenty of twists and turns and gore. It’s just as well for the viewers that all eight episodes are dropping at once, given that each episode flies by and ends with a bang before you’re even sure that the time has gone by. Messina and Cuoco are wonderful as both halves of a fairly believable marriage that is starting to wear at the seams, though it can be hard to sympathize when they gaze sadly around their friends’ mansions with “woe is us” faces. It’s one thing to not afford your mortgage, but when the feeling starts to extend to jealousy of outrageous lifestyles, the empathy begins to wear thin.
Quintana is a scene-stealer as spoiled influencer Ruby, though her place in her storyline gets unfortunately pushed aside when her husband Simon (an utterly unhinged and fantastic Aaron Staton) enters the picture. True star credit, however, belongs to Tom Bateman as affable weirdo Matt, who finds a friendly listening ear in Nathan and gets his life caught up in Ava’s wacky schemes.
Shot in an extremely sunny and picturesque Los Angeles, the sets are beautiful, the ocean is sparkling, and the blood is very, very red. There are some downsides, though. Based on a True Story never really takes the murder-loving audience to task as much as it wants to in the beginning; it starts to fall just in as much in love with the blood and guts as the people it is satirizing. The frequent dream sequences, though always imaginative and fun (with one featuring an incredible needle drop), start to get old as the story progresses. Investment in some aspects of the story is hard when you can never be sure if it’s happening. A seemingly important character disappears for much of the story only to reappear and pop back into the story as if they’d never left, and a jaunt to a true crime convention never bites quite as hard as it seems to think that it is.
Based on a True Story will probably split a lot of viewers down the middle (not, uh, literally), but what doesn’t these days? It’s a fun ride, buoyed by the main trio’s excellent chemistry and a cheekiness that makes it sing. And if it makes you think a little deeper before you click play on the next episode of that murder podcast, maybe all the better. I will too.
Based on a True Story is now available on Peacock.