Apple TV+’s new drama sends Octavia Spencer and Aaron Paul on a racially-charged search for justice.
There is often a stark divide between the facts of a case portrayed in the courtroom and the narrative of the events in journalism. A trial has rules about what is admissible and how a story can be constructed, while the press can concoct any tale at will, and can turn a cut-and-dry crime into compelling storytelling.
While true crime has long been a beloved subject (as far back as Capote’s In Cold Blood), the genre has received a revival in interest in the digital age. Binge culture is perfect for stories of investigation, with each new discovery in a case making a perfect cliffhanger to end an episode. Podcasts like Serial and TV shows like Making of a Murderer have made up some of the 2010s’ most beloved water cooler fodder, and the debate about its popularity rages on: is it journalism, or sensationalism? Apple TV+’s new series Truth Be Told looks to pull the curtain back to reveal not only the crime but the motivations of the podcaster.
Pulitzer prize-winning journalist turned podcaster Poppy Parnell (Octavia Spencer) made her name profiling Warren Cave (Aaron Paul), then a teenager convicted of murdering his neighbor, Stanford professor Chuck Buhrman. Poppy asserts her coverage of Cave helped put him in jail, and after the release of a video making it seem that key witness, Lanie Buhrman (Lizzy Caplan, who also plays her twin sister Josie), was coached, she begins to wonder if she helped put an innocent man behind bars. Poppy decides to use her true-crime podcast to document her investigation to determine if Warren was actually framed.
In the show’s first episode, “Monster,” writer/showrunner Nichelle Tramble Spellman works to pack a lot of subplots into the first 45 minutes of the series. We are introduced to Parnell and the murder case that made her famous. We also learn that Poppy and her husband recently moved back to the Bay area after 20 years in New York, Cave’s mother (Elizabeth Perkins) has breast cancer, that Poppy’s upper-class life stands in stark contrast with her working-class family, that Poppy’s father may suffer from dementia, and that Cave has become a member of the Aryan Brotherhood while in prison. Oh yes, and that Josie Buhrman has gone into hiding and avoids contact with her twin sister Lanie.
This really makes the first episode seem like a pilot, trying to hint at everything it will explore through the series’ run. Director Mikkel Nørgaard also dumps heaps of style on the proceedings, almost to the point of distraction (lots of shallow focus, extreme close-ups, underlit scenes that just end up being murky and unclear). Luckily, the second and third episodes narrow the focus of each episode to a more manageable level, and as the show becomes more focused, it becomes more engaging. Despite the trappings of high drama, at its heart Truth Be Told is a true-crime soap opera, full of family intrigue, ex-lovers, and skeletons in closets. And, like any good soap opera, it leaves you wanting more.
Strangely missing, however, from the initial three episodes provided to critics are the journalistic aspects that make up the elevator pitch of the show (e.g., what if a journalist finds her original investigation might have been wrong). We don’t know what it was exactly about Parnell’s articles that helped put Cave in jail. A case that high profile would have the jury sequestered (and in fact, they mention one juror was dismissed for reading her articles), so they shouldn’t have impacted the verdict, though it definitely would have influenced public opinion.
Despite the trappings of high drama, at its heart Truth Be Told is a true-crime soap opera, full of family intrigue, ex-lovers, and skeletons in closets. And, like any good soap opera, it leaves you wanting more.
Also, despite scenes of recording the podcast, the greater implications of her show seem to be missing. We don’t see the general public talking about the case, and the only impact we see is from the people already involved in the case. This, of course, could be explored in further episodes, but it does seem odd that a show based around the idea of a crime podcast features it so infrequently in the first few episodes.
The show seems more interested in tackling issues of race and class, to somewhat mixed results. It seems somewhat #problematic that a black woman is shown as potentially ruining the life of a privileged white kid. However, giving Warren the Aryan Brotherhood affiliation does create an interesting conflict for Parnell. Does she still work to right her wrong, even if he’s a horrible racist? It also makes her family question her motivations, especially when Poppy’s investigation begins to impact them directly.
The impacts of class privilege are explored as well, primarily through Poppy and her family. Her father Shreve (Ron Cephas Jones) runs a biker bar in Oakland with the help of her sisters Desiree (Tracie Thoms) and Cydie (Haneefah Wood). The working-class world her family inhabits stands in stark contrast to the stratified world Poppy now finds herself in. Poppy lives in a giant mansion in the Bay Area with her lawyer husband, who comes from money. Poppy seems to believe she can still fit in with the legally dubious world her father lives in, but she quickly learns that she is far more removed from the world she grew up in than she had realized.
The third episode ends in one of the more wrenching turns of events of the first few episodes. After a tense confrontation with Warren Cave’s father, who is the chief of police for Menlo Park, Oakland PD raids Shreve’s bar and arrest Cydie for outstanding parking tickets, of all things. Poppy’s wealth and status protect her, but her family is at the mercy of the police’s retaliation.
Octavia Spencer shines, as she usually does; her natural charisma makes it easy to believe that Parnell is able to get people to open up to her as a journalist. Paul, however, feels rather wasted. Cave’s character is barely featured in the first three episodes, and the only emotion we see from him is rage. It’s understandable for someone sentenced to life in prison at a young age to be angry, but it makes the character seem flat. It’s possible that further episodes will explore the character in more depth, but the first three episodes make Paul seem underused. The supporting cast is also excellent, especially Caplan, who plays both twins, an especially delightful soap-esque turn.
Apple is making a risky gamble by having TV+ rely solely on original content to draw in paying viewers in an already streaming-saturated market. Truth Be Told is a strong entry to be sure, and one that is easy to recommend and effortlessly binge-able. With a few more series like this, Apple may be able to pry some eyeballs away from Disney+. It’s a good thing they have a few billion in the bank to make some more TV.
Truth Be Told digs for the truth through Casper mattress ad reads on Apple TV+ December 6th.