Truth Be Told: Apple TV Plus drama mixes true crime and Big Little Lies

A drama set in the world of a (fictional) true crime podcast is guilty of being less interesting than the real life version.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
5 min read

In the lap of the podcasts.


Could there be a more zeitgeist show than Truth Be Told? It's a prestige drama on a new streaming service and it's all about a true crime podcast. But where actual true crime podcasts like Serial and Dirty John seemed new and dynamic when they hit big in recent years, Truth Be Told feels a lot more conventional than its zeitgeist-y elements. 

The first episodes will be released on Apple TV Plus on Friday Dec. 6.

In 1999, San Francisco reporter Poppy Parnell made her name reporting on the sensational murder of a famous author. The evidence pointed to the victim's neighbour, a 16-year-old boy who was tried as an adult and put away for life. But 19 years later, Poppy is so weighed down by her influence on the trial that she reopens the case for her successful true crime podcast. Which stirs up a hornet's nest of secrets and lies among those still scarred by the murder: the victim's troubled twin daughters, the killer's ruthless police chief father, and even the podcaster's family.

As the story begins, you might think the show hinges on the confrontation between podcaster and prisoner, played by Octavia Spencer and Aaron Paul. The first episode follows Spencer's dogged reporter trying to get into jail to face the man she indirectly helped put away, and when the two esteemed actors finally face off across a grey metal table it injects a crackling excitement into the show.

However, Truth Be Told is more than a hoosegow two-hander -- and that's both a good and bad thing. By expanding the story to the various families still reeling from the fallout of the decades-old crime, the show goes in unexpected directions. But it also loses focus, as the jousting between Spencer and Paul has a spark that's largely missing elsewhere. Apple made the first four episodes available to press for review, so things may change as the creators wrap up the many threads, but in those first few episodes, Spencer and Paul's confrontations are too few and far between. 


For the love of pod.


Aaron Paul isn't in it as much as the set-up implies, but he's doing his best work since Breaking Bad (even if that was only last month thanks to belated sequel El Camino). Sure, we've all seen the isn't-he-or-isn't-he psycho glaring across a jailhouse interview table before, but Paul breathes life into the character thanks to his ability to combine simmering menace with surprising vulnerability. He's all tattoos and sinister heavy breaths as he rolls his shaved head and glares from under darkened brows, yet he still evokes the scared teenager he was when he first shuffled into the pen.

On the other side of the table, Octavia Spencer feels a bit too cosy to really sell the driven podcaster torn between embracing and escaping her vaguely sketchy family. The show seems to want to explore whether her investigation is selfish and her work voyeuristic, but Poppy is just too virtuous and those around her too flawed and messy. Oh, and her clunky voiceover makes you wonder why her show is such a hit.

Poppy's podcast provides the zeitgeist-y twist to a classic whodunnit formula -- the time-honored set-up of a rich author murdered in his big house can also be seen in theaters now in Knives Out. The crime itself is perhaps too time-worn and familiar, and might not hook you with the feeling of an unusual mystery remaining deliciously unsolved. The show seems to want to explore the wider context of the justice system by suggesting Poppy's pursuit of this particular headline-grabbing murder ignores the countless everyday injustices among the people in her own life, as systemic bias and neglect tramples justice for the black community. That's a timely and thoughtful point. But again, in the first few episodes at least it's lost in the show's many threads.


Pod only knows.


One neat modern twist on the whodunnit formula is that the podcast element isn't just a framing device. It actually plays a part in the story. The characters listen to Poppy's podcast and so are privy to the investigation unfolding, pushing them to act and react to the new clues.

Of course, it's also an excuse to plug Apple products -- less than five minutes into the first episode of this Apple TV Plus series there's a mention of the iTunes podcasts section, before Spencer dons Beats headphones to record a podcast on her MacBook, which the characters then listen to on their AirPods. Every now and then they FaceTime instead of meeting up, and in one scene a character sits and sings along with her iPhone for no apparent reason.

Still, you can't blame Apple for getting in on the true crime action. A forensic examination of Truth Be Told reveals traces of the DNA of genre-defining podcast smash hit podcast Serial, as well as the fingerprints of podcasts that explore wrongful convictions such as In The Dark and Undisclosed. You might also detect spatters of other variations on the true crime boom, including Netflix documentaries Making a Murderer and The Staircase.

That said, this isn't a podcast, and it's not meant to be consumed like one. True crime media is packed with tiny details and circumstantial evidence to peel back the layers of the original crime, inviting you to obsessively scribble all over a whiteboard in your mind, mentally pinning pieces of subliminal string to photos as you discuss the case on your WhatsApp chats like detectives sweating out the overtime. But Truth Be Told is a TV drama, and not even really a murder mystery drama, so it doesn't focus on the original case as much as you might expect. The re-opened investigation bubbles in the background, but the real story is the characters and how they act and interact with each other when the spotlight once again shines on them and their crimes.

With its domestic drama, sultry music and California sun shining on domestic drama, it feels more like Big Little Lies than My Favourite Murder. Perhaps there's no surprise it's produced by Reese Witherspoon, who also produced Big Little Lies.

Anyone who's listened to a true crime podcast or watched a documentary knows massive details are often uncovered long after the original investigations, boggling the mind that something so huge and so important could have been missed. But truth is stranger than fiction, and a fascinating twist in a true story can feel like sloppy plotting in fiction. Even if it's naive of us, we expect fictional shows to have a standard of narrative logic that real life simply doesn't bother with. So some of the twists in Truth Be Told strain credulity, as startling and crucial new evidence is turned up by a podcaster asking the most obvious questions. One thing the show does well, however, is showing how clear evidence -- even video evidence -- is open to interpretation.

All told, you don't have to be a true crime fanatic to find Truth Be Told interesting. But the verdict is that Truth Be Told's biggest crime is not being the real thing.

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