Society’s fascination with true crime is not exactly covert. What was once relegated to a subset of people watching Dateline a little too eagerly has transformed into a massive, multimillion-dollar industry, spanning podcasts, docuseries, books, and some of the wildest Reddit threads you’ll ever fall into on a dark and stormy night.
Almost as ubiquitous as true crime-obsessed media is the entertainment that skewers it. The genre has been parodied in shows like American Vandal and Only Murders in the Building, as well as spoofed in a Portlandia sketch and a Swarm side-story. There’s even a new documentary that explores the real-life dangers of becoming desensitized to violent crime. Now, all of those cautionary tales and hysterical sendups have been rolled together in Based on a True Story, which premieres on Peacock June 8.
The comedy series stars formidable television vets Kaley Cuoco and Chris Messina as Ava and Nathan Bartlett, a couple on the verge of bankruptcy, who stumble onto the true identity of a murderer terrorizing Los Angeles’ West Side (dubbed “The West Side Ripper,” naturally). Instead of turning the culprit in to the police, Nathan and Ava decide to capitalize on their intel and turn it into a podcast. But in order to set their work apart from the deluge of amateur true crime shows, they adopt a novel twist: bringing the murderer onto the podcast, to discuss how and why they did it.
What begins as a wacky but thinly sketched genre parody quickly finds its legs, thanks to Cuoco and Messina’s pair of committed, wired performances. But amid all of the show’s considerable style and terrific pacing, there’s a lingering plot hole that threatens to upend Based on a True Story’s good intentions. And though some may find it easier to brush off than others, this glaring exclusion makes the show’s foundational cracks all the more evident, occasionally turning this comedy into a head-scratching mystery.
With a murderer on the loose, one might think that Nathan and Ava—who is somewhere in the second trimester of her pregnancy with the couple’s first child—would want to be a little more careful. But Ava’s fascination with the true crime genre clouds her better judgment. After all, her “Wine & Crime” club meetings with her girlfriends have had the wine component nixed, now that there’s a baby on the way, and she needs a little excitement. Ava’s idea of a thrill just happens to be dallying with a killer—God forbid that a woman have hobbies!
Nathan, whose position as a tennis instructor at a posh L.A. sports club is threatened by the incoming popularity of pickleball, has no place to argue. And when the couple’s mutual friend, Matt (Tom Bateman), drops information he has about the killer at Nathan and Ava’s feet, they figure they may as well use it. That just means tracking down and propositioning the West Side Ripper themself, to make them an offer nobody could possibly refuse: partial creative control on a fledgling podcast.
Based on a True Story is quite good at poking fun at its own wild conceit, while giving real-life DIY podcasters an appropriate amount of ribbing. The in-universe fictional show Sisters in Crime (hosted by a very wry Jessica St. Clair and June Diane Raphael) is a particular high point in the show’s lampooning of true crime genre mores. Cheering for a fresh murder before making a point to say that you stand with the victims’ families is not exactly unlike the kind of hypocritical posturing on display at massive conventions like Crime Con, which the show spends two episodes satirizing.
Aside from the parodying, which doesn’t always land, most of the show’s humor is derived from Ava and Nathan’s interactions with the West Side Ripper, whom they have to treat like a coworker instead of a cold-blooded butcher. The Ripper’s continued freedom is a condition of their participation in the podcast and the agreement to not kill anyone else, and it’s amusingly absurd to see how all three parties have to retool their show as the episodes fly by. “All I need is one murder a month [to] keep the show relevant,” the Ripper suggests. With the number of their downloads skyrocketing, we briefly see Ava and Nathan consider it, before swatting the dollar signs out of their eyes.
But Based on a True Story eventually becomes snared by all of the inevitable questions surrounding the logistics of their podcast. The show’s writers only gloss over a few kernels of info. Nathan and Ava upload their podcast from an obscure Russian IP address through a VPN, so their identities won’t be traceable. But surely that doesn’t mean the cops wouldn’t be trying every possible avenue to track down its creators anyway, and we never get a sense that the authorities are breathing down their necks. There’s also the issue of money. The plan is to develop a show so popular that a big podcast network will buy it. How will the couple broker that deal if they can’t reveal their identities? And even with no advertisers and no offers on the table, we see Ava and Nathan start spending like the dough is already rolling in, despite their podcast essentially being unprofitable for the length of the show’s first season.
If you can forgive these massive plot holes every time they pop into your brain (which is exceedingly often, given how much the podcast’s popularity is referenced), Based on a True Story will prove to be some fun, breezy fare. Yet even that is sometimes threatened: Occasionally, the writers will attempt to shoehorn some unnecessary commentary about the state of society into the show. The series tries to juggle its intrinsic cultural critiques with analyses of marriage dynamics and wealth disparity, but it’s less incisive when it veers off the track of its initial satire.
Thankfully, Cuoco and Messina are so well-matched, it almost doesn’t matter. Their chemistry is flawless, and their individual charisma burns up the screen. Cuoco is particularly great, using her trademark frenetic flightiness to deliver punchlines so fast that they almost get lost. That’s an occasional detriment at first, but Based on a True Story gets funnier and more confident as it goes on. Perhaps that’s because its leads have to perform at such a high level that they sometimes oversell the material, making us forget about all of those underwritten plot points, which stack up and eventually threaten to buckle the entire affair under their weight. But while the series can’t cross the finish line without a few battle scars, it at least manages not to die a grisly death by its own hand.
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