Fans and detractors of the Internet’s true crime cottage industry will find plenty to hate about Based on a True Story, a new Peacock series that tries to send up the public fascination with the genre. Though it aims for laughs, it succeeds less in finding humor than presenting a group of obnoxious characters viewers will likely wish someone would bump off.
Based on a True Story follows struggling Los Angeles couple Ava (Kaley Cuoco) and Nathan (Chris Messina), who have a baby on the way and a diminishing revenue stream. The pair lives in a beautiful home near the beach, possibly beyond their means given Ava’s profession as a Realtor and Nate’s work as a tennis instructor. Adding to the couple’s problems, a serial killer called the Westside Ripper runs loose in their neighborhood, and slays a local bartender the same night Nate visits her restaurant. Police suspicion initially falls on Nate, though he and Ava soon determine the true identity of the killer — Matt (Tom Bateman), Nate’s friend, and the couple’s new handyman.
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Rather than turn Matt — who has killed at least seven women — in to the cops, Ava and Nate devise a plan. They’ll launch a true-crime podcast on the Westside Ripper, and feature Matt in exclusive interviews. The money the podcast generates will solve their financial woes and create a portrait of the mind of a killer… if said killer doesn’t off them first.
Longtime television fans will recall how, before the days of unlimited cable channels and streaming services, networks loved to copy the success of one another, often with diminishing returns. For every The X-Files, viewers would end up with a Baywatch Nights. Peacock, the streaming service which has followed a traditional churn-em-out television model more than any of its competitors, follows the same idea here. Based on a True Story feels inspired by the success of Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, with a touch of Dexter’s black humor thrown in. And, like many a TV knockoff, it pales in comparison to the series it wants to emulate.
Only Murders in the Building struck gold by providing two loserish schmucks as its leads, played by two comic legends in the form of Steve Martin and Martin Short. The manic Short could play off of Martin’s stoicism and vice versa in such a way that made their characters irresistible no matter how selfish their choices. Cuoco, Messina, and Bateman have strong enough chemistry, but their stock LA douchebag characters saddle them with leaden material. Only Murders also featured a mystery at its center, something Based On a True Story lacks. As a result, the plot doesn’t have a compelling hook.
The same goes for True Story’s attempts at capturing the macabre humor of Dexter. That show benefited from a complex antihero in its title character: Dexter was a mass murderer, but he was also a loving son, boyfriend and father. His bloodlust only extended to other killers who had skirted justice.
In other words, he was a good man, to the point his nature allowed him to be. True Story goes out of its way to show Bateman’s Matt as a good father, though the show doesn’t have the sense to give him antihero motives. He kills women because he enjoys it. As a character, that makes him vile, which also makes Nate and Ava look even grosser for concocting their podcast plan. The core characters of True Story aren’t just awful, they’re awful to watch.
The Westside Ripper’s taste for innocent victims also feels like a missed opportunity given that Ava and Nate surround themselves with moneyed elites in a vision of Los Angeles that feels scrubbed of any sign of smog or urban inequity. Characters sit around sipping wine in McMansions, discussing how they’re all having affairs with personal trainers, bikini waxers, or other ‘lower-class’ employees.
We wished Matt would have the good sense to chop up some of these obnoxious yuppies instead of poor, innocent bartenders. A better show would have taken the opportunity to comment on or satirize Angelino snobbery. We’re not even sure True Story sees its characters as the eye-roll-inducing twits they are.
A Peacock Problem?
Series creator Craig Rosenberg does manage to squeeze out a few genuine laughs by the third episode, which sees Matt demanding more creative control over his podcast effort with Ava and Nate. That could signal that Based on a True Story finds its footing in later episodes (three were provided to critics for review). Other hit series — Rings of Power, for example — took a full two or three episodes to really take off running.
Still, given that this is Rosenberg’s debut as a series creator, fans of his most recent credits, The Boys and Preacher, probably won’t sit for something this mundane. That may have less to do with Rosenberg’s abilities as a writer than with Peacock’s trying to do more traditional television and no-holds-barred streaming content in the same show at once. Like the streamer’s reboots of Bel-Air and Queer as Folk, or the passé retread Joe vs. Carole, it’s not totally clear what Based on a True Story is supposed to be or say, and what audience it wants to target.
We can’t help but see a hint of irony in the tameness of Based on a True Story. Three of Peacock’s best offerings thus far — the scripted drama Dr. Death, Who Killed Robert Wone, and Casey Anthony: Where the Truth Lies — are all true-crime stories with pointed observations about their subjects and the public fascination with them. It’s hard to imagine that a service that has so thrived on the true crime genre would have so little to say about it or the audience’s obsession with it.
Then again, maybe that’s the problem: Based on a True Story might be afraid of offending Peacock’s true-crime-loving audience. Couple the show’s dullness with the ongoing Writer’s Guild Strike, and we can’t imagine Based on a True Story surviving for a second season. Here’s hoping Rosenberg and Peacock both sharpen their blades before taking a stab at something else.
Based on a True Story debuts on Peacock June 8.
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