Truth Be Told is a logline show, meaning that when described in brief — on paper, the Internet, or in quick conversation — it sounds excellent.
It stars Octavia Spencer, Aaron Paul, Lizzy Caplan, Elizabeth Perkins, Ron Cephas-Jones, and Mekhi Phifer, among others. It’s a murder mystery with a true-crime podcast element; it’s not based on a podcast, but on a novel about a true crime podcaster, played in the series by Spencer, who’s attempting to prove the innocence of a convicted killer. The Apple TV+ series, which debuts Dec. 6 with the launch of the first three episodes, contains twists and cliffhangers and all the narrative devices that often make a contemporary series addictive. On top of all that, its creative team boasts a lot of talented women and specifically women of color, including creator and writer Nichelle Tramble Spellman, who previously worked on The Good Wife and Justified. Really: That all seems great.
But then I sat down to watch the first four of ten episodes provided to critics for review and quickly realized that Truth Be Told is not great. Somehow, it manages to be pedestrian and tedious and not as entertaining as it should be, despite all the talent involved and factors that should work in its favor. So far, Apple TV+ seems to be specializing in logline shows, all of which sound strong in theory but don’t always execute in practice. Of the ones I’ve seen so far, only Dickinson, which is awesome, and The Morning Show, which becomes more engaging as it progresses, actually deliver on their premises. Truth Be Told is a promising elevator pitch that ultimately underwhelms.
The first episode introduces Poppy Parnell (Spencer), a once-respected print journalist who extensively covered the murder of a man named Chuck Buhrman and the trial of Warren Cave (played as an adult by Paul), the teenager accused of the crime and whom she believed was guilty. But 19 years later, in Making of a Murderer fashion, new evidence is introduced that suggests one of the twin daughters of the victim, Lanie Buhrman, was coerced into saying that Warren did it. Poppy, now a podcaster, quickly becomes convinced that he was wrongly convicted and that it’s her duty to clear his name. And by clearing his name, I mean that she needs to focus a full season of her Serial-esque podcast on getting to the bottom of what really happened to Chuck Buhrman, as well as what others — including Warren’s mother, Melanie (Perkins), and his father, Owen Cave (Brett Cullen), who is remarried and also happens to be the chief of police — may know about it.
From there, Truth Be Told adds more layers of narrative, some inspired by the novel Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber, from which it is adapted, and some not. Lanie and the relationship between her estranged twin sister Josie, both played as adults by Caplan, figures into the mix, as do the complicated dynamics between Poppy and her father (Cephas-Jones) as well as Poppy and her husband (Michael Beach). The show also spends time with Warren, a member of the Aryan brotherhood who starts to have trouble in prison once Poppy’s podcast blows up, and also keeps bringing Markus (Phifer), a former cop and ex-boyfriend of Poppy’s, back into the mix to provide Poppy with tips and leads.
As that previous paragraph implies, one of the key problems with the series — and I feel like I have written this about a lot of shows, especially in the latter half of 2019 — is that it’s trying to do too many things at once. But what really does the show in is its lack of specificity. I don’t need to know all the reasons behind every little thing that happens on a TV show — if I did, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy Watchmen at all. But I do need to feel like the storytellers are intimately familiar with the world they’ve built, know the answers to the questions being raised, and are meting out those resolutions with a sense of purpose.
Truth Be Told never seems to be doing that. The various strands of Poppy’s story — her stable life in a massive home with her husband versus her contentious relationships with her blood relatives who aren’t as wealthy — strain to say something about race and class, but I am not sure what that something is. It’s clear that Poppy’s dad, who owns a bar, has some criminal activity in his past and perhaps his present, but it’s not at all clear what that activity entails. There are just a lot of references to him knowing about “the streets” that never go into deeper detail.
There is a lot of mystery surrounding Josie, Lanie’s twin who left San Francisco and hasn’t been seen, at least by Lanie, since. She does eventually turn up, and when she does, Truth Be Told goes from mediocre to outright ridiculous. Without getting into spoiler-y specifics, let’s just say there’s an underwater swimming-pool fight that would have been magnificent if this show were Melrose Place at its ’90s apex.
The problem is that this is not Melrose Place and, more to the point, that’s not what Truth Be Told wants to be. Like practically every Apple TV+ series so far, it’s aiming for prestige and believes it has earned it because it’s got Apple money that pays for a great cast, high-caliber talent, and some lovely locations, like the ginormous house that Poppy lives in just outside of San Francisco. (Do you think Poppy and Mitch Kessler from The Morning Show use the same real estate agent? Because I do.) But it’s stretching so hard to for prestige that it actually made my muscles ache out of sympathy for its efforts.
All of these actors are terrific and have been very good in other great TV shows and films. But you can sense that they’re also straining to elevate the material and can’t quite lift it above their heads. Spencer has to do classic procedural-type stuff, like smugly confronting a potential suspect while playing a recording of him saying something incriminating. She also has to engage in podcasting sessions that don’t make it seem like her podcast would actually be all that successful? Spencer almost makes all of it work, but there’s only so much shine that a good actor can put on a dull object.
While I haven’t read Are You Sleeping in its entirety, I do know that it brings social media into the story, embedding tweets into its text that provide a broader sense of how the podcast fits into the culture at large. That approach also adds a sense of authenticity to this fictional story; the way it’s unfolding looks recognizable to us because it matches the way we consume media. Truth Be Told doesn’t do that. It tells us Poppy’s podcast is a big deal but doesn’t show us. Sadly, it never succeeds in making the world of the show seem connected to the real one in which the rest of us live.