Is America’s obsession with true crime unhealthy?
“Based on a true story” by Craig Rosenberg asks, but doesn’t answer. To be fair, it’s a disproportionately heavy passage for a half-hour dark comedy about a husband and wife starting a podcast with a real, active killer — the kind of premise that should promise ridiculous hijinks without too much moral interrogation — but it show can’t help but highlight and then brush away its weaknesses.
Kaley Cuoco and Chris Messina play Ava and Nathan, a Los Angeles couple living just outside the life they wanted and with a baby on the way. When Nathan loses his job, Ava exploits his true obsession with crime by suggesting they start a podcast with the new acquaintance she has identified as the “West Side Ripper,” a serial killer who hacks up women in the area.
The logline isn’t what hurts “Based on a true story” — in fact, the first few episodes make for a justifiably insane thrill ride, with no one enjoying it more than the Ripper himself (Tom Bateman). As they argue about what to call the podcast, the format of the show, or how to post anonymously, there’s a classic crazy straight man dynamic that settles between the central trio as they wade through the mundane logistics. Bateman is over the top in the best way, growling through his dialogue whether it’s croissants or untraceable Russian servers (he also towers over his co-stars with a terrifying 6’2″). Messina’s stunned and occasionally panicked Nathan somehow never gets old, and Cuoco seamlessly brings his “flight attendant” frenzy to Ava.
The downfall of “Based on a true story” is that the show doesn’t want to finish anything it started (despite an ending so jarring that it clearly assumes a second season). Everything from the minutiae to the question of Ava and Nathan’s consciences is something the show could explore, but little of it is. The podcast only struggles for one episode, then rides a wave of popularity for another solo installment. Nothing has time to breathe or settle down, and the writing consequently leaves the action unfinished. Anything seems possible, and not in a good way.
Instead, viewers are subjected to a bewildering amount of time with Ava’s podcast-obsessed wine buddies, all of whom apparently have affairs and encourage her to do the same and whose names you won’t learn, let alone remember, by the end of the season. . The more outrageous twists all turn out to be dreams, hallucinations, or, in one case, what appears to be an alternate scene that somehow snuck into the montage. Ava and Nathan’s marital and financial struggles get minimal screen time they actually work on it, and a final revelation is so completely undeserved and unexpected that it almost doesn’t register.
You should also know that a dog is killed, and it is Not necessary for the story.
Early episodes also benefit from displaying the actual podcast, a device that consistently encourages true-crime “Murders in the Building Only” satire because even a fake podcast is worth engagement, but it doesn’t last. The mere existence of the podcast becomes incidental to the characters’ twisted lives and relationships, which also remain unresolved – or at best. There was a version of this show that billed itself as the story of two people who befriend a killer to save their marriage, a perfectly demented idea with the actual narrative.
Sadly, “Based on a True Story” turns into the most predictable outcome possible, where crime begets crime and chaos begets chaos, but without the panache and innovation of a time bomb like “Barry.” This is a series that unravels quickly, and that’s assuming it was ever unraveled (so to speak) in the first place. It boils down to a neat idea with tepid results, like so many podcasts and TV shows.
“Based on a true story” is now streaming on Peacock.