These stories always start with a jaded veteran cop who comes out of retirement for one final case: the case that made (or broke) his career.
Except in Truth Be Told, the story starts with a jaded veteran reporter who leaves The New York Times to start a podcast: a retelling of the case that made her career.
Apple TV+’s kinda pulpy, mostly windy crime drama is an art-imitates-life-imitates-art narrative that fictionalizes America’s current obsession with true-crime stories and true-crime podcasts. But here’s the thing about true crime: We like it because it’s true.
Creator Nichelle Tramble Spellman based this series on the novel Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber, which in turn was heavily inspired by Sarah Koenig’s juggernaut investigative podcast Serial. The plot centers on a decades-old murder case that may have convicted the wrong killer (what else is new?). Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer stars as a journalist who feels creeping guilt from having condemned a teenage boy accused of murder 20 years ago and publicly reinvestigates the case in order to redeem herself and exonerate him. Her podcast narration becomes our framing device, full of bon mots about truth and justice. Think of it as a gritty, long-game Murder, She Wrote.
Spencer’s Poppy Scoville-Parnell made her bones publishing stories on the violent 1999 death of Stanford professor Chuck Buhrman and the weirdo neighbor kid eventually sentenced for the crime. But when a tape surfaces showing Buhrman’s teenage daughter being coached during her statement to the police, Poppy decides to reopen the case, putting herself at risk from her judgmental family, the sinister Buhrmans and the supposed murderer himself, played by Aaron Paul. (Can he please do a rom-com or something? This guy is bumming me out.) The timid teen has grown into a snarling prisoner covered in swastikas, which presents logistical and psychological challenges for Poppy, who grew up in a family of radical civil rights activists.
The racial undercurrents of the show are one of its core strengths — how frequently do you get to see a successful, plus-size black woman on TV absolutely owning her writing career and intimidating the hell out of her naysayers? (Spencer nails this commanding role.) But so many people close to Poppy question why she would help a guy in the Aryan Brotherhood that you, too, start second-guessing her endeavor. As Poppy might tell you, something something justice, something something the truth will set you free.
Watching the four episodes made available to critics, replete with weak coincidences and dopey plotlines, I did not care at all if Paul’s character was guilty or not, nor did I care who even killed this professor. (You literally learn almost nothing about him, anyway.) Instead, what occasionally thrilled me were the compelling family dynamics at play here, with prosperous Poppy returning home to the Bay Area — and her family’s biker bar — after living an entire other life out on the East Coast.
We’re also treated to some delightfully creepy adult twin interactions here, thanks to Lizzy Caplan’s compelling dual performance as Buhrman’s daughters Lanie and Josie. It’s just too bad these nuanced relationships are stuck inside a mediocre murder mystery bound to a meaningless title.
While Poppy reopens old wounds in Menlo Park, furtive Lanie and Josie play out their own psychodrama far from prying eyes. Lanie, a brunette hospice care doula and likely sociopath, raises alarms when Poppy comes sniffing around all these years later, but has no one to turn to but a protective aunt. Her twin sister vanished without a trace years ago, though the audience soon learns she’s now blonde, living in New York City under an assumed name and an assumed British accent. The mystery of why she disappeared is the only captivating question mark of the series, a credit to Caplan’s vacillating vulnerability and menace, which she infuses into both characters simultaneously. “You terrify me,” Josie tells her sister. (Josie narrates the original novel, where Poppy was a mere supporting character, so the switch-up here is a fascinating choice.)
I was most interested in Poppy’s relationships with her biker family, including her skeptical sisters, played by Tracie Thoms and Haneefah Wood, and her prickly father, played by Ron Cephas Jones. I appreciate the authenticity of Poppy and the Scovilles’ complicated connection, despite her stereotypically glamorous TV job. Wood particularly stands out during a brief but heartbreaking silent scene where her character is arrested and processed in jail, gradually humiliated as an officer removes all of the elements of her femininity. It’s a cold and powerful look into the dehumanizing experience of the American penal system.
Jones is magnetic here, playing a former Black Panther who may be in the early stages of dementia. With his long face and daunting stare, he reminds me of a sea deity — a King Squid — and his patriarchal imperiousness chilled me, as though I were his daughter. Poppy, still traumatized by her mother’s early cancer death, struggles to know what to do about “Daddy’s” erratic behavior. When he speaks to her hatefully during a fugue state and later grabs her after a tense family moment, Poppy doesn’t just let it go and forgive. Instead, she holds on to her pain because of her self-respect and because she knows it might help save her dad. These are the moments when Truth Be Told sings.
I would watch a version of this show as a biting family drama, but its gaze into the court of public opinion leaves it toothless.
Cast: Octavia Spencer, Lizzy Caplan, Aaron Paul, Mekhi Phifer, Ron Cephas Jones, Elizabeth Perkins, Tracie Thoms, Haneefah Wood, Annabella Sciorra, Michael Beach, Katherine LaNasa, Tami Roman
Executive producers: Nichelle Tramble Spellman, Octavia Spencer, Reese Witherspoon, Lauren Neustadter, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, Kristen Campo
Premieres: Friday (Apple TV+)