The true crime industrial complex has grown so unwieldy over the years that the true crime critique is itself a phenomenon, if smaller in scale — the mothership’s opposite, though not quite its equal. On television, such takes run the tonal gamut from “The Investigation,” the somber Scandinavian drama about the real-life murder of journalist Kim Wall, to “Only Murders in the Building,” a silly spoof that takes loving aim at the likes of “Serial.” The new Peacock comedy “Based on a True Story” skews closer to the latter, down to its trio of aspiring podcasters in way over their heads. But even though it swaps Manhattan for sunny Los Angeles, “Based on a True Story” is much more bleak than “Only Murders.” (Creator Craig Rosenberg had a hand in the pitch-black humor of “The Boys.”) Some of that darkness adds to the show’s appeal; more often, much like its characters, “Based on a True Story” spins out of control.
Despite the name, “Based on a True Story” boasts a premise so absurd it could only be invented. (It’s also been deemed a spoiler by Peacock, hence this review running the day all eight episodes are online for all to see.) Ava (Kaley Cuoco) and Nathan (Chris Messina) are a married couple struggling to keep up with the Joneses on L.A.’s affluent Westside. They’re surrounded by the rich, but work jobs in service to them — Ava as a realtor, Nathan as a tennis instructor at a country club — that barely pay the mortgage. Like Cuoco at the time of filming, Ava is expecting, a fact that only adds to her and Nathan’s economic anxiety. So when Ava, a true crime devotee, figures out their new plumber Matt (Tom Bateman) happens to be an active serial killer, her thoughts turn not to justice, but a potential podcast in which Matt tells all.
This scheme is so patently ridiculous it calls to mind the classic South Park gag: Phase 1, convince a psychopath to confess into a microphone; Phase 2, ???????; Phase 3, profit. The setup so heightens the vampiric undertones of murder mania that it ironically blunts the show’s edge as social commentary. “I think the people that are helping him are worse than he is,” a guest opines of the so-called Westside Ripper at a dinner party. “These parasites are making money off him!” But so far as we know, no actual hit podcasts are aiding and abetting a spree killer still at large, so “Based on a True Story” seems unlikely to inspire much introspection. Smaller jabs are more effective, even as they aim for obvious targets. A more established pair of podcast hosts, played by comedians June Diane Raphael and Jessica St. Clair, croon a cover of “I Will Remember You” in an overwrought expression of support for victims; Matt, a depraved predator, dubs his new fans “weirdos” without a trace of irony. Of course true crime is exploitative. “Based on a True Story” finds amusing, if not original, ways to illustrate that exploitation.
Matt himself is oddly underused, despite his central role in the series. “Based on a True Story” enjoys mining the character for comic contrast (he’s a cold-blooded monster who just wants to throw darts with his new buddy Nathan!). But the show avoids filling in any details or context that might upset its ability to use Matt for pure laughs. Despite recording a podcast that purports to do exactly that, and which we barely even hear, Matt never really explains the source of his compulsion, or how he feels about it; he has a young son who only sporadically, and whose mother never enters the picture. With his impulsive acts of violence that further implicate Nathan and Ava in his crimes, Matt behaves more like a plot-driver than a person — an indication of where the season’s true priorities lie.
While shaky as a satire of true crime, “Based on a True Story” is on firmer ground when it comes to Nathan and Ava’s marriage, as well as their relationship to class. Following up on “The Flight Attendant,” Cuoco is comfortable as a frazzled professional thrust into an underworld she doesn’t understand. Paired with Messina as a former pro who peaked when he once beat Roger Federer, she has a partner in panicked complicity. We may not understand why Ava thinks a podcast is her quickest route to fame and fortune, or how she thinks she can control — let alone protect herself from — a killer quite skilled at covering his tracks. But we do get the insecurity and status obsession eroding their marriage well before Matt enters the picture.
Cuoco and Messina are further unleashed by how unflattering a portrait “Based on a True Story” paints of their characters and social set. Anyone with a passing knowledge of L.A. real estate might roll their eyes at complaints about owning a house in Mar Vista — or they would, if Ava and Nathan’s concerns were taken at face value. Instead, they’re a couple who regularly fantasize about cheating on each other and willingly hang out with terrible people, to say nothing of Matt. A standout episode takes place at a dinner party from hell thrown by Simon (Aaron Staton), a trust fund baby with a mansion to match, and his wife Ruby (Priscilla Quintana), who flaunts her boy toy boxing trainer and brags about her high-quality blow jobs. As a theme, the sexual politics of wealth don’t connect very organically to the moral pitfalls of using strangers’ pain as entertainment. Such scenes are so delightfully bitchy they still go down smoothly.
One can’t say the same of the scattershot plotting elsewhere in “Based on a True Story.” Like Matt’s son, Ava’s sister Tori (Liana Liberato) is an intermittent presence at best, with an unclear role in the overall story. Ava, Nathan and Matt manage to anonymize the podcast with blockchain payments and offshore servers, but never consider the legal liability of asking corporations to sponsor an active, unrepentant murderer. With most episodes coming in well under 30 minutes, it’s easy enough to speed by such mid-binge snags. But they also add to the impression that “Based on a True Story” is a concept for a comedy sketch — what if a true crime podcast were hosted by the actual killer? — stretched out over several hours. Some punchlines and performances thrive when given room to breathe. Others sink rather than swim. True crime is a massive category that spans the great, the terrible and everything in between. Increasingly, its more meta offshoot is, too.
All eight episodes of “Based on a True Story” are now streaming on Peacock.