Is America’s obsession with true crime unhealthy?
Craig Rosenberg’s “Based on a True Story” asks, but doesn’t answer. To be fair, it’s a disproportionately heavy lift for a half-hour dark comedy about a husband and wife who start a podcast with an actual, active murderer — the kind of premise that should promise ludicrous hijinks without too much moral interrogation — but the show can’t help spotlighting and then sweeping away its own weaknesses.
Kaley Cuoco and Chris Messina star as Ava and Nathan, a Los Angeles couple living just outside of the life they covet and with a baby on the way. When Nathan loses his job, Ava harnesses her true crime obsession by suggesting they start a podcast with the new acquaintance she has identified as the “West Side Ripper” — a serial killer tearing through women in the area.
The logline isn’t what hurts “Based on a True Story” — indeed, the first few episodes make for an aptly unhinged thrill ride, with no one having more fun than the Ripper himself (Tom Bateman). As they discuss what to call the podcast, the show format, or how to anonymously publish, there’s a classic straight-man-and-crazy-sidekick dynamic established between the central trio as they wade through mundane logistics. Bateman is over-the-top in the best way, growling through his dialogue whether it’s about croissants or untraceable Russian servers (he also towers over his costars at a terrifying 6’2″). Messina’s dumbstruck and occasionally panicked Nathan somehow never grows old, and Cuoco seamlessly brings her “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 a finale so jarring that it clearly assumes a second season). Everything from minutiae to the question of Ava and Nathan’s consciences eating away at them is something that the show could explore, but little of it is. The podcast struggles for merely one episode, then rides a wave of popularity for another solitary installment. Nothing has time to breathe or settle, and the writing leaves the action unfinished as consequence. Anything seems possible, and not in a good way.
Viewers are instead subjected to a baffling amount of time with Ava’s podcast-obsessed wine buddies, all of whom are apparently having affairs and encourage her to do the same and whose names you will not learn, let alone remember, by season’s end. The most outrageous plot twists all turn out to be dreams, hallucinations, or in one case what appears to be an alternate scene that somehow snuck into the edit. Ava and Nathan’s marital and financial hardship gets minimal screen time where they actually work through it, and one finale reveal is so completely unearned and unexpected that it almost doesn’t register.
You should also know that a dog gets killed, and it is not necessary for the story.
Early episodes also benefit from showing the actual podcast, a device that consistently emboldens fellow true-crime satire “Only Murders in the Building” because even a fake podcast deserves commitment, but it doesn’t last. The podcast’s mere existence becomes incidental to the characters’ twisted lives and relationships, which also remain unresolved — or thinly at best. There was a version of this show that recognized itself as the story of two people befriending a murderer to save their marriage, an idea consummately demented with the actual narrative.
Alas, “Based on a True Story” devolves into the most predictable possible outcome, where crime begets crime and chaos yields chaos, but with none of the elegance and innovation of a tightly-wound time bomb like “Barry.” This is a series that unravels quickly, and that’s assuming that it was ever raveled (so to speak) in the first place. It boils down to a neat idea with lukewarm results, like so many podcasts and TV shows.
“Based on a True Story” is now streaming on Peacock.