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Peacock's Based on a True Story is a Frustrating but Promising True-Crime Parody

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It takes a long time—too long of a time, frustratingly—for the true-crime comedy “Based on a True Story” to get to its first laugh-out-loud line: “We’re gonna get canceled! Jessica Alba f**ked us!” That frantic moment arrives at episode seven, after Ava and Nathan have hit the latest roadblock in their Faustian deal of collaborating on a true-crime podcast with an actual serial killer. And yet this Peacock series, debuting today with its eight-episode first season, is still getting a recommendation from this critic. “Based on a True Story” is the case of a show that’s most intriguing for what could come next. 

“Based on a True Story” is initially not so funny, despite trying to have its fun with pop culture’s fixation on other people’s real-life horror, and our desire to become armchair detectives. In the podcasting and docuseries era, murder is insatiable content. Married California couple Ava (Kaley Cuoco) and Nathan (Chris Messina) stumble onto a content-creating gold mine when they learn that their charming but imposing plumber Matt (Tom Bateman) is indeed a trending serial killer known as the West Side Ripper. Given Ava’s love for true-crime podcasts, the financially struggling couple enters into an agreement with Matt to create a podcast that will allow him to brag about his work while also giving true-crime junkies the side of a story they hardly ever get. As Nathan presents it to him: “Life in prison, or make a podcast?” 

Created by Craig Rosenberg (previously of “The Boys”), the show’s approach is initially too superficial, and the character work suffers for it. Even though there's plenty to say about true-crime capitalism, Ava and Nathan are too annoying and shallow as the series introduces how they would be more interested in money, popularity, and ratings than having a conscience about murders happening in their orbit. The brutal slaying that tips Nathan off to his plumber’s guilt is one such problem. We see it at the very beginning of the pilot, and then the show jumps back two weeks and humanizes the victim a tiny bit. Splattering her blood during a workout session is unearned and falls into an awkward pit—it’s neither ominous nor funny enough. It's just ugly. 

Such hollowness is part of a glaring tone issue that makes the first few episodes both basic and grueling, even as a striking idea shows glimmers of itself. The series doesn’t initially have the cleverness to get its desired bite, and the comic talents of Cuoco and Messina go largely unused. They have to play confused and naive here often, and the plotting cannot create robust comedic scenarios about how they're in way over their heads. Instead, it remains gravely self-amused at its wacky premise, which is more cloying than poignantly cynical. 

But by episode six in this first season, “Based on a True Story” finally develops into something meaty and noteworthy. With a darkness that’s familiar to “The Boys,” “Based on a True Story” starts showing how true crime isn't fun when you're in the narrative. And with brazenly open dialogue ("Money's great!"), the series riffs as a bonkers media satire, relishing what might happen if such a podcast were to become popular and available on Spotify. Everyone in America listens to it, like Serial, and everyone has an opinion. Celebrities tweet about it, and then the fluid moral conscience of American pop culture has its say. Cue the Alba line. 

Once this shift is made, “Based on a True Story” allows us to see Ava and Nathan from a different and more challenging angle. They’re no longer our kooky, misguided heroes in an initially cutesy premise but a couple desperate for control (and Cuoco and Messina have great chemistry presenting this). As they succumb to the temptations that would make this podcast a mega-hit in real life, Ava and Nathan create a phenomenon that also becomes their trap, with ego-driven producer/star Matt taking more and more control. First, it’s his notes about how the show should be edited and even the music cues. He also comes up with the podcast's name. But then it gets much worse. Eventually, Ava and Nathan are complicit in his new crimes, their dance with the devil turning into a marathon. It’s a shame the show takes so long to get to this point. 

“Based on a True Story” is also something of a marriage story, in which Ava and Nathan have been married for ten years and are about to have a baby but are disconnected by their stresses with work (she’s a realtor, he’s a former tennis star who still clings to the day he beat Federer). The series is restricted to glimmers with this idea, too, and has a bad habit of going off on fantasy tangents—scenes in which they daydream about having sex with someone else, only for us to be reminded that it’s only in their heads. “Based on a True Story” uses this time-killing trick constantly, a cheap way for the show to push more buttons. 

A key element to the slow-burning wit of “Based on a True Story” is in Bateman’s performance, which displays his Jack Nicholson-like sneer. It’s crucial in helping the show’s tone transform as it gets weirder and weirder, realizing the potential that a podcast offers for his passion of murdering people. He helps further raise the heightened dark comedy of the scenario, giving a sense of a celebrity just doing what he loves. It’s a savory, distinct performance once the series as a whole gets its act together. 

At least by the end of episode eight, “Based on a True Story” emerges as having a unique voice within the phenomenon of true crime, especially in the era of Hulu’s true-crime comedy “Only Murders in the Building.” But one of this show's smartest features is how it leaves audiences at the end of season one. Like a good, however flawed, podcast, there’s a bunch you might wish you could skip over, but it still leaves you curious and impatient for the next episode. Given how “Based on a True Story” suddenly ends, its second season can only make its true-crime dilemma deliciously worse. 

All of season one was screened for review. All eight episodes of "Based on a True Story" are now streaming on Peacock.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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