True-crime podcasts are so hot right now that even crime dramas want to get in on the action. The main character of Apple TV+ drama Truth Be Told is an investigative reporter turned podcaste whose popular series questions the conviction of a murder suspect from two decades earlier. As more people listen, momentum builds for his exoneration. It's a reflection of the real-life reaction to podcasts like Serial and documentary series like Making a Murderer, although the creators of Truth Be Told have the luxury of making up their own details for maximum melodrama and suspense.
Serial's Sarah Koenig consulted on the show, and star Octavia Spencer has the podcast cadences down as Poppy Parnell, who spent decades as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and The New York Times and now hosts her own popular podcast. Early in her career, Poppy reported on the murder of novelist Chuck Buhrman, and her articles were instrumental to the case against teenager Warren Cave, who's been in prison for nearly 20 years. However, now Poppy believes Warren is innocent, and she wants to correct her mistake by uncovering the truth of what happened the night of Buhrman's murder.
Based loosely on the 2017 novel Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber, Truth Be Told shifts Poppy into the role of main character, spending as much time on her dysfunctional extended family as it does on her efforts to learn the truth about the Buhrman murder and exonerate Warren (played as an adult by Aaron Paul). In the four episodes available for review, Poppy's investigation proceeds fairly slowly, generally uncovering one important detail per episode (with some underwhelming cliffhangers), and it clearly needs to be stretched out in order to fill the 10-episode season.
So creator Nichelle Tramble Spellman devotes substantial subplots to Poppy's family, including her cantankerous father Shreve (Ron Cephas Jones), a member of a Sons of Anarchy-style motorcycle, and her two sisters (Tracie Thoms and Haneefah Wood), who seem to resent Poppy's success and her perceived abandonment of her working-class Oakland roots. Poppy's lawyer husband Ingram Rhoades (Michael Beach) resents her for the opposite reason, regarding the Cave story as a way for her to be dragged back into her family's criminal connections. He's also not happy that she's spending time with her ex-cop ex-boyfriend Markus (Mekhi Phifer), who's helping with the investigation.
With the tantalizing details of an unsolved murder and a wrongfully convicted man hanging in the background, it's hard to care about literally anything that happens between Poppy and her family, who spend all their time in tedious arguments. The writers work hard to connect Poppy's family to the Cave case, having her consult with her dad's underworld contacts to reach Warren in prison, but it always feels like a forced distraction that exists solely to fill time.
The Cave investigation is only slightly more engaging, though, albeit full of juicy, absurd melodrama. Lizzy Caplan plays dual roles as Chuck Buhrman's twin daughters Lanie and Josie, both of whom are clearly hiding secrets. Lanie's testimony was the key element in Warren's conviction, and she's since reinvented herself as a "death doula," helping dying patients face the end of their lives. Josie has run even further away, living under a new name on the East Coast, posing as a British citizen (complete with shaky accent) and claiming that she's an only child whose parents both died years ago.
The twin angle is the show's soapiest element and also its least convincing, both in the technical aspects of the two characters sharing scenes, and in Caplan's performance, which never effectively differentiates between the sisters (Josie's dyed-blonde hair does most of the work). Warren, who's become a member of the Aryan Brotherhood to survive in prison, has his own drama behind bars, often entirely separate from Poppy's investigation. The result is a disjointed show that's theoretically focused on a central mystery but more often is just a cluttered collection of uninteresting subplots.
Poppy sometimes seems like she lacks basic investigative skills, relying on Markus for every step of her search, and at other times she's preternaturally insightful, as when she discerns that Warren's mother Melanie (Elizabeth Perkins) is dying of cancer, just by looking at a few items in her trash. Spencer is a compelling performer, but she's stuck with an inconsistent character, and the supporting performances are frequently overwrought, especially Paul's volatile, anguished Warren.
The podcast device gives the show plenty of opportunities for exposition, although characters are still frequently reminding each other of basic information. Poppy releases episodes of her podcast as she's investigating, which seems like a risky podcasting strategy, but allows for the podcast to be an ongoing device driving the drama. Despite those very modern trappings, though, the podcast is really just window dressing for a familiar kind of crime drama, and Truth Be Told never feels like it has a fresh approach. As to be expected from an Apple show, Poppy name-drops iTunes in the first episode, but her podcast probably wouldn't be topping the charts.
Starring Octavia Spencer, Aaron Paul, Lizzy Caplan, Elizabeth Perkins, Ron Cephas Jones, Tracie Thoms, Michael Beach, Mekhi Phifer and Haneefah Wood, the first three episodes of Truth Be Told premiere Dec. 6 on Apple TV+, with subsequent episodes each Friday.