Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Octavia Spencer searches for redemption but finds mostly melodrama in Truth Be Told

Octavia Spencer
Photo: Apple
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Obsession is not a new concept, but it is one that’s been magnified in the digital era. From stan Twitter accounts and Reddit threads to communities on Tumblr, many collectives are fueled by their fixations. After the premiere of Serial, millions of listeners became obsessed with true crime podcasts. Leveraging storytelling to challenge the criminal justice system in a new way, the case the podcast delved into even made it to the Supreme Court (where the court ultimately denied Adnan Syed’s request for a new trial). Truth Be Told, the latest series from Apple TV+, is based on Kathleen Barber’s 2017 novel Are You Sleeping, but draws just as much from the broader true-crime cultural phenomenon in its search for redemption and truth. And like that genre, the series delivers appealing twists with every episode.

Octavia Spencer stars (and executive produces) as Poppy Parnell, a journalist turned true-crime podcaster whose career began with her coverage of the 1999 murder of famed author Chuck Buhrman (Nic Bishop). Warren Cave (Aaron Paul) has spent 19 years in prison for the crime, in part due to Poppy’s reporting, which shaped the narrative of Warren as a “monster.” When new footage from Buhrman’s daughter Josie (Lizzy Caplan) surfaces, Poppy questions whether she contributed to the sentencing of an innocent man. Using her podcasting platform, she chronicles her search for the truth and the dangers that may come from uncovering it.

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Truth Be Told follows the episodic format of Poppy’s podcast. In the first few installments, we either begin or end with Poppy’s voice serving as an almost omniscient narrator, setting the scene above this fictional world. While this provides a concise structure to the storytelling, certain moments shatter that serious presence and ground it in theatrics. What’s particularly striking is how people in this world, including the suspects in this investigation, stop to listen to the podcast episodes when they release. Seeing this onscreen takes some getting used to, which makes the first episode the most jarring. That’s not to say that the actors aren’t committed to the mystery they’re illustrating, but it is undeniably meta to watch TV show characters listen to a podcast inspired by a book inspired by a podcast. There’s even a brief moment where Josie and her mother Erin (Annabella Sciorra) briefly discuss how their lives are being disrupted by this podcast, of all things.

These meta moments are minor but still set the tone of the series, which seeks the balance of thriller and camp found in series creator and writer Nichelle Tramble Spellman’s prior work. Truth Be Told is built upon the foundation laid by Tramble Spellman on The Good Wife, Justified, and Women’s Murder Club. Like those series, Truth Be Told boasts a fully invested cast, but it leans much harder on the melodrama. The first three episodes reveal secrets reminiscent of a daytime soap opera—all surrounding family, affairs, and missing persons. But in the early part of the season, the show restricts itself to mere nods to that arch manner of storytelling.

Aaron Paul
Photo: Apple
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The riskiest arc in this story of redemption concerns Warren, and the man he became in prison. There’s a pivotal scene in which Poppy visits Warren to understand his account of the sentencing. Warren is unresponsive at first, but in his desire to get a rise out of her, begins to taunt Poppy. His treatment of Poppy raises the question of whether Warren deserves redemption. This is further explored when Poppy’s family questions why she doesn’t use her award-winning investigative skills to free someone from her community instead of a man from the past. Poppy presses on in her pursuit despite the admonitions, and her unilateral decision-making leads to consequences for those in her inner circle.

Tramble Spellman’s vision delivers on its promise of mystery, but one has to wonder if the campiness of Truth Be Told doesn’t cheapen what gravitas the series does have. Whether that disconnect is unintentional or deliberate has yet to be shown, but when juxtaposed with true-crime podcasts, Truth Be Told doesn’t quite measure up. Podcasts such as Serial, Dear John, and S-Town work in part due to the disbelief among listeners that stories like this exist—the dramatics stem from the subject itself without any unnecessarily embellishing twists. And they do not sacrifice the arc for the drama—something that can’t exactly be said for this series. At a minimum, Truth Be Told is an entertaining watch that does hook the viewer. But it’s not likely to be the series that turns around the otherwise rocky deployment of Apple TV+ offerings. Truth be told, the podcast within the show might’ve been the better medium for this campy tale of thwarted redemption.

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