There are some shows that are timely, and some that are timeless. This is definitely the former. Though not quite as timely as it thinks it is. Piggybacking on the true crime podcasting industry, Based on a True Story takes the now-not-so-new trend and adds a “what if” twist to it. Giving us half of a high-concept stab at a very specific narrative and half send-up of the trend itself. And it’s this split personality that ultimately sinks what could have been a much better series. Is it social commentary, or is it an absurdist comedy? It’s kind of both, but also neither. Lean in or lean out, people. There are also some inexcusable issues that I will outline below in detail that absolutely nobody but me cares about.
The first thing this series suffers from is the old-guy-with-young-guy-problems syndrome. Chris Messina, who plays Nathan Bartlett, former tennis pro and soon to be first-time parent, is almost fifty. Fifty! Okay, he’s 48, but that’s close enough. His wife, Ava, is played by Kaley Cuoco, who is 37 and was pregnant in real life and pregnant in the show. The two of them have all that tropey nervousness that scripts always assign to first-time parents. Which makes sense if those people are in their twenties and/or if the couple is early-ish on in their relationship. But this is a mature couple whom we’re told have been together for seventeen years. And have just now decided to have a baby? And seem to be nervous and unready for this lifestyle change? I have some questions. Dude is 50. Also, we are told that Nathan beat Roger Federer at some point in his career, but his promising career came to an end soon afterwards when he blew out his ACL. Now, if we do some quick math, this big victory probably happened around 2006, which would have been when Federer was real good. Sure. Issue is, Nathan’s “promising” career started when he was (beep boop beep) 33? Dude, if you haven’t made your move as a pro athlete by the time you’re 33, you’re not making it. It’s possible, I suppose, but highly unlikely. The timing is all off. It’s not as if I can’t buy Messina as a former pro athlete (though he is quite short to be a serious pro), but they really should have cast someone a decade younger. The timelines just don’t add up.
Okay, I’m done with that. Oh, wait, one last thing. Because this show focuses on podcasts, we have to see some tech. There is mention of iPhones on the show. And at one point there is even a close up of Ava’s phone as she downloads their podcast from the Apple Podcasts app. The issue? All the characters on the show have Google Pixel phones. All of them. It’s like the script was originally written with Apple TV+ in mind, but Peacock must have an exclusive with Google and nobody noticed or cared. You can’t use Apple Podcasts on a Google Pixel. That’s just a glaring and stupid error.
So where do we go from here? Well, a quick plot summary, I suppose. The aforementioned couple is concerned about their finances and their aging house, and their marriage is pretty much on life support when we first drop in on them. Despite her being pregnant seventeen years into the relationship. Nathan is a tennis pro at a country club, and Ava is a really bad real estate agent who loves murder podcasts. That’s about it. They hire a plumber to fix their toilet. For some reason Nathan befriends the dude and they end up hanging out. The same night they hang out for the second time, a bartender who Nathan flirted with the first time they hung out is murdered in her apartment. Another victim, it seems, of the Westside Ripper. A serial killer who murders young ladies and stuff. Super generic serial murderer nonsense. Ava, already fascinated by serial killers, figures out that their plumber (and Nathan’s new friend), Matt (Tom Bateman), is, in fact, the killer. But rather than go to the cops and turn his ass in, they cut a deal with him. He will be the subject of their new true crime podcast and speak anonymously on the record with them or they’ll turn him in. Oh, and promise not to commit any more murders. Seems like a solid plan. Two people who have never done a pod do a pod with a scary serial killer. What could go wrong!?
As you can imagine, this does not go smoothly. First issue: gaining any traction in the podcast space. Apparently you can’t just throw a pod up and have it be a hit. Even if you have a serial killer talking about serial killing. That was the most honest and interesting part of the show. But then once the pod hits, the series just outpaces its concept. And it gets kind of chaotic and convoluted. And here’s where they just don’t go for it. Make the shit absurd or don’t. Granted, it’s incredibly unrealistic, but not absurd unrealistic. Like not farcical. It’s not as if I wanted or needed them to go all American Psycho level, but riding that line just kind of pushed credulity and made things feel too hectic and disjointed at parts. Especially when they do that thing that I just can’t stand: the fake-out scene that is not reality, but is actually happening inside a character’s head. That’s where the show truly leans into the absurd and really goes for it. But it’s all fake and not of consequence. So why? Other than the creators expressing the show they’d like to make, but admitting they couldn’t pull the trigger.
That all said, Cuoco is really decent in these roles. It’s not entirely dissimilar from her messy character in The Flight Attendant. A little manic. A little conflicted. Bordering on out of control. But also smart. Messina — despite his oldness and tininess — plays put-upon well. I’m not sure I feel the attraction between the two actors, but perhaps her being pregnant and their relationship being on the outs is the cause. I mean, they feel like a real couple, but there is no warmth there whatsoever. Bateman, as the psycho, is good. Though he is very clearly British. I absolutely know there is an American actor out there who could play this role as well or better than him. Just sayin’. Anyway, the series oscillated between semi-entertaining to background noise pretty regularly. They clearly wrote it with a second season in mind, but I’m seriously curious how they’ll let our main characters off the hook morally. After all, they are really, really terrible people whose stupidity and greed allows a serial killer to go on murdering. Seems hardly forgivable, but I’m not the authority here. The ratings are.