Truth Be Told twists the true-crime genre
Though there are some who might think our obsession with true crime a by-product of podcasts and television documentaries, in truth it dates back through history to the lurid penny-dreadful magazines of the 19th century and even earlier.
Perhaps what the modern era lends the genre is an emphasis on clinical deconstruction and an often dangerous presumption of outcome, the idea that the podcaster – often a journalist – has somehow unlocked the case and will, in the denouement, deliver a twist to the tale.
Truth Be Told sets out to build an ambitious framework, a sort of podcast-within-a-podcast-within-a-TV-show, about journalist Poppy Parnell (Octavia Spencer) whose early career was defined by the capture and conviction of her podcast subject, murderer Warren Cave (Aarron Paul).
Octavia Spencer as Poppy Parnell in Truth Be Told.Credit:Apple
But the series, propelled in part by Spencer’s own obsession with the genre, and that of its showrunner, Nichelle Tramble Spellman, flips all of that by offering the audience the sting in the tale in its opening episode: what if Cave didn’t do it after all, and in fact Parnell’s amateur sleuthing had unfairly framed him?
It’s a challenging notion because it not only splits open the broader true-crime genre by setting out to exonerate its subject rather than convict him, but also because it stokes the rather queasier fire around the idea that armchair investigations come with a specific set of flaws, most notable of which is the subconscious bias of the armchair investigator.
Moreover, there is a wide acceptance of this particular outcome: an innocent man who has made life-changing decisions in the wake of his conviction, and a victim’s family for whom the idea of exhuming the case years later is less desirable than finding the truth. As she begins to unpick her own work, Parnell finds herself a target, sometimes from unexpected parties.
The series is adapted from the book Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber, though it makes some substantial changes to the literary work, including pulling Parnell from the ensemble to the centre of the narrative and turning the broader piece from a generic crime thriller to a sort of high-tech Agatha Christie, albeit one where you go into the story with a fairly certain sense of its outcome.
Spellman’s writing also crisply draws themes of race into the centre of the narrative, exploring Cave’s life in jail and the manner in which circumstance has effectively reconstructed an innocent man into a man who, despite his innocence, is someone you truly struggle to root for. Whatever he is, the audience is left uncertain how to feel about him, despite the suspicion of his innocence.
Truth Be Told is patchy at times, windy at others, though some of those cracks are smoothed over by script-elevating performances from Spencer, Paul and Elizabeth Perkins, as Cave’s mother Melanie. In some respects, Spencer and Paul come at this as known quantities in the genre. Perkins, a noted comedy and Broadway actress, is the revelation, with a performance that is both illuminating and heartbreaking.
The series also plays loudly into the notion of peak TV, though it falls short of other, more compelling peak TV crime dramas. The writing lacks the sparkling economy of Netflix’s Unbelievable, and the clinical documentary tone of Making a Murderer, from which (along with the podcast Serial) it nonetheless owes a great evolutionary debt.
Truth Be Told streams on Apple TV+.
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