“The great American art form isn’t music or film or television,” says a podcast host in “Based on a True Story,” a new dark comedy on Peacock. “The great American art form is murder. We watch it, we celebrate it, we obsess over it.”
It is hard to argue with that one. Forget the surfeit of murder podcasts that “Based on a True Story” satirizes, however fitfully. Forget the number of true-crime murder shows that it shares streaming space with. “Based on a True Story” is not even the first TV comedy about a fictional murder podcast. (Steve Martin and Martin Short would like a word.) This pop-cultural corpse is so well worked over, it’s hard to find a new place to stick the knife.
The distinction of “True Story,” created by Craig Rosenberg, is that its central couple and would-be podcast moguls, Ava (Kaley Cuoco) and Nathan (Chris Messina), are not amateur sleuths who spend the eight-episode season piecing together a whodunit. They have the case of a lifetime fall into their laps, or rather into their bathroom.
An overflowing toilet brings them together with Matt (Tom Bateman), a charming, ingratiating and smoking hot plumber. (Peacock considers the next piece of information a spoiler, so beware I guess, but it’s also the premise of the show and revealed in the first episode.) He is also, as a bit of sloppy evidence concealment on his part leads them to learn, the West Side Ripper, a serial killer preying on young women in their part of Los Angeles.
The natural reaction, a terrified call to the police, would make for a one-episode series. But Ava and Nathan have other incentives. Ava, a struggling real estate agent, is pregnant and fears they won’t be able to support a child. Nathan, a tennis pro whose Grand Slam dreams ended with a blown-out knee, has just lost his job to a younger racket swinger at the club. In a land of money and sex, they’re in a hole and in a rut.
Ava, a murder-podcast maven, sees a chance to make their own killing, by blackmailing Matt into recording a show in which he gives a first-person tour through his slasher psyche. “We are good people,” she says. “We played by the rules. And look where it got us.” Matt, perhaps surprisingly, agrees with enthusiasm. Less surprisingly, he turns out to be an untrustworthy partner on several points, among them his promise to lay off the stabbing.
The rhythms of the deal-with-the-devil story will feel familiar if you’ve watched a series or two about everyday people dabbling in the criminal arts and getting in over their heads. (Jason Bateman, of Netflix’s “Ozark,” is among the producers.) What’s more interesting, and sadly more under-realized, is the story’s setting within the American murder-entertainment complex.
There’s potential for a real critique, which applies to both trashy true-crime and more high-minded investigations. We’ve created a culture of treating murders — real, not just fictional ones — as addictive, twisty, escapist obsessions.
Nor is this phenomenon limited to podcasts. Scripted TV, chasing the success of documentaries like “The Jinx,” “Making a Murderer” and their many heirs, has gone on a spree of copycat crime.
After “Dahmer,” Ryan Murphy is expanding his “Monster” franchise with a series on the Menendez brothers. The true-crime docu-series “The Staircase” became the true-crime scripted series “The Staircase.” This spring, we got the second limited series in two years about the Candy Montgomery murder case from 1980.
Who asked for all this? Whose stories get told, and which victims get lip service in the telling? When does the impulse to understand become simply bloody voyeurism?
“Based on a True Story” could have been a sanguinary sendup of the media impulse to turn slashers into celebrities, a kind of “Sweeney Pod.” But like the overwhelmed Ava and Nathan, the series has its hands on some hot material yet doesn’t quite know what to do with it.
The comedy starts off gamely, with well-observed spoofs of murder media, especially in a stretch set at “CrimeCon,” a convention where superstar crime-casters hawk their wares while dutifully saying that their work is all about the victims. Matt, attending incognito, takes to the marketplace with cynical zest, referring to his killings as “content.”
But there’s a deep darkness to the comedy that “True Story” feels skittish about really engaging with. In an irritating and overused gimmick, it repeatedly takes shocking turns that turn out to be fantasy sequences, as if the series is willing to engage with its characters’ moral rot only in the form of role play.
One limitation may lie in casting Cuoco and Messina, whose comic gifts run to styles other than caustic satire. She redefined her career after “The Big Bang Theory” playing a likable basket case in “The Flight Attendant”; he excelled as a grump-next-door in “The Mindy Project.” Together, they make a solid core for a quirky marriage-on-the-rocks comedy, which ultimately is what “Based on a True Story” is, to the detriment of its deadlier ambitions.
It’s often amusing, on the strength of the duo’s screwball charm. (Tom Bateman is harder to pin down, never really giving us a sense of what drives Matt either as criminal or entrepreneur.) But at worst, even if unintentionally, “True Story” indulges in the same thing it satirizes, the impulse to make murder fun.
Its predecessor “Only Murders in the Building” pulls this off by essentially adapting the trusty cozy-murder format within a twee, New Yorker-cartoon version of reality. What “True Story” is working with — the vicious, sensationalized, sexually freighted murders of a string of young women — is a bigger risk, and its downplaying of the killings’ heinousness feels that much ickier.
The great cliché of serial-killer stories is the seemingly harmless neighbor with skeletons in the closet (or garage, or freezer). “Based on a True Story” is the opposite, a seemingly daring, dark premise that disguises a mild domestic comedy. It promises slashing satire. It cuts like a butter knife.