Truth Be Told review: Even Octavia Spencer and Lizzy Caplan can’t elevate Apple TV+’s crime melodrama

Prahlad Srihari

Dec 06, 2019 15:16:21 IST

Language: English

"As long as a journalist tells the truth, in conscience and fairness, it is not his job to worry about consequences. The truth is never as dangerous as a lie in the long run. I truly believe the truth sets men free," declared Ben Bradlee, who presided over Washington Post's coverage of the Watergate scandal. 

In Apple TV's Truth Be Told, the protagonist — an investigative reporter named Poppy Parnell (Octavia Spencer) — uses Bradlee's quote to justify her mission to ensure a man, she may have wrongfully incriminated 19 years ago, is set free. The man, Warren Cave (Aaron Paul), was a 16-year-old boy when he was convicted of the murder of noted Bay Area writer Chuck Buhrman, based mostly on the testimony of his daughter Lanie. Painting Warren as "evil incarnate" in her coverage not only helped launch Poppy's career as a journalist but also played a deciding factor in his life imprisonment. But new evidence suggests Lanie was coerced into testifying against Warren. So, Poppy relaunches the investigation through her Serial-like true crime podcast to uncover “the whole truth and nothing but.”

 Truth Be Told review: Even Octavia Spencer and Lizzy Caplan can’t elevate Apple TV+’s crime melodrama

Octavia Spencer in a still from Truth Be Told

It is another inherently marketable premise from Apple TV+ but again, its potential is criminally squandered. Based on Kathleen Barber’s book of the same name, Truth Be Told incorporates podcast storytelling into a crime drama, complete with a stranger-than-fiction investigation, a multifaceted narrative, and skilful narration by a host, played by an Oscar winner no less. Even Serial host Sarah Koenig was brought on as a consultant on the show. Yet, it ends up a much less convincing iteration of the podcasts or true crime dramas it models itself on. 

In the four episodes which have been made available for this review, the storytelling is unfocused, the characters far from engaging, and the investigation unexciting. Instead, you get large doses of soap opera cliches: evil twins, ex-lovers, cancer battles, funeral theatrics, and other dysfunctional family patterns. Creator Nichelle Tramble Spellman knows she needs to generate conflict to drive the plot forward but is not quite sure how to do it without melodrama. But there are hints to a larger story which maybe more revelatory than the one that is currently being told.

Poppy feels guilty for playing a part in wrongfully convicting an innocent teenage boy. But the innocent teenage boy has since grown into a neo-Nazi after 19 years in prison. So her mission is complicated by a journalist's abstract commitment to the truth, and reconciling it with the possibility that her efforts might lead to the acquittal of a man who may promote hostility towards her community. Even if Warren is innocent of murder, he is guilty of membership of a white supremacist group which does not believe his liberator is worthy of the same rights and privileges as he is. When Poppy says her career was built on "that boy's back", her older sister Desiree (Tracie Thoms) thus rightly reminds her, "a country was built on ours."

Of course, joining the Aryan Brotherhood may have been a survival tactic for a 16-year-old boy to contend with the hostility in an American prison, where race and ethnicity-based gangs run an empire of drug-dealing, racketeering, and murder. In a hyper-masculine prison culture, many inmates are forced to hide their emotions, and appear more "macho" than they really are — often to avoid being sexually victimised. In a telling scene, we see Warren convey his affection for his mother by tapping, "I love you," on the phone via Morse code. When a fellow inmate mocks him for calling his mother, Warren violently knocks him down to maintain his standing in prison.

One of the chief interests of Truth Be Told lie in decrying a media culture where it is impossible to tell where news ends and entertainment begins.

Our obsession with true crime stories have turned the trauma of irreparably broken families and communities into an entertainment commodity. As Poppy reopens the investigations, the Buhrmans are re-traumatised, some more than others. Lanie is working as a death doula, providing spiritual guidance and logistical support to dying individuals and their families. Her twin sister, Josie, has escaped to the East Coast, and started a new life with a new identity. The touchy twin dynamics reveal there are some skeletons in the Buhrman closet, and more importantly, there may be more to the mystery behind their father's murder. You know the fact that Lanie and Josie are identical twins will be used as a plot device, and may even be key to solving it. Barring Josie's iffy British accent and blonde wig, Lizzy Caplan plays the tormented twins in a doubly assured performance, which will make you wish Apple TV revives Masters of Sex for a much-needed sure-fire victory.

Lizzy Caplain as Lanie and Josie Burhman in stills from Truth Be Told

Lizzy Caplain as Lanie and Josie Burhman in stills from Truth Be Told

Spencer's Poppy is portrayed as a canny reporter and resourceful investigator in a way that does not quite add up. Based simply on one video, she has doubts upon the testimony offered and second thoughts over Warren's guilt. So she instantly begins to poke holes in Lanie's story and credibility. Almost all of the revelations and leads are fed to her by her ex-boyfriend ex-cop Markus (Mekhi Phifer). Their sexual tension-tinged conversations are infuriating as we keep being needlessly reminded they used to be a thing once upon a time.

Of course, chasing the truth is a tricky business when you piss everyone off. Her investigation is being deliberately hampered by crooked cops, led by Warren's own dad Owen (Brett Cullen). From her attorney husband Ingram (Michael Beach) to her biker bar-owner father Shreve (Ron Cephas Jones), she is forced to apologise to all the men in her life for merely doing her job. But if there is anything that should keep you coming back for more Truth Be Told every week, it is Spencer's wholehearted performance. Only she can deliver even some of the more laughable lines of the show with actual gravitas. We know Aaron Paul can hold his own if given the opportunity and material but the show has barely scratched the surface of his character and his backstory for now.

Aaron Paul in Truth Be Told

If Truth Be Told can somehow give Aaron more to do, provide Spencer and Caplan more compelling dialogue, and the story higher emotional stakes, then this truth may well be worth telling. Disney + has already made its mark in the streaming world, once dominated by Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, thanks in large part to Baby Yoda and The Mandalorian. But truth be told, Apple TV+ is yet to find a winner of its own.

Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.

Updated Date: Dec 06, 2019 15:16:21 IST