Note: this is a spoiler-free review of the first three episodes of Truth Be Told, which are available to stream now on Apple TV+. Check out our review of Apple TV Plus' See premiere here, our premiere review of Apple TV Plus' For All Mankind, and our review of the Dickinson premiere, along with our review of Apple TV+ as a platform.
As Apple fights an uphill battle to gain a foothold in the cutthroat streaming arena, it's clear the company is placing a premium on star power. Outside of Snoopy in Space, Apple TV+ has no bankable, pre-existing franchises in its library. What it does have are big names like For All Mankind creator Ronald D. Moore, Servant producer M. Night Shyamalan, and the all-star cast of The Morning Show.While that approach sounds perfectly fine on paper, in practice, Apple's emphasis on big creators and big stars hasn't necessarily succeeded in making a strong case for its service. Its latest prestige drama, Truth be Told, winds up making the exact same mistake as The Morning Show before it: There's little point in assembling such a promising cast if they don't have compelling material to work with.Truth Be Told certainly isn't lacking for big names. The series is created, produced and written by Nichelle Tramble Spellman (The Good Wife, Justified) and based on Kathleen Barber's 2017 novel Are You Sleeping, with a talented cast that includes Octavia Spencer, Aaron Paul, Lizzy Caplan, Elizabeth Perkins, and Ron Cephas Jones. The series is the latest to bank on the current true-crime podcast craze, with Spencer playing a former journalist-turned podcaster named Poppy Scoville-Parnell. Poppy made her reputation writing a series of scintillating articles about convicted murderer Warren Cave (Paul). But two decades later, new evidence causes Poppy to embark on a new podcast series aimed at changing public opinion about Warren's case and overturning the conviction of a man she helped put away.In other words, it's basically Serial: The TV Series. And it so happens that Serial creator Sarah Koenig served as a consultant on the show. But where Serial made a name for itself drawing attention to the compelling yet confounding case of convicted killer Adnan Syed, Truth Be Told fails to generate a compelling mystery surrounding Warren's case. It becomes obvious very early on whether Warren is guilty or not, and nothing in the first three episodes serves to add doubt to the case or suggest Warren should be taken at anything less than face value. Neither Warren nor his victim is developed to the point where the mystery becomes a driving force of these early episodes. The series doesn't help its case by relying so heavily on stilted, expository dialogue and pithy observations about the role of truth.Nor is Paul given much to do in his first big post-El Camino role. Every scene focused on his day-to-day struggles behind bars feels ripped straight from the prison movie playbook. Paul's performance is full of menacing glares and deep-throated growls and little else.In lieu of a good murder mystery, the series focuses more on adding intrigue to the surviving family members of Warren's victim. Caplan plays a dual role as twin sisters Josie and Lanie Burhman, the former of whom has built an entirely new cover identity for herself, seemingly as a means of escaping the trauma of her past. But the more the series delves into this trauma and the deeply buried secrets of the Buhrman family, the more melodramatic and downright silly it becomes. Caplan's characters are too over-the-top and overtly menacing, which only further works against the core mystery element of the series. There may be unanswered questions, but there's little ambiguity when it comes to which characters should be trusted.The biggest change in this adaptation involves the shift from Josie to Poppy as the main protagonist. I haven't read the novel, but this may explain some of the strange, clunky narrative choices in these early episodes. It certainly necessitates the creation of a much deeper backstory for Poppy herself. When she isn't interviewing Warren or his mother Melanie (Perkins) or brainstorming with her producer Noa (Katherine LaNasa), Poppy is struggling to maintain a work/life balance alongside her increasingly exasperated husband Ingram (Michael Beach) and navigating her strained relationship with her father Shreve (Jones).These subplots often feel as if they're coming from a completely different series, leaving Poppy herself to serve as the lone thread tying together her family's dysfunctional drama and Warren's legal struggle. Honestly, though, that's not such a bad thing. With the central murder mystery angle doing so little to add drama or tension in these first three episodes, it falls on Poppy's family to pick up the slack.The series becomes something much more fascinating when it explores the troubled history of the Scoville family and the walking contradiction that is pious biker gang leader Leander "Shreve" Scoville. Jones delivers what is easily the series' strongest performance, switching between warm family man and hostile presence at the drop of a hat. That, in turn, elevates Spencer's own performance. She's only able to do so much with the show's often stiff, wooden dialogue, but these scenes where Poppy butts heads with her father and sisters have a greater weight and authenticity.It's through this material the series is also able to explore issues of race and class in the Bay Area setting. There's a clear, if mostly unspoken tension between the affluent Poppy and her more blue-collar family members. The show's frequent (albeit sometimes excessive) use of slow-motion establishing shots of San Francisco and Oakland further highlights the gap between rich and poor and black and white. Episode 3 also features a harrowing scene of a character being arrested and processed, one which hits home in a way too little else about the series does.In short, Truth Be Told may have been better off divorcing itself from the source material entirely and telling the story of a woman torn between her professional ambitions and her family roots. As it is, the faux-true crime angle isn't nearly as effective as actual true crime podcasts like Serial.
Truth Be Told has plenty working in its favor, from a strong cast to a premise that banks on the current true-crime podcast craze. Sadly, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. The first three episodes are marred by stilted dialogue and a murder mystery that isn’t nearly as ambiguous or compelling as it needs to be. Bizarrely, Truth Be Told only really works when it ignores its main story in favor of Poppy’s family drama. There’s a much better series lurking beneath the surface of this legal drama.