On paper, Apple’s twisty crime drama series, “Truth be Told,” reads like a win, given its top-to-bottom stellar cast and creator/showrunner Nichelle Tramble Spellman’s pedigree (“The Good Wife,” “Justified”). Undoubtedly its greatest strength, the performances certainly help elevate otherwise pedestrian material, although not nearly enough to earn the “prestige” label that Apple aims for with its first limited series. The ensemble keeps it afloat, even if it never quite meets the expectations set for itself.
Octavia Spencer stars as Poppy Parnell, a true-crime podcaster who is compelled to reopen the murder case that made her a national sensation. This puts her face-to-face with Warren Cave (Aaron Paul), the man she may have accidentally helped jail for two decades, for allegedly murdering Chuck Buhrman (Nic Bishop), the father of estranged identical twins Josie and Lanie (both played by Lizzy Caplan). Publicly re-litigating the murder case via her podcast, Parnell is aided by Markus Knox (Mekhi Phifer), a former detective and ex-lover, as she contends with nearly 20 years of family secrets and deceit in order to get to the truth and ultimately answer the question: Who really killed Chuck Buhrman?
Episodes offer a contrived buffet of insinuation and red herrings, deliberately dished out in bits and pieces, with an obsessed podcaster at the center of it all. As the series suggests, the “real” killer could have been any of the characters who inhabit Poppy’s multi-stranded universe, each of them a mystery, including Poppy herself. Its underlying thrust is that the only thing more dangerous than a lie is the truth, and what might help keep audiences engaged are obvious questions about who to trust and who to believe, with the suggestion of some larger conspiracy afoot, that each character is connected to in one way or another.
Although it doesn’t have to be, the series isn’t a faithful adaptation of the novel it’s based upon, which might disappoint fans of author Kathleen Barber’s “Are You Sleeping?” For those unfamiliar, Spellman’s series borrows ideas and plotlines from the novel and creates an entirely new world of its own, so reading the novel before watching the series isn’t a requirement.
Still, it’s worth highlighting significant differences between the novel and the series. For instance, while the central character in the novel is one-half of the Buhrman twins (Josie, from whose point-of-view the story unfolds), in the series, Spencer’s Poppy Parnell becomes the heartbeat of the story, instead of a secondary character, as she is in the novel. Because of this key diversion, Spellman had to build Parnell’s entire world from scratch, giving her a family that includes a husband (an earnest Michael Beach) who cares for her well-being and supports her fully, even though her infatuation with solving the riddle that is murder of Chuck Buhrman begins to strain their marriage. Additionally, Poppy isn’t a black woman in the novel, but she is in the series, which opens up possibilities to explore the character’s various confrontations from an intersectional standpoint, of which there are early suggestions.
There’s also her estranged father Shreve, played by Ron Cephas Jones, a complicated man with a general antagonism towards Poppy, the root of which isn’t made immediately clear. Poppy also has two sisters: Tracie Thoms as Desiree, and Haneefah Wood as Cydie, Poppy’s older and younger sisters respectively, who obviously love Poppy, but question her obsession with re-litigating the Buhrman case, which sometimes causes deep conflict between them.
These familial dynamics have the potential to be some of the more provocative aspects of the series, and it’s clear that it expects the audience to be invested in these relationships, but they feel contrived — more so as their individual connections to the main plot are revealed. Meanwhile, Poppy and Markus’ repartee is filled with past memories, but their banter never quite feels organic.
The lives of every single one of these characters intertwine with the main plot in one way or another, and with varying degrees of necessity and success. So in addition to getting to the truth of the murder, the series is also very much about family, and there’s plenty to keep track of in order to fully grasp the various backstories and interrelationships.
A missed opportunity however, is the unexplored stark class differences that exist between the obviously wealthier Poppy and her seemingly working class father, sisters, and stepmother, who collectively operate a dingy bar. There’s a clear ongoing tension that exists between them, which seems to be rooted, at least partly, in their class contrasts, but these divides are never explored.
Poppy’s affluence appears to have come from the combined wealth of her attorney husband and the celebrity that came from her work as a journalist on the Warren Cave case, 20 years prior. While the viewer is repeatedly told that her podcast is a national blockbuster, with enough power to influence the judgement in a sensational murder case, this is never illustrated. Absent is the kind of media frenzy that would undoubtedly come with the trial of a notorious murder case, and any exploration of how the inclusion of a podcast would add an extra layer of timely eeriness. Therefore the series doesn’t really succeed in making the connection between the world in which the story unfolds and the real one, which is to its detriment.
To be fair, Apple only made the first four episodes of the 10-episode series available for review. So it’s certainly possible that all these uncertainties will be tackled in future episodes. Although its pacing and pedestrian storytelling might test the patience and engagement of wandering eyeballs awash with content choices.
“Truth Be Told” likely intends to tap into our collective conscience by exploring the idea of the truths we create about ourselves and the lies we keep buried, but it’s trying to be too many things at once: a murder whodunit, a social commentary piece, and an exploration of family bonds all in one. And while meshing genres and styles isn’t taboo, in this case, its lack of specificity renders the series disharmonious.
Still, its biggest selling point is its cast, notably Spencer and Paul, and fans of true crime series and airport novels should enjoy how the series deliberately unravels its twists and turns (even if it would be more enjoyable as a binge).
“Truth Be Told” premieres its first three episodes Friday, December 6 on Apple TV+. New episodes will be released weekly thereafter.