Netflix’s limited series “True Story” is a departure for star Kevin Hart in his television drama debut, as he wrestles with material that’s darker than his usual schtick. It’s a commendable risk on his part that doesn’t fully exploit its potential to be the thoroughly engrossing episodic with a profound message that it probably thinks it is. While Hart and co-star Wesley Snipes, in their first onscreen matchup, make for a high-octane duo, the script betrays that effort with uninspired writing from series creator, writer, and showrunner Eric Newman (“Narcos: Mexico”) that doesn’t quite make darkness its ally, and leans too much on plot conveniences and a predictability that mutes suspense.
The series opens with Hart as lead character Kid, seated, breaking the fourth wall, as he says, with dramatic urgency: “People think they know me because I make them laugh, or because they’ve been to a show. But they don’t know what I did to get here or what it takes to stay here. When a person’s back is against the wall, and they gotta do whatever they can to keep from losing what they got, that’s when you get to see who a person is. Or what they’re capable of.”
This apologia cuts to a title card that branches to form a maze with a convoluted layout, which intimates what you can expect from “True Story’s” seven roughly 40-minute episodes.
As Kid, Hart is once again playing a version of himself — a wealthy superstar comedian and actor, who successfully co-parents with an ex. On the verge of a billion dollar box office grosser in a superhero film titled “Anti-verse” (which he co-stars in with Chris Hemsworth), Kid, a recovering alcoholic, is enjoying peak success, as he embarks on a nationwide comedy tour, with a stop in his hometown of Philadelphia. After a night of partying during which his sobriety is tested, Kid becomes the center of an extortion racket that leaves several dead bodies in its wake, and a beleaguered Kid, as his introductory monologue gives away, does what he believes he must in order to hold onto what he has.
Along for the ride is Kid’s minimal entourage, starting with his older brother, Carlton (Wesley Snipes), his manager Todd (Paul Adelstein), bodyguard Herschel (William Catlett), and chief writer Billie (Tawny Newsome). On the surface, they all appear to prioritize Kid’s interests and wellbeing, until a sequence of events brings the ethical compasses of several characters into question.
Carlton is the underachieving older brother mooching off Kid’s fame, whose motivations aren’t initially clear, but there are suggestions from the outset (his furtive glances at Kid, his ringing cellphone that he won’t answer, and other suspicious behavior) that he’s up to something possibly nefarious. And while Todd looks out for his client, he’s aggressive in pushing Kid to sign up for a sequel to “Anti-Verse” despite Kid’s initial ambivalence — a move that also serves Todd’s self-interest. And Herschel is over-protective of Kid, almost like the brother Kid would’ve wanted, but he’s secretly sleeping with Billie, and makes a questionable demand of Kid in the finale.
Key supporting roles include Gene (Theo Rossi), Kid’s possibly emotionally unstable number one fan, whose introduction immediately gives away the much larger role he’ll play in his idol’s life. John Ales and Chris Diamantopoulos play brothers Nikos and Savvas, vengeful Greek gangsters whose violent streak is so graphically depicted that it confuses the series. It’s possible to tell a brooding, uncompromising story without gore.
Completing the gangster trio is their brother Ari (a bearded Billy Zane), a hustler whose latest “job” comes with fatal consequences.
There’s a tacked on story about Billie, Kid’s talented chief writer, who feels underappreciated, and wants to pursue a career of her own as a standup comic, as a young Black woman in a field dominated by men. It’s one worthy string left dangling.
Grounding the series, and what qualifies as its throughline is the mercurial relationship between Kid and Carlton, and there is chemistry between Hart and Snipes, in a Cain and Able-type fable subverting its title. Kid clearly loves his disruptive older brother unconditionally and is protective of him, despite his many screw-ups, which Kid is often called on to fix. On the other hand, Carlton’s love comes with conditions. He mooches off Kid’s fame without shame, and seems to justify it with a jealousy that isn’t entirely fleshed out.
The volatility in their kinship relents from one episode to the next, soon becoming clear that this is a doomed relationship. To borrow from “Zola,” the 2020 dramedy based on a Twitter thread, “True Story” may as well have opened the first episode with: “Y’all wanna hear a story about how me and my older brother fell out? It’s kinda long but full of suspense.”
Carlton is, for all intents and purposes, a sociopath and it becomes easy to despise him long before the series ends, which is likely what the creator Newman needed to ensure for what will be obvious reasons. But it’s a lesson Kid has to learn for himself, despite efforts from his team to distance him from Carlton. To be sure, Kid’s shirt certainly isn’t clean either, even though he doesn’t pay anywhere as steep a price as others do.
“I should’ve done what I was supposed to do; stay fucking sober,” he laments in the latter half of the series. It feels more like an expression of regret than actual sorrow as the central figure in a series of events that leaves many lives destroyed, literally and figuratively. It feels unearned. Consequences steepen with each new complication, further complicating previous complications, as Kid makes one bad decision after another. He’s probably meant to be drawn as an antihero, and that may have succeeded if the character, as written, did not appear so sanctimonious. It also doesn’t help that Kid is a version of Hart (or vice-versa), and their lives and personalities intertwine. Cameos by Hart’s celeb pals Ellen DeGeneres and Chris Hemsworth, as well as real-life references to Don Cheadle and Anthony Mackie, only encourage this. Kid’s (and in some ways, Hart’s) “I’m only human and no one is perfect” retort to scandal doesn’t quite satisfy, especially when other humans end up dead.
There’s a sharper series hiding in “True Story’s” script that assumes its audience is just as sharp, and would relish a puzzle, with a message about humbly facing the consequences of the choices we make; or a take that waxes economic on what unchecked capitalism breeds in a world in which each character is driven almost entirely by greed.
But the desired message conveyed seems to be that celebrity isn’t easy. Or, to quote a Notorious B.I.G. single that’s surprisingly not included as a needle drop in this very on-the-nose series, “Mo Money Mo Problems.”
Netflix will release all seven episodes of “True Story” on Wednesday, November 24.