On “Truth Be Told,” Apple TV Plus’s new drama about a true-crime reporter reinvestigating a case she may have gotten wrong, there’s a moment of confrontation in an early episode. Face to face with a man she believes may be hiding information from her, Octavia Spencer stares him down until he’s forced to ask “What do you want?” Her reply? “You. On my podcast.”
This is as good a summation of Poppy Parnell, a character whose podcast is her life even as, were she only slightly less heedlessly self-possessed, it might be her undoing. Years ago, Poppy’s investigation of a murder of a father of twins, helped color the public mood towards young Warren Cave, whom she reported to be the killer and who was convicted and imprisoned; now, acknowledging that her work may have been flawed, Poppy’s reopened her own case and is rereporting the story weekly.
That she does so on a podcast that crashes together based on whatever she encounters, with no master plan and seemingly no delay between her learning information and conveying it to the public, makes for a fairly damning, if often seemingly inadvertent, critique of the true-crime cottage industry. When the show depicts Poppy bumbling into the life of, say, one of the adult twin daughters of the murder victim (both twins are played by Lizzy Caplan), it’s clear-eyed about the ways in which misguided and aggressive reporting by unschooled semi-professionals can do harm. Other times, though, Poppy is made to look like a misunderstood hero, even though it’s Poppy’s own misunderstandings that give the show its narrative thrust.
It’s this mischaracterization of Poppy as a crusader for justice — when she was the person who created the conditions for injustice to be done in the first place, and when her untrammeled reporting is poised to cause more havoc — that is the first and most grievous of “Truth Be Told’s” missteps. Even as we lose trust in Poppy’s objectivity, she still is given a loving amount of space to declaim into her microphone and endlessly explain herself. The show seems to understand journalism about as well as Poppy does, treating her cause as righteous and fair-minded and its consequences as unfortunate necessities that come from finally speaking the truth.
Another misunderstanding: Wild mismatch of tones from scene to scene. Those consequences of Poppy’s reporting often tend to play out among Poppy’s family (including Tracie Thoms and Haneefah Wood as her sisters and Ron Cephas Jones as her father), a group whose struggles are treated as earthbound and grittily real. Elsewhere on the show, the adult Warren Cave (Aaron Paul) is in a surreal white-supremacist-gang subplot and both Lizzy Caplans are in a sort of noir melodrama. Neither aspect of the show — the goofy soap about prison gangs and estranged twin sisters, or the drama about a journalist dealing with family expectations — can comfortably coexist with the other, and neither feels committed to in earnest. A show whose tone shifts chaotically should, at least, be interesting.
Or it should be able to truly be about the things it’s about. I default to thinking that sibling estrangement and prison gangs, hardly funny subjects, are meant to be soapy here if only because they certainly aren’t taken seriously. And the show, so obsessed with Poppy’s crusade, doesn’t have the range to depict her family’s misgivings as anything other than a nuisance, even as they suffer racist blowback. (The depiction of these consequences feels gratuitous as a result.) The only character who feels real in the story is Poppy, whose flaws — self-obsession, a righteous belief in her infallibility, inability to truly see others as anything besides characters in her story — become the show’s. True-crime, as a genre, tends at its worst to obsessively focus on defending or condemning individuals without really seeing them as people. In this way, “Truth Be Told,” a show that gets a lot very wrong, represents the field it depicts perfectly.