Many of our greatest comedians have something hard and unrelenting under the surface. The pursuit of laughs can be mercenary; there’s a reason that standups, on a good night, will say that they “killed.” Kevin Hart, never shy about his ambition, now brings the subtext of a comedy career to the surface. His new limited series “True Story,” a violent scripted drama executive produced by Eric Newman of “Narcos” and made for Netflix, is practically glowing with anger. There’s invective directed at the public, at the hangers-on that come with fame, and especially at the character of his brother. These resentments consume “True Story” from the inside, resulting in a potent testament to self-regard.
Before chaos breaks out, we meet the comic known as “Kid,” who’s just like the star playing him, only more so: His tour draws droves of fans, all of whom want something from him. He’s the star of a mega-successful franchise film, and he’s a cherished guest on “Ellen.”
This last touch recalls talk show host Ellen DeGeneres’ defense of Hart in his scandal over antigay jokes, one in which Hart addressed his critics contemptuously before showily moving on. “True Story” converts the demands on a star into literal violence: After meeting a fan (Ash Santos) at a VIP party, Kid wakes up in a state of confusion and panic. Soon enough, the cost of fame is being measured in bribes as various underworld characters emerge, seeking payoffs or just revenge in the aftermath of tragedy.
This show epitomizes the post-”Breaking Bad” tendency to mistake extremity for meaning. Hart, a committed but limited actor, tends to indicate Kid’s anger through screaming, replacing shades of meaning with decibels. His targets include his tormentors from the world of crime, fans who treat him with glancing disrespect, and his ex and co-parent (Lauren London). It can feel as though Kid’s stressful situation — one that we eventually understand was not his fault — is an excuse to allow the character to tell off figures in his life. None comes in for more continual critique than brother Carlton, whom Wesley Snipes very effectively imbues with a long-suffering mien and a sense of perpetual calculation.
Good as Snipes is, seven episodes is a long time to make the point that everyone around a superstar is on the take, and the suspense sags as the show’s game becomes clear. Given Netflix’s ample resources, Hart decided to tell a story in which to be a celebrity is to be a perpetual victim of haters, users and those who just don’t understand. Perhaps, though, that’s the cost of being extraordinary: The most revealing touch is that Hart isn’t just playing a comic genius but also a dangerous fighter and skilled gunman. The only move he can’t execute on “True Story,” it seems, is get out of his own way.
“True Story” launches on Netflix Wednesday, November 24, 2021.