Truth Be Told is a cold case that doesn’t heat up [Review]

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Truth Be Told on Apple TV+
Feels a bit like doing jury duty, to be honest.
Photo: Apple

Another week, another new show on Apple TV+. This time it’s Truth Be Told, a crime series featuring a podcasting investigator digging up a murderous past.

Is it the new Serial or just a bowl of boring oatmeal? Here’s my review of the first episode.

Here’s the setup for Truth Be Told: Twenty years ago, a professor and author was stabbed in his home, while his wife and daughter were there. Although there were no witnesses, a 16-year-old neighbor named Warren Cave (the adult version played by Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul) was arrested. Based on fingerprints and a possibly sketchy eyewitness report, he was arrested and imprisoned. The case was reported on by a New York Times journalist named Poppy Parnell (The Help Oscar winner Octavia Spencer).

Jump forward to the present day, and Cave’s mom wants a retrial. (She thinks he’s innocent.) Parnell, now a true-crime podcast host, decides to look into it. Predictably, there’s more than meets the eye.

Truth Be Told review: Is it any good?

There’s a problem with Truth Be Told — and, without ratting out any of my fellow bloggers, I saw it coming months ago. Fairly frequently, I saw people referring to Truth Be Told as a true-crime series. That’s understandable. It is, after all, inspired by the concept of the Serial true crime podcast, which everyone flipped out over a few years back. That podcast, hosted by journalist Sarah Koenig, re-examined a cold-case crime through the podcast format. It gave listeners the opportunity to sift through the evidence from a real-life crime. Truth Be Told takes the “podcasters investigating a true crime” routine — but it’s fiction.

As I watched Episode 1 of Truth Be Told, I kept wondering why it wasn’t grabbing me. After all, I love crime movies and whodunnits, despite the fact that most of them aren’t based on actual crimes. Heck, I may even prefer the fictitious versions. They’re more about escapism than dwelling on the details of crimes that actually ruined real people’s lives. Truth Be Told falls somewhere between these two positions.

A flawed premise

It’s a show about the fake making of a podcast, investigating a crime that didn’t actually happen. Like a lot of real crimes, the incident itself does not prove particularly interesting. All the people involved are various degrees of flawed, meaning that there aren’t clear-cut heroes and villains.

Spencer’s Poppy Parnell may be a likable on-screen character, but it’s hard to view her attempt to make a compelling podcast about a crime as being particularly heroic. The (possibly) wrongly imprisoned man she’s looking to possibly free isn’t any kind of hero, either. (Cave became a Nazi behind bars.) His mom, arguably another innocent bystander, has only a couple months left to live.

Coming out of Episode 1, I didn’t know who I should root for or why. The most interesting thing about Parnell is her family dynamics, although a semi-interesting B-plot isn’t enough to make up for a not-too-enticing A-plot.

Truth Be Told review: Wait and see

Serial became such a cultural phenomenon in 2015 and 2016 that it was perhaps inevitable that, a few years on, it would seem tied to a particular time and place. The podcaster detective has become a cliche in a few short years, seen everywhere from, well, here to 2018’s Halloween movie.

I won’t give up on this show based on a single episode. Perhaps its creators will deliver a twisty, turny show full of double-crosses and plot twists. The name certainly implies that the truth isn’t revealed up front. The show features good performances and looks great. But this didn’t grab me in the way that, for instance, M. Night Shyamalan’s Apple Original Servant immediately did.

Just like with many podcasts, I would stay subscribed for this one. However, I probably would let a few episodes pile up until the Podcasts app asks me if I’m still interested in it. And, if not for the possibility of a future Truth Be Told review, I don’t know how I would answer that.

Where you can watch it

You can watch the first three episodes of Truth Be Told on Apple TV+ now. Additional episodes will roll out every Friday. Watching all of these shows, plus the other content available on Apple TV+, costs $4.99 a month. However, anyone who bought selected Apple devices this fall can enjoy a free one-year subscription. If you haven’t made such a purchase, you can enjoy a one-week free trial of Apple TV+.