Monday, December 2, 2019

TV REVIEW: AppleTV+'s 'Truth Be Told'

AppleTV+ will debut its new original drama series Truth Be Told on Friday, December 6 with its first three episodes. The drama stars Octavia Spencer, Lizzy Caplan, Mekhi Phifer, Michael Beach, Tracie Thoms, Haneefah Wood, Ron Cephas Jones, Elizabeth Perkins and Aaron Paul.

Read on for my thoughts on the new mystery series after screening its first four episodes.


Octavia Spencer's Poppy Parnell is a determined investigative reporter turned podcast host who has been in pursuit of the truth for the past 20 years. That is a fact stated over and over again to provide a sense of legitimacy to the proceedings. Otherwise, it would simply be a woman disrupting people's lives by looking into an old murder case. Poppy has a personal connection to the crime she is investigating throughout the new series. Her career was made on the articles she wrote two decades ago about Warren Cave (Aaron Paul) killing his next door neighbor - who seemed like the head of the picture perfect family found in any cul-de-sac. New evidence comes to light in his case though. It isn't enough to persuade a judge to reopen the case. However, Poppy is now plagued with the thought that she got it wrong all those years ago and her entire career since is built on a lie. A teenager may have been condemned to prison because she was sold on his guilt just like the rest of the world. That's at the heart of the investigation here. The show is very straight-forward as an investigative series. There is a crime laid out in the early going. A man was arrested and found guilty. Twenty years later, the case is being revisited which showcases the many ways in which those closely involved have changed as a result. So much of the material is about the passage of time. Some memories are more clear than others. Some alibis are less reliable now under further scrutiny. Everyone may have something to hide. Poppy is looking for the truth. She may make the same mistakes all over again though. It may cost her everything. That's what gives the show its dramatic hook because she is back in her hometown after jumping at the chance to write for the New York Times. Her podcast company is a success now. But that may also give her free reign to talk about whatever she wants no matter how speculative it may also be. She is playing with real lives and there is a significant cost to all of that.

Spencer captures Poppy's concern with applaud. She presents as a woman on a mission. She gets a thought in her head and has to investigate until she can confirm it as the truth. She may have a tendency to become fixated on certain ideas though. That can be very dangerous for a reporter. The journalism industry is constantly changing. The standards of the past may no longer apply in the 2019 media landscape. Having Poppy as a podcast host helps everything feel more relevant. But that mostly just allows her to muse on her theories about the case and have a place to vent when she feels like she doesn't have support elsewhere. She has a producer and investigator helping her in this pursuit. But she remains the person driving the conversation forward. She is the one determining whether or not people are being truthful with her. She sees that as her job and responsibility. She makes mistakes. She may see things that others cannot. She may be more closely attached to Warren's case than with her own family. She may present as the objective outsider who knows that her father, Shreve (Ron Cephas Jones), may be showing signs of dementia which has made him quick to anger. Her family carries the emotional burden and cost of this investigation. When Poppy gets going, Warren's case consumes her. The early episodes follow a certain path where it seems like Poppy is closing in on a potential new suspect. However, audiences prone to this specific genre may see all of that as a blatant and way too obvious red herring. A way to provide a sense of progress and importance but completely meaningless when it comes to actually solving the case. This show uses that to inflict damage though. It highlights the harm of Poppy's ways. She isn't perfect. She makes mistakes. That may cost her greatly. She can't accept that burden from time to time. That makes Spencer appear as a woman who needs to be in control and can only let her rage out in clear and precise increments. It may not make for the most splashy performance in this series. However, it's vastly vital work that showcases the resolve that is necessary to get to the truth.

There are many stellar performers throughout the show as well. Paul plays Warren Cave as a man hardened to the world because of what happened to him as a teenager. He had to find a way to survive in prison because that was the fate everyone deemed inevitable for him. And yes, there is the sense that he could be guilty. He may not be telling Poppy the whole truth. That mystery persists in engaging ways. Meanwhile, Lizzy Caplan tackles the dual role of Josie and Lanie Burhman, the now adult twin daughters of the murder victim. Their lives have changed dramatically since that fateful night. It drove them apart because of the seemingly toxic nature of their relationship. But there may be hope in reuniting after all these years as well if they can speak honestly about the ways they've hurt each other in the past. Both women are anxious and struggling. And yet, Caplan infuses each with enough personality so that the audience can easily tell them apart. That is absolutely necessary even though it takes awhile before Josie and Lanie are spending a large amount of time with each other. Those are the most dynamic performances happening in the narrative. They are each important in their own ways. Familiar faces help expand the world to make it feel full and compelling for all involved. However, it's also clear that the show has these grand storytelling ambitions. It wishes to analyze the way in which the public now consumes media and cares about justice. It delves into the racial dynamics at play and how they may no longer line up with how previous generations handled themselves. These are lofty goals that show such care and consideration. Through four episodes though, it never quite seems like the show takes off in a way that demands attention. It's all competently told. It's a compelling murder mystery fueled by excellent performers during their best to elevate the material. And yet, that may be all that it is in the end. There is enough personal details sprinkled throughout to make it seem like something larger and much more complicated. But the main investigation carries the bulk of the narrative. It remains engaging but may not offer many insights into the ways in which investigations are conducted. That may disappoint some especially those fully engaged in the process of true crime podcasts and their effect on the cases they analyze. So, the audience may have to temper some of its expectations with this show - which may ultimately be a pattern for the first batch of programs from AppleTV+.