What’s the best show currently on Apple TV+? This shouldn’t be a hard question. Apple’s new streaming service has fewer originals than any channel this side of Antenna TV. Not that quantity is predictive of quality (think YouTube Originals — on second thought, don’t), but I guess I was expecting at least one of these shiny Apples to have caught the public’s eye by now.
Dickinson has had some takers, but not many. Apparently I’m not the only one disturbed by the show’s contempt for the facts in the name of teen-glamming Emily Dickinson. Servant was a better effort, but its Thanksgiving weekend debut got less coverage than the angry nutcracker. As one industry reporter put it, “Buzz for Servant has been quiet,” which is a nice way of saying nobody knew it was on. I thoroughly enjoyed two Apple TV+ shows for kids, Ghost Writer and Helpsters, but it’s a stretch to use the term “original” to describe these familiar efforts from Sesame Workshop.
The team at Apple TV+ is learning a hard truth right now: Everyone is too overwhelmed by content to care what new thing they’re throwing on the pile. Just because it owns the top line on its TV app (which I never open) and has its own streaming box (only used for AirPlay in our house) doesn’t mean it can get iPhone users to sample its Netflix wannabe.
Perhaps a better question is whether any show is pointing the way to what Apple TV+ could be someday, and puts it on a path to relevance. Disney+ already has that show: The Mandalorian. I know everyone is head over heels about Baby Yoda, but what intrigues me about The Mandalorian is how it seems to have instantly defined Disney+ as the streaming channel that can take a billion-dollar movie brand and turn it into something that gets families to park themselves in front of the 4K TV. And there are dozens of billion-dollar brands inside Disney. Who needs movie theaters?
If I were to pick a show right now to recommend on Apple TV+ it would be the one that debuts today — Truth Be Told, a crime drama that is not only its most promising show to date but one that could serve as a template for future Apple TV+ shows. It’s a good-verging-on-great anthology series with storylines, writing, and casting that could be replicated again and again, allowing Apple to widen its lane while shrinking HBO’s.
Over the course of eight episodes an investigative reporter named Poppy Parnell will revisit a murder case she worked 20 years ago after getting a tip that she helped put away the wrong man. Oscar winner Octavia Spencer plays Poppy, and Aaron Paul plays Warren Cave, the teenager she helped convict. They alone are worth the investment of eight hours of your time.
Racial animosity, class aspirations, gender, and religion all add to the dramatic tension. Poppy is a product of Oakland’s black motorcycle-gang culture, her dad being legendary club leader “Shreve” Scoville (Ron Cephas Jones), a sinner-saint whose Catholic identity and underworld ties make him an unholy force to be reckoned with. Poppy used to be married to a cop named Markus (Mekhi Phifer), but she upgraded with husband number two, a bourgie lawyer played by Michael Beach. He’s not thrilled that Poppy has put this cold case back on the front burner and is leaning on Markus for detective help.
Meanwhile inside San Quentin, wrongly-convicted Warren has joined the Aryan Brotherhood. While this may just be a survival tactic, it complicates his possible vindication by a black journalist. Warren’s mom (fiercely played by Elizabeth Perkins) is convinced of his innocence, but she’s sick, and time is not on her side. Then there’s the family that was shattered by the murder, including twin sisters who not only lost their father but were permanently estranged from each other. Not until the end of the second hour did I realize Lizzy Caplan was playing both sisters, so distinct and convincing were their angry-crazy personalities.
Bolstered by this strong supporting cast and surprising interracial and intra-racial dynamics, Truth Be Told reminds me of John Ridley’s excellent anthology series for ABC, American Crime, although Ridley was digging for deeper truths about social injustice in America. This show, despite the title Truth Be Told, isn’t that ambitious. And John Ridley didn’t have to plant smartphones in his show.
Which brings me to the weakest part of Truth Be Told — the godawful product placement. It goes way beyond the ubiquitous iPhones and iPads. Poppy chronicles her search for the real killer as a podcaster, just like they did on Serial, sharing her discoveries with what we are led to believe is a vast listening public. She gathers audio for her podcast using her iPhone’s handy Voice Memos app, sometimes without her subjects’ knowledge or permission, which I’m pretty sure would’ve gotten her fired in her newspaper days.
If Poppy really is a big-time podcaster and is being downloaded by more than just her family and friends, then she needs a podcast company producing and distributing her show. And podcast companies don’t do podcasting the way it’s done on Truth Be Told. They produce whole seasons at a time, each episode carefully vetted by producers, legal, even marketing. Not only would Poppy’s hidden-microphone audio never have made the cut, but the notion that she could tell a serial like this one episode at a time, using her show to move the investigation along (putting out, in one instance, an APB for a missing person), is laughable.
I am not nitpicking. Podcasting is a huge industry and Apple largely created it. The slapdash, unprofessional image of the modern podcaster shown in Truth Be Told might be fine in a novel (which the show was adapted from), but it does serious damage to a journalistic form that Apple — one of the only tech companies not to be slimed by the fake-news explosion — should be presenting in the best possible light.
Anthology shows have been hit-and-miss for other streaming services. Netflix seems to be moving away from them. But it's the perfect vehicle to bring A-listers on for a season. Everyone wants to do TV these days, right? That was the thinking when Apple poured all that money into The Morning Show, before discovering that no one wants to watch a multi-season series about TV hosts. Viewers want to see wrongful convictions overturned, and social problems explored, and medical mysteries solved — and anything else that doesn’t require a long-term viewing commitment. Bankable stars don’t hurt, but they can't save something like The Morning Show, which feels to me like a relic from TV’s past. Truth Be Told isn’t perfect, but it feels more like the future.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.