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Why TV's true-story addiction has been so disappointing: "Reality has its virtues. But there ain’t nothing like the fake thing"

  • Television is in the midst of a glut of shows based on true stories, including Pam & Tommy, The Dropout, The Girl from PlainvilleSuper Pumped: The Battle for Uber, WeCrashed, Inventing Anna, Joe vs. Carole, The Thing About Pam, the upcoming Gaslit and Candy Montgomery limited series and on and on. "These series, unlike the sweeps specials and cheapo docudramas of old, are generally well polished," says James Poniewozik. "There is an almost embarrassing amount of creative and acting talent thrown at them. And they’re good at getting talked about because they focus on the kinds of personalities and scandals that people love to talk about. But what makes them reliable — they’re stories audiences are already interested in, because they’ve been told before — makes it hard for them to be more than digestible versions of things that already exist, the video equivalent of audiobooks. Truth may be buzzier than fiction right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s as interesting." Pointing to the success of shows like Making a Murderer and Tiger King, Poniewozik adds: "Why are there so many of these stories now, produced so lavishly? Maybe because drama has been competing for cultural space with nonfiction and documentary for years now, and often losing. Meanwhile, scripted TV is in a curious place. There are so many platforms, needing so much material, that there is theoretically more room than ever for innovation. But the abundance of content also makes TV timid. The surest way to get people’s attention amid all the clutter is with a twist on something familiar." But, as Poniewozik notes, some of the most buzzworthy shows -- Succession, Severance, Scandal and Silicon Valley -- are fictionalized version of real people and events. "Those fictional series set the standard precisely because they’re free to follow not documentary truth, but the truth of their dark, satirical or outlandish visions," he says, adding: "Reality has its virtues. But there ain’t nothing like the fake thing."

    TOPICS: Pam & Tommy, Candy, The Dropout, Gaslit, The Girl From Plainville, Inventing Anna, Joe vs. Carole, Love and Death, Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, The Thing About Pam, WeCrashed, Peak TV, Prestige TV