In the simplest terms, Peacock’s Based on a True Story is about an unlikely trio who start a true-crime podcast together, detailing the actions of a serial killer who is still at large. It may sound like an obvious knock-off of Only Murders in the Building, about another mismatched threesome who podcasts about crime in real time, but it would be disingenuous to lump Hulu’s much more feel-good series in with Craig Rosenberg and Jason Bateman’s darker comedy.
Based on a True Story has a more cynical point of view, forcing its characters to test the limits of just how far they may go to protect their reputations. In that way, the series feels most spiritually connected to Steve Yockey’s The Flight Attendant. The two share a similar tone, have overlapping narrative devices, and both star Kaley Cuoco, who brings unmistakeable touches of Cassie Bowden to her Based on a True Story character Ava Bartlett.
Much like Cassie, Ava (Cuoco) and her husband Nathan (Chris Messina) find themselves in a gray area where they’re not quite as evil as the most villainous person they know, but they’re also not as innocent or heroic as they may see themselves. Pinched for cash with a baby on the way, the pair decides to team up with a known serial killer in the hopes of making a fortune off the true-crime podcast boom.
They’re not complete monsters — they ask the killer, known as the West Side Ripper, to stop murdering people while they work on the project, otherwise they’ll turn him in. But it’s hard to ignore that they’re complicit in keeping a very dangerous man on the streets and profiting off the deaths of his innocent victims. And much like The Flight Attendant’s Cassie, Ava and Nathan quickly find themselves in too deep.
Characters throughout the series, experience vivid fantasies and dreams that feel close enough to the reality of this heightened world that they just might be real. Ava indulges in them more than anyone else; in Episode 1, “The Great American Art Form,” she vividly envisions herself having sex with a client who interested in buying a house she’s selling — seeing her watch a version of herself herself hook up with this man is not unlike several moments of Cassie spying on her double or arguing with imaginary clones of herself throughout The Flight Attendant. No one has a full-on inner dialogue with a murdered man, but there are still enough departures from what’s actually happening to make it unclear at times what’s real and what’s not, adding to the series’s twists and turns.
But while there are enough connections to tie these series together in a unique subcategory, Based on a True Story succeeds on its own in compellingly skewering the country’s infatuation with and glorification of serial killers by making its central murderer less likable as the series goes on instead of trying to evoke sympathy or justify his actions in some way. The mysterious West Side Ripper may be conventionally attractive, and that may fool others into finding him appealing, but Ava and Nathan soon learn that this is a person with few charms — in fact, beyond his obvious faults, he’s extremely annoying and an awful creative collaborator.
Through a particularly pointed arc at the murder-focused CrimeCon, the series also vilifies a range of very specific types of white women who build their careers on exploiting victims of brutal crimes in a way that’s close enough to reality that it barely feels like satire. There are the podcast hosts who claim to be advocates for the very victims they exploit, the merchants selling Ted Bundy bottle openers, and the TV writer who wants to jump on the West Side Ripper IP before the bodies of those he murdered are even cold. It magnifies just how much money is being funneled to this unsavory industry while also making clear that the very real possibility that a podcast with one single episode may not be an overnight sensation, no matter how juicy the premise — even in such a booming sector, success is not guaranteed.
An excellent ensemble cast fills out the upper-middle (and just upper-upper) class world that Ava and Nathan are desperate to remain a part of, with especially entertaining performances from June Diane Raphael and Jessica St. Clair as the sanctimonious hosts of the true-crime podcast Murder Sisters; Priscilla Quintana as Ava’s friend Ruby who is always ready to party and much more self-aware than she seems; and Aaron Staton as Ruby’s very rich, very privileged, very douchey husband. Starring alongside Cuoco, Messina thrives in a role reminiscent of Danny in The Mindy Project, a curmudgeonly middle-aged man more focused on the past than the future.
But Cuoco, who has clearly found her niche, commands the series. The longtime sitcom star has always had a knack for comedy, and her rise to fame in series like 8 Simple Rules and The Big Bang Theory are proof of that. But with recent starring roles in The Flight Attendant, Harley Quinn, and, now, Based on a True Story, she’s embraced much darker, more complex characters while still maintaining a sense of humor that can, when necessary, border on slapstick.
That sense of playfulness permeates the entire series, even when the stakes are at their highest. Things never quite reach the level of a pure romp — there are too many bloody moments and incisive points of commentary throughout. Still, the cast exudes an effortless chemistry and the narrative never gets too bogged down in the details, making for not quite a feel-good watch, but at least an extremely bingeable one.
All eight episodes of Based on a True Story drop June 8 on Peacock. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R.