Octavia Spencer Stands Out as a Podcaster Seeking Justice in ‘Truth Be Told’
Apple TV Plus’ “Truth Be Told” wants to stand out from the current, packed crop of crime TV by turning its heroine into a podcaster. It’s almost an inevitable move in a world where the old forms of journalism are competing with purely digital mediums. Octavia Spencer is a great choice for a lead, truly coming across as a relentless seeker of information. However the major challenge is that like other shows of its type, “Truth Be Told” can’t seem to stick to just one angle.
Spencer plays Poppy Parnell, an award-winning former newspaper journalist turned successful true crime podcaster. A story from Poppy’s past returns when new evidence emerges hinting that a convicted killer named Warren Cave (Aaron Paul) might actually be innocent. For Poppy it’s a haunting prospect considering her reporting helped keep Cave behind bars. She decides to make a new investigation into the case the subject of her latest podcast and searches for witnesses and evidence. But Cave’s story is a sensitive matter in the community, including for the twin sisters (played by Lizzy Caplan) whose father he’s accused of killing. Poppy also faces pushback from a concerned husband, Ingram (Michael Beach), and other members of her family who wonder why Poppy is putting so much effort into proving the innocence of a man outside of their community.
“Truth Be Told” has a group of good actors giving worthy performances in an otherwise sluggish storyline. The very nature of a podcast is to render an interesting story via an audible medium. Like a good true crime book, a good podcaster can pull in the listener with the way a narrative is constructed through audio editing and narration. Applying the idea to a show is certainly viable, if what we get is more of an insider’s view of a podcaster’s actual work. In movies or shows about newspaper life, we don’t spend too much time listening to the journalist read back their copy. Story developments we should see unfold are read out to us by Poppy, or sometimes the show feels obligated to have a shot of her expressing some existential thought into the mic. How she assembles information and content into her work is never explored, at least in the first four episodes of this season which were made available for review.
What also begins as a plotline in the tradition of a John Grisham novel struggles to find its footing when it starts getting pulled among different avenues. Series creator Nichelle D. Tramble wants “Truth Be Told” to go beyond a mere procedural and also explore themes of race, class and police corruption. This is natural to the genre but requires a little more finesse. For example too much time is taken away from the case involving Cave to focus on Poppy’s dad (Ron Cephas Jones) being some kind of former street wiseguy suffering from possible dementia, throwing fits because Poppy is trying help a white boy get out of jail. Since she’s intruding on an old case the cops are of course not too happy about it and start harassing her dad’s bar. Ingram also finds it hard to relate to Poppy’s crusade, he’s from an upper class black family, Poppy even dismisses his mom as a snob, and would rather have his wife play it safe and stay out of any trouble. We haven’t even gotten to the twin sisters at the center of Cave’s case or the fact that Cave while in prison has become a neo-Nazi, which complicates Poppy’s devotion to his plight. They should have just made him a skinhead from the beginning, it would have added a more engaging conflict to the whole story.
All of these threads lead to a swirl of multi-twists in every episode ranging from Cave getting shanked in jail for unclear reasons, possibly involving Nazi gangs, to pretty crazy developments like a deadly car crash that results from someone getting a phone call which prompts one of the this television season’s strangest freak outs. The irony is that true crime docuseries like the ones now common on Netflix have clearer narratives, even when they pile on the cryptic clues and missing evidence. This is because they just focus on the crime. “Truth Be Told” is grasping everywhere for enough material to fill out an entire season. The main question should be, did Cave actually commit the murder and what evidence is there to the contrary?
What stands out best are the performances. Octavia Spencer is sharp and likeable, Michael Beach brings some needed intensity and Ron Cephas Jones has a slick presence. Everyone else plays their roles like refugees from other mystery thrillers, but no unconvincingly. “Truth Be Told” has a lot of talent and too much plotting, it almost makes you want to just go listen to an actual podcast about how it was made.
“Truth Be Told” season one premieres Dec. 6 with new episodes streaming every Friday on Apple TV+.