‘Based On A True Story’ Judges You for Watching It
True-crime addict Ava (Kaley Cuoco) is dissatisfied with her life, simmering with resentment toward her uneasily retired pro tennis player husband Nathan (Chris Messina), and jealous of her carelessly wealthy L.A. friends. When she figures out that their plumber-turned-new friend Matt (Tom Bateman) is circumstantially linked to two murders, she sees an opportunity to change her station in life and end Matt’s apparent career as the Westside Ripper. Ava and Nathan will create a true crime podcast in which Matt anonymously tells his own story, and cut Matt in on the condition that he stop killing people.
This is the premise of Peacock’s new series Based On A True Story, which dropped all eight episodes of its first season today, and which is ostensibly a comedy. But what is intended to be funny — the show, or the idea that anyone would be amused by it?
Based On A True Story has one huge target: My Favorite Murder, a true-crime podcast co-hosted by (former?) comedians Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark. Murder’s success led to the creation of Exactly Right Media, under which several other podcasts are produced; last year, “distribution and advertising sales duties” on all its shows sold to Amazon for $100 million. While Murder obviously has millions of fans, who’ve dubbed themselves “Murderinos,” it has long had detractors too — like Andrea DenHoed, whose measured but devastating essay “The My Favorite Murder Problem” published at The New Republic in 2019. DenHoed lays out the issues not just with the casual tone Murder takes in its discussions of real cases where real people were really killed, but also with its uncritical endorsement of the carceral state: “In live recordings of the show — which the pair perform around the world, to sold-out audiences of thousands — the stories often end with a killer being sentenced to death or executed, and the crowd goes reliably wild.”
In Based, the benchmark for success in the true crime space is Sisters in Crime, hosted by the Lipinski sisters (played by Jessica St. Clair and June Diane Raphael, real-life co-hosts of The Deep Dive, a podcast that is not crime-themed). After the first episode of the Based On A True Story podcast notches just 113 downloads, Ava, Nathan and Matt travel to Las Vegas for Crime Con 2023, where a live Sisters podcast taping finds the Lipinskis hyping up the eager audience before dropping into a grave vocal register to introduce their guest — the mother of the Westside Ripper’s latest victim. The audience then doesn’t seem to know how raucous to be in welcoming her. As with Murder, the subject matter is only “fun” in the abstract; connecting a victim to the loved one who will always mourn her clarifies the gruesomeness of the enterprise.
Sisters would be somewhat distasteful even if there were no commercial component, but like Murder, it’s a huge hit. We’re told the Lipinskis sold (to an unspecified media company) for $60 million, and Crime Con portrays the ancillary industries that have sprung up around them. We’re supposed to be disgusted that vendors are ghoulishly profiting from Westside Ripper tie-in souvenirs, but obviously Con attendees have no issue with it — except Matt, who complains about the damage done to his brand by subpar merch. Later, he flirts with a TV writer who’s planning a Westside Ripper limited series, and who waves off Matt’s questions about securing the Ripper’s life rights, since he can’t very well take her to court to defend them. One of her past projects, about a murderous gynecologist, was taken over by Ryan Murphy, who rewrote it and took sole credit. “It’s really hard being good at something, and no one knows it,” Matt empathizes. Then he takes her into a bathroom to hook up, but as she’s opening his pants, he smashes a bottle and jams it in the side of her neck. As she lies on the floor choking on her own blood, Matt smugly stands over her, smirking, “Guess you should’ve gotten my life rights.”
This turns out to be a fantasy on his part, but it’s emblematic of the way Based On A True Story jerks the viewer around without having a clear focus on its subject. We’re pretty clearly supposed to be contemptuous of the Murderinos, and of Kilgariff and Hardstark and all the pretenders who hope to draft in their success. By extension, we should judge Ava for identifying an actual murderer and trying to profit off him instead of turning him in; we should judge Nathan even more harshly, probably, because he knows Ava’s scheme is wrong and goes along with it anyway. We should definitely scorn the Lipinskis and the TV writer for doing the same thing Ava and Nathan are attempting, only more effectively and with a bigger platform. (We should certainly judge Ryan Murphy, whose most recent Netflix miniseries, about Jeffrey Dahmer, is forcing stars on the awards campaign trail to have an answer ready as to how victims’ real families should feel about Murphy exploiting their pain for financial gain.) We should be appalled by the companies who only de-platform the Based On A True Story podcast after celebrities raise an outcry on social media. We should even suspect Dahlia Stone (Lizze Broadway), who claims to be the Westside Ripper’s only survivor, and collects enough donations from a GoFundMe campaign to buy a lake house and a Maserati, but whom Matt says he’s never seen.
One character who mostly escapes judgment is Matt himself, and for the reasons we’re generally told Ted Bundy escaped suspicion for so long: Matt is attractive and charming. (He’s also very tall; the way he towers over Nathan and Ava is a reliable sight gag.) It may also be because we can’t be certain, even at the end of the first season, whether Matt is a murderer. He takes credit for several bodies, but a couple are killed off-screen, and even when we see Matt stabbing Chloe (Natalia Dyer), the victim whose death starts the series, it’s plausible that this will turn out to be one of the show’s many fantasy sequences. (In the finale, even a dead body gets to have one.)
But if I’m right, who’s more contemptible, ultimately: the innocent man who claims to have committed murders he didn’t, or the woman who believes he’s guilty and tries to make a buck off him anyway? Is either of them worse than the Crime Con attendees who throng into Ballroom D to hear the voice-modulated Westside Ripper tell his own story in Episode Two of the Based On A True Story podcast? If the Based On A True Story TV viewer gets emotionally engaged in the ups and downs of Ava and Nathan’s attempts to launch a true-crime empire on an entirely corrupt foundation, or in Matt’s ability to evade detection, are we the worst ones of all?
Succession and Barry both ended their runs on HBO last month, with final seasons that took such strong positions on their despicable leads that they could, at times, feel scolding to viewers who’d taken the entire journey with them. (Hope you never called Kendall Roy “babygirl” on Twitter, because actually he’s a handmaiden to fascism. HBO might have previously used Barry to start a conversation about destigmatizing mental illness, but that was before he was raising a son in extreme isolation.) Based On A True Story isn’t nearly as ambitious as those shows, but its unfocused, normless satire does feel like a setup along the lines of @toiletgun’s classic tweet: “twitter is 90 percent someone imagining a guy, tricking themselves into believing that guy exists and then getting mad about it.”
Based On A True Story is 90 percent TV writers imagining a viewer who lacks media literacy, tricking themselves into believing the show is too clever for that viewer to get it, and then getting mad about it. If I laughed at this comedy show about the fake murders of fictional murders, then I should probably feel very bad about the real victims of crime, I guess. But I didn’t laugh.