As Apple continues to roll out original series for its TV+ platform, it’s admirably hitting just about every possible genre. That’s good news for those who have Apple TV+, because the variety of programming is certainly a boon given its small but ever-growing library. The real question, though, is whether any of these shows are themselves worth subscribing to Apple TV+. The answer is: So far, probably not. But if you have the platform, yes, they’re all worth at least experimenting with. That perhaps is the trouble with launching a new streaming service without a robust back catalogue. If Apple TV+ was a channel in the cable package I already pay for, I would be DV-Ring all of its shows. But paying for them in an a la carte service? Less likely.
This brings us to Apple TV+’s latest offering, which like its other original series, boasts an outstanding cast and clearly has a lot of money behind it. Truth Be Told, based on Kathleen Barber’s novel Are You Sleeping, is a fine if uneven murder mystery. Octavia Spencer stars as journalist-turned-podcaster Poppy Parnell, who is reopening a case from 19 years ago to investigate whether a boy was sent to jail for a murder he did not commit. Poppy has a personal connection to the case, because her reporting at the time helped paint the teenage suspect, Warren Cave (a fantastic Aaron Paul), as a psychopath who should be tried as an adult. Cave was then sentenced to life in prison for stabbing his neighbor, Chuck Buhrman, to death on Halloween night. But from the start the circumstances were strange; how did Chuck’s wife and twin daughters sleep through the attack, and why did one of the daughters later change her statement in order to implicate Warren, who had previously been a friend?
Already, this setup is catnip to fans of crime shows, and it takes on an even more relevant angle to have Poppy investigating the story through her weekly podcast, a la Serial. Add in Lizzy Caplan soulfully playing the disturbed twin Buhrman daughters, Laney and Josie, and you should get a nice, layered mystery. But it’s not quite that simple.
Alongside this are Poppy’s personal issues with her husband (Michael Beach) who wants her to drop the case, as well as long-simmering frustrations with her father and sisters (Ron Cephas Jones, Tracie Thoms, Haneefah Wood). All of this is exacerbated once she starts investigating a police officer (Brett Cullen) who is also Warren’s father. The retaliation on Poppy’s father and sisters begins immediately, and also plays up a racial component to the series that works within this particular side of the story, but never connects with the mystery. Spencer is compelling, but Poppy’s story works best when she’s consorting with her ex-flame, ex-detective Markus Knox (Mekhi Phifer), who provides her with some key breaks in the case.
The detective work here is really the thing, as they begin to unravel the past (some flashbacks from which we are privy to whereas Poppy is not, in rather random ways), and as Poppy works through her guilt. Did she help put the wrong man in prison when he was just a child? As a black woman, can she defend a man who is now part of the Aryan Brotherhood? Will her guilt end up making things right, or causing more harm? These worthy explorations are when Spencer is given the opportunity to shine, but there’s not yet enough of it.
Though the series is only eight episodes (four of which were available for critics to screen), each of which hover around 40 minutes, the pacing is incredibly uneven. There is so much to unpack with the twins (one of whom briefly sports an English accent!), Warren, and the two families caught up in this crime, but then we shift to Poppy’s family and it feels like jumping to a different show. The same is true after we’ve spent time in their world with their histories, and then come back to the crime. Good detective shows always pepper in a little bit of the investigator’s personal life alongside the crime being solved, and on paper Truth Be Told does exactly that, but currently it’s too disjointed as it adds in a variety of twists and reveals that aren’t given enough buildup or explanation to really land. It’s the same feeling one has watching the Apple TV+ series The Morning Show, which also boasts an outstanding cast and a great premise. It’s interesting, but it drags; it’s enjoyable while you watch, but you don’t rush to return to it. It’s just fine—but it’s not essential TV that you need to pay for a streaming platform to enjoy.
Truth Be Told premieres Friday, December 6th on Apple TV+
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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