To say society has a fascination with true crime would be putting it mildly. No longer just contained to a select audience who got their grisly fix on news-skewered programs, true crime – or, more specifically, murder – is now a multi-million dollar business in itself, cornering the market on books, podcasts, docuseries’ and the wildest of internet sub-reddits.
It would only make sense then that the streaming services would want in on the action in a manner that extends beyond glorifying the facts. Comedy programs such as Only Murders In The Building and the satirically-inclined American Vandal have successfully leaned into the general masses and their crime obsession – the former especially – and now, Based On A True Story has come along to get in on the action in a manner that thankfully doesn’t merely re-hash steps we’ve tread before. Instead, the hilarity here wants to blend with a darker edge, resulting in a consistently amusing and oft-bloody cautionary tale.
Fronted by the ever-reliable Kaley Cuoco and Chris Messina, Based On A True Story focuses on their Ava and Nathan Bartlett, a realtor and tennis-pro-turned-coach, respectively, on the tragic verge of bankruptcy who unexpectedly stumble into a genius marketing move within the true crime podcast space. The show sets up the intriguing premise rather early on, but such is the mad genius of writer/creator Craig Rosenberg and executive producer Jason Bateman that it manages to reveal its sizeable narrative hook and successfully carry on for its remaining 8 episodes.
That sizeable hook comes in the form of “The West Side Ripper”, an unidentified serial killer stalking and slaying women across the West Side of Los Angeles. Ava, being a true crime podcast junkie, and Nathan rather unwittingly learn the identity of said “Ripper”, but instead of turning them over to the police they opt to capitalise on their rather unique situation and form a bond with their new found serial killer cohort; bring them in on their devised podcast to discuss how and why they killed their victims. The condition is that they don’t want any more killings to take place, but, you know, murderers gonna murder.
The show initially has an almost sense of sketch comedy about it, and the seeming limitations of parodying such a genre gradually dissipate as Ava and Nathan’s relationship dynamic is established, as well as their own individual needs which helps make their ludicrous idea about teaming with a serial killer more viable. There’s a certain sense of emasculation taking place for Nathan at his place of work – an up-its-own-ass sports club – where his job is threatened by a much younger, less talented tennis coach, and though Ava, somewhere within the second trimester of her pregnancy, should be much more careful, the evident shift in her priorities as a mother-to-be and the gradual disconnect between herself and her trio of shallow, materialistic girlfriends (including the fabulously acidic Priscilla Quintana as Ruby, one of the few outsiders who starts to get a little too clued in on Ava’s new “hobby”) speaks to her necessity in wanting to experience a new thrill.
Amusingly, whilst Based On A True Story evidently respects the art of the true crime podcast, it’s never above poking fun at such a phenomenon either. June Diane Raphael and Jessica St. Clair make for chuckle-worthy cameos throughout a few episodes as the hosts of “Sisters in Crime”, seemingly the pinnacle of genre podcasts, who are the types who’ll claim they stand with the victims’ families just after they rile up a crowd to cheer for fresh murder. Their mentality of playing to what their listeners want also speaks to Ava, Nathan and the West Side Ripper – the show also has fun with the couple having to treat the murderer like a co-worker – and the killer wanting to go rogue presents a fresh dynamic that the show humorously navigates without ever tipping into parody itself; “All I need is one murder a month to keep the show relevant,” is the Ripper’s plea, to which Ava and Nathan oddly consider once they see their Spotify download numbers balloon and their fear of bankruptcy fades.
Whilst the show can’t entirely escape some plot holes beyond its own unlikely narrative set-up – for instance, how are Ava and Nathan exactly planning to secure their podcast money if their identities have to remain a secret? – Based On A True Story serves enough humour and intrigue for it to ever truly be a problem. The confidence only grows over the series’ 8 episode run, and so much of that belongs to the burning chemistry between Messina and Cuoco. Cuoco, in particular, is a major key to the show’s watchability, with her signature frenetic flightiness constantly on hand to land punchlines so fast you’d be forgiven for missing them. Almost as if she’s bridging the gap between her Flight Attendant counterpart, Based On A True Story has enough macabre charm and an unpredictable nature for it to confidently run its race – it’s just Cuoco who assures it’ll cross the finish line in record time.