‘Based on a True Story’: Fakeouts spoil comic thriller that could have been something fresh

Kaley Cuoco and Chris Messina play rookie podcasters in Peacock series that pranks viewers with scenes that aren’t real.

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True crime podcast fan Ava (Kaley Cuoco) teams up with her husband, Nathan (Chris Messina), on a production of their own on “Based on a True Story.”

Peacock

Every time they pulled me in, they kicked me back out.

The eight-part Peacock Original comedy/thriller series “Based on a True Story” makes for one of the most frustrating viewing experiences of 2023. It’s like watching your favorite baseball team showing potential by turning slick double-plays and coming through with some clutch hits — but then the manager makes another boneheaded decision, and the relief pitcher walks the lead-off man on four pitches, and the next thing you know you’re shaking your head in frustration and muttering, “Are. You. Effing. Kidding. Me.”

What makes this particularly disappointing is that we can see the potential for something fresh, dark and original in nearly every episode, and there’s so much talent in the cast and behind the scenes. Alas, for all its efforts to be timely and of-the-moment and edgy, “Based on a True Story” turns out to be its own worst enemy, despite the considerable skills of the ubiquitous and gifted duo of Kaley Cuoco (“The Flight Attendant,” “Meet Cute”) and Chris Messina (“Air,” “The Boogeyman”), and showrunner Craig Rosenberg (“The Boys,” “Gen V”).

‘Based on a True Story’

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An eight-episode series available Thursday on Peacock.

The many-months pregnant Ava (Cuoco) is a real estate agent who lives in the Mar Vista neighborhood of West Los Angeles with her husband Nathan (Messina), a former tennis phenom who once defeated Roger Federer but blew out his ACL before his career could truly take off. With Ava yet to crack the upscale real estate market and Nathan getting demoted at the local tennis club where he works as a pro, plus a baby on the way, Ava and Nathan are struggling to make ends meet and they’re starting to lash out each other because this not the life they envisioned 10 years ago.

That’s when opportunity presents itself in the form of murder. Well. A podcast about murder. Ava is obsessed with true crime podcasts and, as she tells Nathan, so is much of the country. (She’s not wrong.) As one of Ava’s favorite podcasters says, “The great American art form isn’t music, or film or television. The great American art form is murder. We watch it, we celebrate it, we obsess over it, and we commit it … what drives someone to murder another human being. What kind of person could do that?”

We’re going to tread lightly here so as to avoid the myriad of spoilers and shockers sprinkled throughout the run of the series. Suffice to say that Ava, Nathan and a disarmingly handsome plumber named Matt (Tom Bateman, doing fine work) who has become their friend agree to team up on a true-crime podcast with a unique angle. It could make them all rich or destroy their lives. Either way, this is an exciting and bold and insanely risky new chapter for Ava and Nathan and their friend Matt!

“Based on a True Story” (which, we should point out, is not based on a true story) has some terrific set pieces, as when the action moves from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and “Crime Con 2023,” where true-crime podcasters and the relatives of serial killers are celebrities, and murder has been converted into merch sales. (That’s about as deep as the introspection and cultural commentary gets.)

It’s also a great-looking show, filled with great-looking people who become key players in the ever more complicated lives of Ava and Nathan, as their podcast becomes a huge sensation. Natalia Dyer’s Chloe Lake is a bartender who crosses paths with Nathan, while Priscilla Quintana is a scene-stealing sensation as Ava’s wealthy, man-hopping, scheming frenemy Ruby, who is an absolutely terrible person but also a hell of a lot of fun. Then there’s Ava’s younger sister, the college student Tory (Liana Liberato), who has an agenda or two of her own. There’s no shortage of intriguing characters, but their actions often range from the implausible to the absurd. (The series also commits a horrible offense with a tasteless offscreen death. For once, we’re hoping the sequence is an illusion or a nightmare, but it’s not.)

It’s one thing for a series to throw you for a loop from time to time and blindside you with some major twists. It’s quite another thing when there are so many red herrings and fake-outs that we feel more pranked than entertained. Time and again, “Based on a True Story” goes for the jugular with a putatively shocking scene — only for it to turn out to a figment of a character’s imagination, or worse, a friggin’ dream sequence. (Sometimes it’s obvious we’ve wandered into Fantasy Land, for no particular reason; on other occasions, not so much.) Every time they pull that cheap stunt on us and then say, “Just kidding!” it lessens the impact of the actual story and makes us feel like dupes for continuing to watch. Talk about off-putting.


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