Based on a True Story: Terribly Unfunny Show Tries to Pass for Comedy
Peacock's Based on a True Story tries to be a comedy about the obsession with true crime podcasts, but it's mush-brained & painfully unfunny.
Based on a True Story is the worst new show to hit streaming. It's the biggest creative misfire anyone could possibly make. It claims to be a comedy but is totally unfunny because it fails to make its take on a dark subject matter funny or interesting. Everything that Only Murders in the Building succeeds in, it fails miserably. In fact, it feels like an attempt to ape the success of that show without understanding what made it work: funny, flawed but sympathetic characters, a story full of twists and turns, and interesting surprises. Nothing on that list is in Based on a True Story. The trailer for the show made it look promising. Nope.
Kaley Cuoco and Chris Messina play an aspirational middle-class couple hitting hard times and life's disappointments who decide to play on her obsession with True Crime podcasts to make one of their own. The twist is they're going to interview a real, active serial killer for their series rather than turn themselves in. This show is bad, really bad. its moral compass is totally messed up. Cuoco and Messina decide that they want to exploit a killer for commercial gain instead of turning him in, which enables him to keep killing. They're amoral, mercenary assholes and totally unlikable and unsympathetic. We have no reason to care about them. They deserve anything bad that's coming to them.
It doesn't work as a comedy because the writing is mushy, and none of it is funny. its tone is all over the place as it tries to convince us it's funny, but there's not a single funny line in it.
For this to work as a comedy, the characters would need to be more hysterical, much more horrible, crazy, and stupid in order for any satire to hit. A comedy or satire where the main characters are truly horrible people needs to be steely and laser-focused, and mercilessly nasty like Succession was. Instead, it's all mushy. We're meant to empathize with Cuoco and Messina as they make one idiotic decision after another as they avoid exposing the killer to the police to let him run amok longer. These aren't just people making a mistake, they're enabling evil, but the writing wants us to see them as this funny, wishy-washy husband and wife. Cuoco's character is a grasping moral vacuum, while Messina's is a spineless doofus too weak to do the right thing. They're awful people and not interesting or compelling like the Roys are.
You'd think creator and showrunner Craig Rosenberg and his team would have a sharper, more precise line on the dark comedy or satire since he worked on The Boys, but with Based on a True Story, everything that worked on that show is absent from Based on a True Story. There's not a single funny line in the series. It doesn't go beyond mildly amusing, and for a show about dark themes about the public's obsession with murder and True Crime podcasts, that's not enough. Cuoco and Messina are not underdogs, they're opportunists who become criminals without redeeming qualities and who are too mediocre to be interesting enough for us to care about.
If it's not supposed to be a comedy, it might be a dark, detached, disturbing drama, but only Patricia Highsmith could pull it off, and it's clear in Based on a True Story that none of its writers have the cruel nerve or steeliness of a Highsmith. Each episode gets more painfully unfunny. It's not even thrilling enough to be a proper thriller. It's caught in between. The writing lacks the conviction of leaning deep into the idea of a world so amoral that exploiting the most awful things is the best and most desirable option. This is why Succession is a masterpiece, Only Murders in the Building is a fun comedy, and Based on a True Story is warmed-over porridge.
Based on a True Story is streaming on Peacock if you want to do this to yourself.