Based On A True Story starts with a crime. Yes, it’s true that a pretty woman is slashed mercilessly by a serial killer as soon as the show opens, but I am speaking of a conceptual crime. The premise of the series, streaming in India on JioCinema, is too familiar to be coincidental: true-crime fans take an ongoing murder case and spin it into a topical podcast—exactly like Only Murders In The Building (Disney+ Hotstar). This would feel egregious had Only Murders not lifted its premise (and most of its opening gambits) from Woody Allen’s delicious 1993 comedy, Manhattan Murder Mystery.
True crime begets crime. This is very much an “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all” genre, because when a desperate audience buys into a lurid podcast/documentary/movie about a serial killer, it knows precisely what it wants: a voyeuristic chill fiction can’t give it. In its first episode, Based On A True Story lays out its manifesto: “The great American art form is murder.” This rings accurate given the proliferation of true-crime content, and later in the series—a far darker comedy than the cheery Only Murders In The Building—when the scene shifts to “Crime-Con” in Las Vegas, a convention that treats serial killers like superheroes, I chose not to look up whether it was real or satire. I am afraid to find out. (There are serial killer colouring books on sale.)
Based On A True Story is about Ava and Nathan Bartlett. She’s a heavily pregnant real estate agent, he’s a tennis coach at a fancy club who, back in the day, had once defeated Roger Federer. Their life together has stalled, with a baby on the way, but while struggling to make ends meet, Ava figures out the true identity of the Westside Ripper, a serial killer menacing Los Angeles. Nathan wants to tell the police but Ava has other ideas. What if, she muses, we make it a killer-tells-all podcast? An interview with a serial killer?
This is lunacy, of course. But what if? This merciless satire created by Craig Rosenberg—writer and producer on the grim and striking superhero satire The Boys (Amazon Prime Video)—leans heavily on the what-iffery, frequently deploying the false note of allowing a character (and the audience) to imagine something brutal or sexual, only to then return us to the relative safety of a conversation. This rug-pulling is constant—there’s even a scene where a dog imagines what he would like to do—and Rosenberg’s point is clear: Blurring the line between reality and fantasy is exciting. And addictive.
Kaley Cuoco—immensely fun on Harley Quinn and The Flight Attendant—is a blast as the hapless Ava, in her third trimester and consistently fantasising about her hot clients. She drools over the fabulous lives of her affluent friends, wants more and wants it now, and mistakenly assumes that being a true-crime superfan is enough to produce an irresistible show. Chris Messina’s washed up and indecisive Nathan has been demoted from his coaching job because of a younger player who wears short shorts the ladies prefer. The actors have terrific comic and sexual chemistry, and ensure that even outrageous moments, like when she’s drunkenly proclaiming her love for his penis—“he’s my favourite!”—are warmly endearing.
The Westside Ripper is more a type than a character. He has the monologue-y flair of Dexter and the creepiness of the guy from You, and Tom Bateman hams it up as a bad guy who has been handed a microphone. We never hear his interview answers, and, therefore, never get into his life and motives. He’s a charming, lethal adversary who brings out the dark side of the Bartletts (“There’s the guy that beat Federer,” he says proudly, when Nathan attacks him) and underlines the show’s satire. “Before we start, let’s talk marketing,” he says as the podcast crew meets.
Dished out in eight 25-minute episodes, Based On A True Story is less concerned with plausibility than farce. Of course, Apple and Spotify wouldn’t enable an active serial killer to make money anonymously off them, but the gag lies in watching the podcast get cancelled because of a tweet from Jessica Alba that is then retweeted by Malia Obama. The killer’s response to these woke mobs? To create spin-off podcasts that are more “inclusive” and feature “marginalised serial killers”.
“Pressure,” Billie Jean King famously said, “is a privilege.” Nathan Bartlett doesn’t like that quoted back at him. The Bartletts have largely played it safe in life but now, with each move and every lie, they sink deeper into the abyss. Based On A True Story emphasises how the priorities and hypocrisies of our consumerist, Instagram-facing lives aren’t that far from a serial killer’s motives. Priscilla Quintana is great as a rich woman in an open marriage who brags about how she gives the best blowjobs (“Everyone in LA knows it… and Dubai.”) and while the Bartletts constantly judge her, they also want her, and want to be her.
The world today conditions us to vie for a turn at being the centre of attention. When Ava Bartlett puts the facts together and deduces the identity of the Westside Ripper, she’s thrilled yet briefly disappointed. “I guess he didn’t find me attractive enough to kill,” she grumbles, before formulating her podcast plan. That need for affirmation can be deadly. Everyone wants what everyone else has. Why do you think so many killers are copycats?
If you’ve watched Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, currently exploding on IMAX screens around the world, do watch The Day After Trinity, currently streaming for free on The Criterion Channel. The Oscar-nominated 1981 documentary offers deep insights and makes for a great companion piece.
Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about killing critics, and is now creating an absurd comedy series.