Murder, They Casted

Peacock’s ‘Based On A True Story’ is the latest TV satire of true-crime podcasting

Based on a True Story, the breezy and watchable new serial-killer comedy that started streaming on Peacock earlier this month, is actually based on three true stories, two that have been part of entertainment for quite some time and are rather predictable, and one that, perhaps inadvertently, raises critical and important questions about the impact of technology on American life and makes the series worth watching this summer.

The title of the show, Based on a True Story, gets its name from a podcast built around a first-person perspective of life as a serial killer on the West Side of Los Angeles, a city well known for high-profile killers that have fed that city’s local entertainment industry for decades. The serial killer in this case is Matt, an attractive plumber by day and death merchant by night. Ava, a character played by Kayley Cuoco (most recently the lead for another breezy hit involving bloody death, The Flight Attendant) discovers his identity as the media-characterized “West Side Ripper” through Google Maps and what Ava learns from local TV news about clues Matt left behind from his most recent slashing.

Ava and her friends are obsessed with the world of true-crime media, specifically the growing universe of crime podcasts that populate Spotify and wherever you get your podcasts these days. Instead of turning Matt into the authorities, Ava recruits her former tennis-star husband, Nathan, into a scheme that involves Matt becoming the star of a serial-killer podcast. The hope is that the podcast’s unique content approach will attract audiences and deliver them the riches that have eluded the them in their lives.

Based on a True Story isn’t the first streaming show to take a crack at the nutty world of true crime fanatics, but it does a particularly good job of exposing the economies that power them: their gatherings, their conventions (figuratively and literally) and their trite use of victims and family of victims to generate listenership and profits, sometimes through cheesy branded merch and other tacky products. It is the latest effort to take on this kooky but addictive world. The humorous, Selena Gomez-driven Only Murders in the Building (also built around a true-crime podcast) and quite a few episodes of Black Mirror also use the world of true-crime media as backdrops for their narratives.

In announcing his inspiration for creating this show, executive producer Craig Rosenberg noted, “(o)ver the last decade, a true crime phenomenon has swept over America….they dominate the culture. Murderers have become celebrities and celebrities have become murderers.” It’s a familiar story, yes, and a good reminder that the number of Americans who can’t get enough of this content seems to signify that Americans have a yearning for the ghoulish and profane, especially when it involves dysfunctional relationships.

Along those lines, the story of Ava and Nathan’s stale marriage is also a major theme of the show; it, too, is familiar terrain. Ava is in real estate and Nathan is now giving lessons at a posh club in Beverly Hills due to an injury that sidelined his tennis playing career. They have a group of wealthy friends thriving somehow in Malibu and Pacific Palisades. The group’s members have large dinner parties in beautiful homes, obsess about sex, spend time with immigrant side pieces, and lubricate it all with drunken tennis lessons at the same club where Nathan works.

It’s a fairly accurate, if not stereotypical, look at a certain slice of Gen X/Millennial married life in Southern California (and elsewhere). Flighty, attractive, morally bankrupt, wealthy middle aged adults with aimless lives have been a target for entertainment for generations and Based on a True Story tells this familiar story yet again.

Based on a True Story also tells a story about technology in American culture and it is here where the shows makes, perhaps, its most relevant critique of current American culture, whether intended or not, and moves it a bit beyond previous efforts in this area. Ava and Nathan have a chance to fill their empty lives with their serial killer podcast concept, in part, because of the ultimate success of the digitization of American life. Today’s technology allows more or less anyone to become an entrepreneur from their dining room table, using relatively inexpensive laptops and access to the Internet. Ava, Nathan and Matt take advantage of basic technology as well as platforms such as Spotify to launch their serial killer podcast product while evading detection.

The anonymity of the three to the outside world as they develop their podcast and grow its audience that raises important questions. The three are very close to securing a $20-million contract with Spotify until celebrity influencer Jessica Alba leads a hashtag campaign against the podcast and Spotify (and Google) deplatform it.

In a sane world, of course, that would be the end of a first person serial killer podcast. But, then, a new idea takes shape: a direct-to-consumer subscriber model that evades the platforms and their “woke” censors that have concerns about profiting off death. “You mean like a Substack for podcasts?” serial killer Matt asks, when trying to make sense of the new financial model. And, yes, that is exactly what Ava and Matt are talking about: making big money off killings by using the latest technology that can allow writers to succeed outside of corporate media employers. Throw in Bitcoin and untraceable Russian e-mail addresses (all cliches of our era, to be sure), and Ava, Nathan and Matt have everything they need to become millions in the 21st century American economy.

Maybe this is where we’re  headed with technology. We obviously still have corporate mass media. But we now have individually powered content that shapes our information and infotainment landscape. At a time when there is pushback in some quarters on constraining digital platforms, most famously Elon Musk’s on-going transformation of Twitter, Based on a True Storygives a hint of what is possibly to come if this is all all taken to the logical end result: death content, out of the reach of celebrity censors like Jessica Alba (or even Congress).

Almost 40 years ago, Neil Postman had different targets in mind when he published his opus, Amusing Ourselves to Death. But if one takes a step back, there are hints of some of his broad arguments in Based on a True Story even if not intended. Are we amusing ourselves to death with the latest technologies? Is this where the digital technological revolution and Web 3.0 is bound to lead? Is Based on a True Story actually another warning disguised as an entertaining take, similar to that implied by the 2021 Netflix hit, Don’t Look Up, where the citizens of the world ignore the media tour of two scientists warning of the dire threat of a Earth-destroying comet?

We cant be quite sure of the exact point, if any, that Based on A True Story wants to make about technology–or anything else, for that matter–because the show ends on a cliffhanger and it isn’t clear yet that there will be a second season of the program (though ending a series on a cliffhanger seems to be way to get a streaming program renewed these days, at least before the Hollywood writers strike). But as we await news on a possible second season, one can just imagine the role that generative AI may play in future seasons of Based on a True Story. All Matt would need to do on a future podcast is to bring up a ChatGPT-like app on his phone and ask: how should I murder my next victim? The answers may surprise us.

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Adam Hirschfelder

Adam Hirschfelder runs public programs in Marin County for the Commonwealth Club of California. Hirschfelder graduated with honors from Northwestern University and received his MA in education policy from Teachers College, Columbia University. He serves on the boards of directors of the Marin Cultural Association. A New Jersey native, he now lives outside San Francisco. The Force is Strong with Him.

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