What happens when a suburban couple facing bankruptcy and stressing over marital issues finds out they know a serial killer? Peacock’s “Based on a True Story,” created by Craig Rosenberg, explores this scenario through a thrilling comedy that deconstructs the American dream and people’s irrational obsession with serial killers. The show brilliantly portrays the unnerving connection between celebrity culture and serial killers, with Tom Bateman delivering a lovable yet unsettling performance as a criminal. Kaley Cuoco and Chris Messina’s reliable acting adds to the unexpected delight of watching this TV show.
The United States has an unusual addiction to true crime, with citizens being able to recall multiple serial killers by memory. Hollywood continuously produces movies and TV shows about the country’s deadliest killers, and these productions often achieve tremendous success. It is strange that people are not only fascinated by serial killers due to morbid curiosity but also seem to celebrate their heinous actions. Unlike other countries, in America, murderers become celebrities, gathering legions of fans who revel in the wickedness of their deeds.
Ava Bartlett (played by Kaley Cuoco) in “Based on a True Story” is one such true crime fanatic. She is seven months pregnant and trapped in a passionless marriage, seeking excitement in her life through blood-soaked podcasts filled with mystery and danger. When an opportunity arises for her to interview the Westside Ripper, a vicious serial killer, she wants to create her own podcast. Ava’s husband, Nathan (played by Chris Messina), sees the podcast as a chance to make serious money, which he believes is necessary to support their family. As a former tennis player who had to retire due to injury, Nathan feels emasculated by his reduced circumstances and yearns for the suburban mansion and the admiration of his wealthy friends.
Together, Ava and Nathan represent the failure of the American Dream—a delusional belief that hard work guarantees success and that a family can fulfill all emotional needs. Cuoco and Messina skillfully portray their characters’ frustrations and repressed rage, constantly thwarted by circumstances and unable to achieve society’s unattainable goals. “Based on a True Story” adeptly explores the emotional pain carried by Ava and Nathan, which dangerously draws them closer to the serial killer, Matt. The series illuminates how the most disturbing traits of serial killers are exaggerated versions of qualities found in those pursuing the American dream.
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Unfortunately for the Bartletts, their plan to interview the Westside Ripper goes too well. Matt (played by Tom Bateman) embraces the podcast project with the same energy he uses to slay innocent women. For Matt, the podcast offers an opportunity to feed his ego and prove his ability to elude authorities while confessing his crimes to a vast audience. Through the podcast, he develops his personal brand by sharing spine-chilling details about his methods and motivations. While every serial killer has an innate drive to murder, the true crime culture also pushes these sick individuals to commit their crimes publicly, challenging law enforcement and showcasing their intellectual superiority. The podcast helps Matt attain the fame he desires.
The strength of “Based on a True Story” lies not only in its exploration of the disturbing intertwining of the American dream with serial killer culture but also in Tom Bateman’s captivating performance. With his sharp eyes and inviting smile, Bateman portrays a serial killer who is simultaneously charming and menacing, capable of instilling fear while commanding the attention of anyone in the room. His enthralling performance gives Matt the complexity required to embody both a villain and a hero in the story. While the Bartletts find Matt’s killings repulsive, his ambition also motivates them to pursue their dream of regaining the happiness they lost long ago.
The show effectively utilizes slasher tropes to emphasize Matt’s lethal nature, but its primary focus is on the intricate relationship between the killer and the Bartletts. It humorously highlights the similarities between a serial killer and a desperate couple who refuse to abandon the American dream, even if it means bending the law and gradually resembling the monster they initially hoped to exploit for personal gain. While the Bartletts’ surreal situation may provide comedic moments, Bateman’s compelling performance consistently reminds the audience of the real stakes involved in “Based on a True Story,” dispelling any notions of a happy ending for the Bartletts.
Throughout most of its eight-episode run, “Based on a True Story” gracefully explores the turmoil in the Bartletts’ lives as they become inextricably entangled with Matt and the podcast. The show delves into their unfulfilled desires and introduces unexpected scenes that lead the story down surprising paths, only for the audience to later realize they were mere fantasies. These detours shed light on the characters’ sexual frustrations and fears, revealing how the constraints of monogamy and mediocrity breed anger and resentment. These moments also highlight the key difference between the Bartletts and Matt—the serial killer refuses to suppress his urges. This forces the audience to reflect on their own desires and how societal expectations prevent them from attaining everything they want.
However, some of these fantastical elements are introduced solely to create the illusion of unexpected twists without contributing much to character development. At times, it feels as though “Based on a True Story” includes these fake twists to keep viewers engaged in a thriller series. Yet, these deviations can be distracting since the show’s primary focus is on the internal conflicts of its characters rather than the extent of the story’s madness. Nevertheless, considering the widespread popularity of true crime, “Based on a True Story” offers an entertaining deconstruction of the genre that compels the audience to question their own attraction to serial killers.
Overall, “Based on a True Story” is an engaging and thought-provoking series that skillfully combines elements of thriller and comedy. It provides a unique perspective on the American dream and the obsession with serial killers, while the exceptional performances of the cast, particularly Tom Bateman, elevate the show’s quality. Though not without its flaws, the series successfully entertains and prompts viewers to reflect on their own desires and society’s influence on their aspirations.