What happens when a professional journalist goes free-range as a podcaster with no checks on her work? That’s just one question Truth Be Told creator Nichelle Tramble Spellman (Justified, The Good Wife) tackles in the new Apple TV+ legal drama.
Based on Kathleen Barber’s 2017 novel “Are You Sleeping,” Truth Be Told stars Aaron Paul as Warren Cave (Paul), a young man sent to prison 18 years ago for a murder he may not have committed, and Octavia Spencer as Poppy Parnell, a journalist and podcaster who initially helped put him behind bars only to realize two decades later that she may have contributed to the incarceration of an innocent man.
Exploring topics of race, privacy, and the way we consume and are influenced by media, Spellman flips the true-crime genre on its head in Truth Be Told, which premieres also stars Lizzy Caplan, Mekhi Phifer, Michael Beach, and Elizabeth Perkins.
True-crime podcasts have been the rage for some time. Yet, as addictive as they can be, there are also concerns about the lack of oversight in the way information is researched, collected, and delivered to the public. What is true one week, can be debunked in the next episode. And that can be tough for audiences to keep up with, especially if the show has already done its part in swaying public opinion.
Just how harmful can “unchecked journalism” be, especially in this fast-paced cancel-culture period we’re currently living in? And what are the consequences that may lie behind the public justice that can unfold after consuming popular episodic true-crime entertainment like the hit podcast Serial or Netflix’s docu-series Making a Murderer?
“I like the idea of this woman who’s a trained journalist with really great credits, who is now in a field where there are no checks and balances. There are no bosses — she’s her own boss,” Spellman explained during the show’s press junket. “As she goes down this rabbit hole, there’s no editor, there’s no publisher, there’s no one to pull her back in. She goes against the first rule by making it personal. That’s how we sort of got into the story, asking if there’s a ripple effect in crime. The person at the center of it, how does her ambition couple with her guilt?”
Spellman and Spencer both share an obsession with the true-crime genre and the armchair-detective aspect of shows like the ones mentioned above, as well as Snapped, Cold Case Files, and Forensic Files. That listener-as-participant element of the story drew the Oscar-winner to the project.
“I was just excited to get to play something very close to how my mind works as an investigator,” Spencer revealed. “The only thing is, I like working from behind the screen, you know? The idea of actually being out in the real world asking questions, investigating in that way is a little scary.”
For the Shape Of Water actress, the biggest allure of the project was being able to play a character with a flawed moral compass. Sure, Poppy wants to discover the truth, but is it her guilt or the ever-present threat to her professional reputation that is driving the podcaster on this dangerous mission?
“That’s what I love about Poppy,” she answered. “Her ascent into greatness — or fame or money — came on the back of whether or not this affluent young kid would get a fair trial. Would he be found guilty? For her, everything pointed at guilty. Fast forward 20 years, when you now have the cancel culture with social media and people are listening to her podcast. There’s this fervor around it, an excitement, and she realized: Could she have been wrong? And what are the implications of her being wrong?”
This all brings us to the man on the other side of the argument: Warren Cave. When Poppy decides to re-examine his murder case for her podcast, the two eventually reunite, and the results, at least at the beginning, are a bit upsetting. Not only did Poppy possibly have a hand in putting an innocent man in jail, but his survival in prison meant Warren took some drastic measures.
“He was pushed into a corner,” Aaron Paul said, discussing the reason his character became a white supremacist. “He was thrown in prison at a very young age and he had to pick a side — that’s the only way to really survive. Otherwise, he’s just a punching bag 24/7. The side he picked was the Aryan Nation Brotherhood, which is a really terrifying sort of just dangerous place to be.”
Truth Be Told may be inspired by “Are You Sleeping,” but Spellman takes liberties with the story being told here. Not only did she pivot a bit from the original subject matter — according to the showrunner, Poppy Parnell was an ancillary character in the book — she also kept the outcome of the series a secret from the actors.
“At the very beginning of the shoot, my first burning question was, ‘Well, did he do it?'” Paul revealed. “And Michelle was like, ‘I’m not telling you.’ And then I go, ‘But I’m the actor playing the guy, I should know if he did it or not!’ I honestly did not know whether or not he was innocent until the very end, truly.”
How does an actor play a convict who may be innocent of the crime he was imprisoned for? Especially if you, as the actor, don’t know if he is in fact innocent?
“I always try to bring heart to any character I’m playing whether it’s a very bad person or a good person,” Paul said. “I just had to play him as honest as I saw him.”
Putting the actors’ pursuit of the truth of their characters onscreen may be tricky, but created an intriguing push-and-pull dynamic between the honesty of the roles and the show’s overall quest for truth.
“In the criminal world, in the true-crime world, one of the things that they tell you that you can’t rely on is the eyewitness because the truth is always malleable,” Spencer said. “To an eyewitness, you may not see or remember the same thing that I see or remember. So truth is … sadly, it’s perception and how we all remember this moment. I think truth is shaped by whatever lens you view the world. And whatever your truth is will inform what you think the truth is.”
A much as fans of the genre yearn to do their own investigative work in between episodes of their own favorite podcast, there’s a largely not-talked-about component to the popularity of true-crime reporting and dramatization: the impact on the families involved.
“I was watching Making a Murderer,” Spellman said. “There was one point in the first season where I was thinking, ‘God, this must be awful for the woman’s family.’ You know what I mean? That this has become something that’s like watercooler talk. And that idea that, if you had this tragedy in your past, and it’s been personal, and it’s something that your family has dealt with, and then it becomes this thing, where maybe your coworkers are talking about it. Maybe that’s a secret that you didn’t tell at work, because it’s too painful. And then we have this discussion, this back-and-forth about these very real people as if they’re fictional characters.”
Take cinematic stories like Netflix’s Mindhunter, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, and the Zach Efron–starrer Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, for instance. The bloody exploits of serial killers like Charles Manson and Ted Bundy have become a part of our pop culture lexicon, but their violent deeds caused very real pain for their victims and their victims’ families.
“It just becomes a story after a while,” Spellman explained. “Other people’s pain is just a story. It’s now a shorthand story, but that pain was real and it’s still real for all of those families. So we touch on it when we go to Warren’s family, Poppy’s family … [there’s a] ripple effect there.”
Which brings us back to Poppy’s podcast that threads it all together. As gimmicky as it may sound to have a voiceover narration guide an audience through the mystery that is slowly unfolding, that component works for Truth Be Told. And one of the reasons why, according to Spellman, is the unreliability of its host.
“The podcast is kind of an unreliable narrator,” she said. “We don’t know Poppy’s agenda. And we don’t know when or if we can believe her.”
Truth Be Told episodes 1-3 are now streaming on Apple TV+.