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America has an undeniable true crime fixation. Countless podcasts, docuseries, films, and the like are dedicated to all things murder, death, and serial killer — but what does this fixation say about us, about our society?
Peacock's new darkly comedic thriller Based on a True Story seeks to answer that question. It follows Kaley Cuoco's Ava, a realtor struggling to land the big deals by day and a true crime junkie by night, and Chris Messina's Nathan, Ava's husband and a former tennis star whose coaching career is not panning out. To complicate matters, they're expecting their first child.
When a killer that the media has dubbed the Westside Ripper starts plaguing their area, Ava gets the idea to capitalize on the serial killings by creating a podcast, in the hopes that it will pull her and Nathan out of their current circumstances. But there's a twist: She thinks she knows who the killer is, and she wants him to be involved.
Hailing from the mind of showrunner, writer, and executive producer Craig Rosenberg (The Boys), the show is at once dark, hilarious, gory, shocking, and surprisingly touching. It was all of this that drew in Messina, who says he's "already scared enough" in his daily life to bother watching anything to do with crime and "get more freaked out."
"The script I really liked. There's some great writing in there. And there was so many twists and turns," he tells EW. "I really liked the story about a couple that was falling apart, and to find their way back together they do the wackiest thing and the darkest thing and the strangest thing and kind of the funniest thing a lot of times, so I enjoyed that part of it."
Elizabeth Morris/PEACOCK Kaley Cuoco, Tom Bateman, and Chris Messina in 'Based on a True Story'
Cuoco, who, unlike her costar, admits she lives on the likes of Dateline, 48 Hours, and Forensic Files, agrees. "I have always loved true crime. I think that it's in addiction," she says. "You're watching sometimes very good people do very bad things. And it's hard to look away, which is why I loved what this project was, because it is very good people who make a bad choice and get caught in the aftermath of all that."
Then there's Matt (Tom Bateman), a plumber who becomes close with Ava and Nathan, who's always around to throw a — ahem — wrench in their plans. Priscilla Quintana, Liana Liberato, Aaron Staton, Natalia Dyer, Li Jun Li, and more round out the cast.
Bateman — who admits to watching true crime docuseries The Jinx, but that's about it — says that when he first read the script for Based on a True Story, he thought to himself, "Oh, this is kind of crazy." "I thought it was a preposterous idea, but it was done in such a sort of darkly comic, Black Mirror, Coen brothers, sort of punk-rock way, [and it had] its own personality, that I thought, 'Hell yeah. Let's have a look at this,'" he tells EW, adding, "I just thought what they were trying to do was so cool. I'd never seen anything like it."
The show's unique personality was on full display when EW visited the Los Angeles-based set of the show in early February. The scene in question took place at the home of Ava's friend, Ruby (Quintana) and her husband, Simon (Staton). The home where a shooting took place was a stunning feat of modern opulence, featuring over 21,000 square feet, 8 bedrooms, and 14 baths. Just some of the features included a home theater, hair salon, full spa, and a 14-car garage. (As Bateman aptly put it later, "That house was mental, wasn't it?")
Erica Parise/PEACOCK Ava (Kaley Cuoco) attends a very stressful dinner party and auction in 'Based on a True Story'
The cast was dressed to the nines for the scene, which involved an extravagant auction and party at which Ava and Nathan must keep their cool when the wheels start rapidly falling off of their genius plan. In line with the tone of the show, among the opulent offerings at the auction were a men's diamond bracelet watch, a 10-day vacation at the Four Seasons Maui, and... a single brick salvaged from the last Manhattan residence of Edgar Allan Poe that our main characters are interested in.
Amid all that, someone could be heard shouting about "mommy's titties" and "Frankenstein-ing a perfect penis" while a very good boy — canine actor Gus — barked on cue. Meanwhile, without getting into spoilers, Bateman, Cuoco, and Messina were in a corner lamenting about problematic celebrities.
It all made sense later on in the show, but out of context on that chilly LA day, it was pretty wild to behold. It was also hard to follow along with the script, because there was so much improv going on. When EW later mentions this to the stars, they laugh. "I would love to see a video of you trying to be like, 'What's this scene,'" Messina says, laughing. "No one could follow."
Did he find that difficult, as an actor? "I did," he says, admitting that Cuoco is more natural with it. "She can be very funny and then break your heart the second later, so I was often confused about what show we were in."
Elizabeth Morris/PEACOCK Kaley Cuoco and Chris Messina behind the scenes of 'Based on a True Story'
"He'd be like, 'Are we being funny today? Are we crying today? What is the scene?' I'm like, 'I don't know, bro. We'll go out there and figure it out,'" Cuoco says with a laugh. "And that's the fun of it, too," Messina concedes. "You're constantly walking a tightrope. You can easily fall, but when you didn't, sometimes it was magical."
For his part, Bateman says the opportunity to do so much improv was thrilling for him. "It was something that they actively encouraged very, very early on. Even in my read-through, when they flew me out to read with Chris, I remember, we kind of started to go off book and both him and I just threw our sides down and were like, 'F--- it. Let's just go. We roughly know what it is.' And it's a way I love to work."
Although the actors praise the "brilliant" writing, they say they believe room was left to improvise in order to ultimately build chemistry and believable relationships between the characters. It was true of Bateman, who says he loved his role because "there was this feeling of we don't really know who this guy is yet, and we kind of want to discover him and create him with you." And it was particularly true for Ava and Nathan, who give each other hell and talk over one another and complete each other's sentences like a real married couple would.
Erica Parise/PEACOCK Aaron Staton rehearsing a scene in episode 106 of 'Based on a True Story'
PEACOCK Chris Messina and canine actor Gus on 'Based on a True Story'
This dynamic is perfectly encapsulated in EW's interview with Messina and Cuoco when the subject of the dog actor gets brought up. "It was amazing. It really was his first job," Cuoco says of Gus, who plays Duke, Ruby and Simon's dog. "Yeah. And she was very protective. She's an avid animal lover," Messina brags of his costar.
"I don't love working with animals. I just I'm not a fan of it. There's things that I've seen. You know, we've all seen the good and bad of things," Cuoco explains. "But this situation was actually incredible. The trainers were amazing. The dog was so loved. Never overworked."
She continues, deadpan, "He nailed it every time, something Chris did not do. And I kept saying [to him], 'Look at this dog. Look at the professionalism. He's on his mark. He never forgets his line. He's on it.'"
From cute dog actors, to wild improv, and yes, lots of killing and thrills, Based on a True Story is as unpredictable as any good true crime series. The cast hopes that, ultimately, viewers devour the eight half-hour episodes just like they would their favorite true crime podcast: in one sitting.
Says Cuoco, "It's a really fun show. There are some very serious moments, and we did want to make sure that we respected that — like we're talking about killing — but it's also really funny. It's about a relationship that is actually really sweet and fun. And these episodes move really fast. They're easy to watch."
Plus, adds Messina, "We'd like to do more. There's more to do with these characters. So, hopefully [viewers] enjoy it."
All episodes of Based on a True Story start streaming June 8 on Peacock.
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