Despite our differences across political divides and disagreements over whether Marvel movies are “cinema,” there’s one thing that unites us: A passion for true crime stories. A self-admitted fan of popular projects like Forensic Files and Serial, Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer is no exception, but don’t expect her new, murder-centric Apple TV+ series Truth Be Told to simply ride on the coattails of a pop-cultural moment.
“It’s basically a glimpse into America’s obsession with crime podcasts. It challenges the viewers to consider the consequences when justice or the pursuit of justice is on a public stage,” producer-star Spencer tells EW of the series, which follows her Poppy Parnell, a podcaster who launches a reinvestigation of a murder case that made her a journalistic star 18 years prior. “[I love] Serial. I remember thinking, wow, this is based on someone’s life [and] realizing that I was so engrossed with the story itself, but that it actually happened to real people. [It was great] to be a part of a story that not only challenges the viewers in that way, but also what journalism means, and how anyone basically with an interest in a particular subject can basically start a narrative and a podcast.”
Creator and showrunner Nichelle Tramble Spellman says that instead of fixating on the salacious details of the case, the limited series — which Spencer speculates could focus on new characters and crimes in future seasons — will question not only journalistic integrity but also the effects of our collective (and often obsessive) spectatorship of real-life crime.
“I wanted to explore the effect on families. What about the people who are at the center of a tragedy when a journalist starts to pick at an old wound?” Spellman says, adding that Truth Be Told examines its central murders from all angles, including perspectives from the victim’s family, the family of the accused, and Poppy’s personal life as she’s drawn deeper into the story. “What does journalism look like when there’s no one to police it? We live in this age where you can throw up a podcast or anyone can write a blog or send out a tweet, and it’s kind of this wild, wild West in both arenas. So, the show explores the messiness when all those things collide.”
Spencer willingly picked up the pieces, taking the reins in front of and behind the camera to guide Poppy’s role in the incarceration of a convicted killer, Warren Cave (Aaron Paul), largely via public jury two decades prior as the focus of several of her articles chronicling his role in the murder of a famous author and father to twin girls (Lizzy Caplan, in dual roles).
To understand Poppy’s mindset, Spencer says she spoke to numerous journalists and took a deep dive into other contemporary podcasts documenting real-life crimes, which gave her the insight “to understand what it means to be the bearer of truth or to not tell the truth, and [the responsibility of] how you present information to the public.”
“It’s a crime story, but we actually really turn the cards and build clues out of the people’s lives and what’s going on with them, and less about following this clue patch to this thing,” Spellman, who also wrote the series, continues, hoping the series treads new territory for seasoned true crime fans. “It’s a unique way into a crime story instead of following the traditional path of reinvestigating a crime. It’s reinvestigating the effects of tragedy and trauma on all the people that were touched.”
Truth Be Told premieres Dec. 6 on Apple TV+.