“The truth is out there”. So said the slogan of 1990s TV smash The X-Files, but a more accurate version today would probably say “The truth is everywhere”. That’s because the popular “based on a true story” angle now accounts for more scripted programming than ever and shows little sign of stopping.
Seeing real life events dramatised for the screen is a marketing hook that goes back almost to the dawn of filmed entertainment, but for a long time it came with a veneer of the supermarket tabloid attached to it. Too many schlocky TV movies in the 1970s and 1980s bore the “true story” label. Today, though, there’s been a resurgence, the “true story” is now a prestige format and it has spread far beyond the true crime stories that usually define the sub genre.
Those ripped-from-the-headlines crime stories still exist, of course, and remain immensely popular. That’s unlikely to change any time soon, as The Serpent (pictured above), White House Farm and The Pembrokeshire Murders, all of which aired in the UK in the last year to great acclaim, will attest. Even here, there’s been a shift in tone that has helped to make the genre more reputable. Even in dramas based on infamous serial killers, the dramatic point of view is now more likely to focus on the lives of the victims or the toll on the detectives than on recreating the grisly crimes themselves, or glamourising the killers.
"...we’re seeing a much shorter timeframe between actual events and their TV recreation"
This more respectful tone means we’re seeing a much shorter timeframe between actual events and their TV recreation, as accusations of cashing in on tragedy are harder to stick when the tone is sombre and the material restrained. Consider Danish/Swedish co-production The Investigation (Efterforskningen) which tackled the 2017 murder of journalist Kim Wall by eccentric inventor Peter Madsen aboard his home-made submarine. Despite the bizarre and gruesome nature of the mystery, the series, which aired less than three years after the crime itself, is methodical and sober.
What is especially interesting is how the audience’s appetite for true stories has now moved beyond crime. Recent history is being combed through for unique and interesting stories, ranging from blockbuster dissections of an international disaster in HBO’s Chernobyl to more intimate character studies like the star-studded Fosse/Verdon about the relationship between legendary choreographer Bob Fosse and dancer Gwen Verdon.
We’re even seeing more complex political themes being tackled through real lives, with Mrs America dramatising the ratification of America’s Equal Rights Amendment, and Invisible Heroes, a YLE drama about Finnish diplomats in Pinochet’s Chile in 1973. Especially intriguing is Rashash about the manhunt for the infamous titular Saudi criminal in the 1980s. Debuting on Shahid VIP with an all-Saudi cast, and presented entirely in Arabic, it was actually written and directed by two seasoned British creators: Tony Jordan (Eastenders) and Colin Teague (Doctor Who).
"What is especially interesting is how the audience’s appetite for true stories has now moved beyond crime."
In a metatextual twist that will make your head spin, TV drama is even dramatising the behind-the-scenes drama of TV. Quiz retold the story of the contestant who cheated his way to the top prize on the UK edition of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, while The Loudest Voice starred Russell Crowe as Fox News chief Roger Ailes and was so current it depicted his downfall almost in real time. The BBC has also produced numerous one-off dramas over the last ten years about the backstage origins of the UK’s most popular shows such as Coronation Street and Doctor Who.
With true stories now so firmly embedded in the unscripted space, it’s perhaps understandable that some viewers were surprised to learn that Netflix sensation The Queen’s Gambit wasn’t based on a real person. The show had the feel of a true story, followed the beats of the sort of underdog tale that usually typifies the format, but was a now-rare example of a period drama that was completely invented.
What is driving this hunger for truth (or a TV version of truth, at least) in fictional entertainment? The appeal of more lurid and unusual stories remains unchanged over the decades – it’s little wonder that a drama about “Tiger King” Joe Exotic is already greenlit – but there are also more subtle cultural considerations. Authenticity has long been a buzzword in drama, but it feels more insistent in the era of fake news and instant wiki fact-checking. We no longer fully trust factual television to give us the full story, life feels increasingly chaotic and messy, and so the chance to find emotional sense in a dramatically satisfying version of events is perhaps more enticing.
Arguably the most interesting outcome of this new trend is in how it is allowing minority voices to make themselves heard and share their lived experiences. Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us told the story of five black youths wrongly sentenced for a violent crime in New York’s Central Park. Airing at the time of the Black Lives Matter movement, and detailing a case in which President Trump had advocated noisily against the youths, it showed that “true stories” can help to connect past and present for a mass audience. Nor do such stories need to be headline news. Series such as Little Axe and I May Destroy You were not explicitly based on “true stories” but were clearly intimately drawn from the real lives of their creators, Steve McQueen and Michaela Coel. Russell T Davies drew on his own life for AIDS drama It’s A Sin. Audiences sensed their authenticity, leading to ratings success and critical acclaim.
"...the juiciest stories won’t have to wait decades to be dramatised"
So where next for the “true story” drama? Anywhere and everywhere would seem to be the logical answer, as viewers have demonstrated they are not only willing but eager to explore stories large and small, recent and distant, via scripted drama. One thing we can confidently predict is that the juiciest stories won’t have to wait decades to be dramatised. Producers are pouncing on trending stories and finding the human interest angle within. Shows based on the fall of gig economy app WeWork and disgraced entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes are in active development at Apple and Hulu respectively, while the GameStop stock scandal has no less than two movies and five TV shows competing for investor attention. Where scripted programming is concerned, it seems truth is the new fiction.