A mighty fine case history if ever there was one. For anybody who dreams of selling a TV series:
by Tambay Obenson
In Apple TV+’s “Truth Be Told,” Octavia Spencer plays Poppy Parnell, a true-crime podcaster who is compelled to reopen the murder case that made her a national sensation and comes face to face with the man she may have mistakenly helped to put behind bars. Relitigating the murder case via her podcast, Parnell contends with nearly 20 years of family secrets, deceit, and the San Francisco Bay Area’s powerful in order to get to the truth.
The series, which is created by Nichelle Tramble Spellman (“The Good Wife”) and premieres today, came about after general conversations on the value of true crime between executive producers Jenno Topping, Reese Witherspoon and Lauren Neustadter. Witherspoon recommended that Topping and Neustadter consider Kathleen Barber’s 2017 novel, “Are You Sleeping.”
“We read it and loved it, and especially loved its potential in terms of an adaptation,” Topping said. “Lauren then got involved as well. We had just done ‘Hidden Figures’ with Octavia, and together we found Nichelle and it just became a happy party.”
Besides the novel, Bay Area native Spellman’s attraction to the project started with the opportunity to explore the phenomena of podcasting and revisiting criminal cases. She also relished the idea of setting a series in the city where she was born and raised. The original story was set in Illinois, a state unfamiliar to Spellman.
“I’m a Bay Area girl, and I really wanted to show the diversity that I remembered,” she said. “Much of what I was fond of has kind of disappeared, or been altered after all the money that came in from Silicon Valley spread through San Francisco and then into the East Bay. So the series is a little bit of a love letter to how things used to be.”
The setting was just one of several key changes that were made in adapting the novel. Another was a shift in the main point-of-view; unlike the novel, in which Poppy Parnell is a peripheral character, Spellman envisioned her as the heartbeat of the story.
“Nichelle unlocked the world of the show for us in a tremendous way,” said Neustadter. “I remember when she first presented her ideas to us. She always really felt a strong connection to Poppy, and to the complexity, originality and authenticity of this character. She had such a clear vision of who she was. And all of us immediately pictured Octavia as Poppy.”
Their first meeting with Spencer was a lovefest. The actress, an avid reader of mystery novels and a true crime fanatic, immediately connected with the character and the material, and would soon join the project as both star and executive producer….