Whenever Hollywood turns the gaze inwards and attempts self-critique, creators typically include a caricatured version of an actor’s real-life personality. This caricature can be comedic or it can be all about the pathos; in recent years we have seen plenty of examples of both. Jean-Claude Van Damme has chosen pathos (with occasional sprinkles of dry humour), for the most part, as seen in the film JCVD or the TV series Jean-Claude Van Johnson. Neal Patrick Harris plays a meaner, cut-throat version of his funny guy persona in the Harold and Kumar movies. Last week, Curt Smith played a caricatured, perpetually broke version of himself on Psych 3: This is Gus (Peacock).
Kevin Hart takes his tradition into an intriguing — but ultimately unsustainable —new direction in his new Netflix drama True Story (created by Eric Newman, showrunner on Narcos and Narcos: Mexico). Here, Hart plays a super-successful comedian-slash-multiplatform media mogul called the Kid, who resembles him quite closely in a number of ways — he stars in blockbuster movies, sells out giant arenas in New York and is a regular on his good friend Ellen DeGeneres’ show. Only, the Kid gets drawn into a Breaking Bad-like spiral of murder, extortion and gang violence, thanks to his jealous, irresponsible, good-for-nothing elder brother Carlton (Wesley Snipes).
In essence, therefore, True Story tries to be two shows at once — it desperately wants to be a bit of a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of fame, which is why we see Hart yelling at his angst-riddled joke writers, over-familiar fans who practically stalk him, and, memorably, a Wells Fargo banker who thought it appropriate to come up to the Kid and say the n-word several times in quick succession (even if he was repeating the Kid’s own joke). But True Story also wants to be ‘prestige noir TV’ so bad you can practically hear Eric Newman’s director’s commentary in certain scenes. And while in theory, these two aims are not necessarily incompatible the writing on True Story isn’t nearly ambitious enough to go for a ‘twofer’.
The show starts off on a promising note, it has to be said, with a delightful cameo by Billy Zane, one of the most identifiable faces from 90s Hollywood. Watching Zane and Wesley Snipes riff off each other has a poignant quality to it, not least because we are watching them being openly resentful of the Kid, of the instant gratification mechanism of celebrity in the social media era. The show wants us to ask, ‘Does lasting fame never happen to the deserving?’; it’s a smart narrative strategy which makes the 55-minute opening episode (the rest six episodes are all 30-odd minutes, lengthwise) a lot of campy fun.
However, things go downhill from episode three or thereabouts. We meet a pair of paint-by-numbers Greek gangsters (Chris Diamantopoulos and John Ales) who are looking to exact vengeance on the brothers, especially Carlton. I was quite surprised that Newman, who crafted some compelling gangster characters in Narcos, came up with such generic characters as these two brothers, Nikos and Savvas.
And while Newman and Hart are busy figuring out the next move amidst the ever-escalating violence, they neglect what is perhaps the strongest part of True Story—the Kid’s entourage. I would have loved to spend more time with the beleaguered Todd (Paul Adelstein), who’s trying hard to persuade the Kid to sign on for a superhero film. I would also have liked to know more about Billie (Tawny Newsome), a talented young woman who writes jokes for the Kid and is trying to make it in an aggressive boys’ club.
Unfortunately, True Story is too enamored with its post-Breaking Bad vibe to pay attention to these promising strands. Which is a shame because Hart is a more than capable actor, as he proves here; it’s just that he’s too busy being a badass (fighting, wrestling, gubnfights—the Kid somehow aces them all despite being a slightly built stand-up comedian) to build on that. Hopefully, next time around, Hart will play it a little less safe, allow his showrunners to go to interesting, possibly frightening places where he’s allowed to be vulnerable.
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