“People think that they know me because I made them laugh or because they’ve been to a show. But they don’t know what I did to get here. Or what it takes to stay here.”
This is Kevin Hart at the start of his new Netflix thriller True Story. Well, technically, it is the character Hart is playing in the limited series, a comedian known only as the Kid. But, like when Prince called himself by the same nickname in the autobiographical Purple Rain, Hart and True Story creator Eric Newman very much want you to think of actor and character as one and the same. They share a hometown (Philadelphia, which is also the show’s primary setting), a first initial, and a relative level of fame and career success (both are fixtures on Ellen DeGeneres’ show). Hart even has an older brother, as does the Kid, who here is called Carlton and is played by Wesley Snipes. That opening monologue, that title, and all of the Kevin/Kid parallels are meant on some level to make the viewer wonder throughout whether this show is thinly-disguised memoir.
That Kid and Carlton spend most of the seven-episode tale disposing of dead bodies, evading Greek mobsters, and lying to every authority figure they meet suggests it’s not really a roman á clef-style retelling of Hart’s life. But that blurring of fact and fiction seems baked into the concept as a way to add further tension to a project that’s already a departure for its leading man. Or perhaps to help ease in viewers who are far more accustomed to Hart going for laughs than fending off blackmailers and threats to his life.
Whatever the reason behind the approach, the end result is a decently-executed but tired example of a particular kind of serialized thriller of which TV already has plenty. And it’s one where whatever novelty True Story has to offer comes less from its star simultaneously playing to and against type than from a scorching supporting performance from Wesley Snipes.
The supersized first episode (roughly an hour compared to 30-odd minutes for the rest) introduces us to Kid and the machine that helps him run, including harried but understanding manager Todd (Paul Adelstein), joke writer/aspiring comedian Billie (Tawny Newsome), and bodyguard Herschel (Will Catlett). Hot on the heels of a supporting performance in a billion-dollar superhero film, Kid is returning to stand-up for the first time in years, and starting off his tour in Philly, where Carlton lurks as both brother and burden.
Without getting into too much detail — even though anyone who watches even a bit of modern TV drama will be able to predict many of the “surprises” in advance — Kid finds himself in the vicinity of a dead body that could destroy his career. Carlton calls in his associate Ari (Billy Zane) to help solve this ugly problem, which inevitably leads to more and more problems, until Ari’s siblings Savvas (Chris Diamantopoulos) and Nikos (John Ales) are turning Kid’s hometown into a city of brotherly hate.
Hart is perfectly credible in a darker and more intense context, though the extreme similarities between himself and Kid prove to be a double-edged sword. There’s an occasional charge to the illusion that this could all be happening to the real Hart, but it also feels as if Newman, director Stephen Williams, and their collaborators have given training wheels to their leading man for this new adventure.
Snipes, on the other hand, could probably get away with sleepwalking through this story. Yet he gives as commanding and memorable a dramatic performance as he’s done in quite a while. He looks young enough to be plausible as the brother Kid grew up with (in real life, Hart and Snipes are nearly two decades apart). And he speaks in a deep, slow-as-molasses tone that neatly conveys how resentful Carlton is of his little brother’s wealth and fame, yet how desperately he’ll move to get Kid out of the jams they keep finding themselves in. Carlton has felt overlooked for most of his life; with the way he steals every scene he’s in, this will not be a problem for Wesley Snipes.
That most of these episodes are relatively brief makes some of the narrative clichés, graphic torture, and the rest a bit easier to take. On the whole, though, True Story is too familiar a tale to stand out for reasons other than the two actors trapped in the middle of it, creating three new problems with each old one that they solve.
All seven episodes of True Story will debut on Netflix on Nov. 24. I’ve seen the whole season.