20 Best Shows Based on True Stories

20 Best Shows Based on True Stories

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There’s something thrilling about watching a story based on real life. Whether you’ve put on a biopic or true crime, the effect is doubly heightened once you realize there are actual people behind the bizarre events unfolding onscreen. 

There is an art to translating true stories to production, however, and only a number of showrunners understand that non-fiction storytelling is at its best when it strikes the delicate balance between accuracy and drama—tilt too much on one side and you risk becoming a sensationalized farce or a dull documentary. So to that end, we rounded up the best true-story-based shows you can watch right now. Not only have they achieved the fiction/nonfiction balance, they’re also thoroughly watchable in their own right.

10. The Staircase

8.2

Country

France

Actors

Jean-Xavier de Lestrade

Moods

Gripping, Mini-series, True-crime

The latest addition to the murder mini-series genre is the incredible thriller “The Staircase.” It originally aired in 2004, but the producers took the same director and allowed him to add new episodes in 2018 to complete the story. 

The plot: A famous American novelist’s wife is found dead, and he is accused of killing her. His life comes under scrutiny as everyone asks whether she died in an accident or was murdered. If you liked their other hit, “Making a Murderer,” you will love this. You should also definitely check out “The Keepers” or Netflix’s binge-worthy crime documentary, “Evil Genius.”

9. Flint Town

8.2

Country

United States of America

Actors

James Tolbert, Karen Weaver, Wayne Suttles

Moods

Docu-series, Mini-series, Thrilling

Since the 1960s, Flint, Michigan, has experienced a series of shocks. When General Motors downsized their workforce by several 10.000, the town’s population nearly halved. Unsurprisingly, it later became known for being one of the most dangerous cities in the US and for off-the-charts crime statistics. Since 2014, Flint again rose to tragic fame for a public health emergency due to contamination of its local water supply. Flint Town homes in on this perpetual state of crisis through the eyes of the local police department, who had to grapple with this dire scenario, while losing more funding year over year due to the city’s deteriorating financial situation. The few officers that are left for policing are at breaking point. The result is a gripping and rich docuseries with a host of strong characters. But it is also a brutal and sobering account of the extent to which an American city is being allowed to fail.

8. Five Days at Memorial

best

8.5

Country

United States of America

Actors

Adepero Oduye, Cherry Jones, Cornelius Smith, Cornelius Smith, Jr.

Moods

Character-driven, Depressing, Discussion-sparking

Five Days at Memorial recalls the real and horrifying events that went on at a New Orleans hospital during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Over the course of five days, the caregivers in charge try their best to evacuate thousands of people from the building, but heavy floods, power outages, intense heat, and a sorry lack of planning result in some heartbreaking decisions about the fate of their patients.

The ongoing series is a gut-wrenching and at times excruciating watch, adeptly directed by John Ridley (American Crime) and absorbingly moored by a cast that includes Vera Farmiga (Conjuring)—by now an expert at exhibiting pure horror—and Cherry Jones (Succession).

7. The Good Lord Bird

best

8.5

Country

United States of America

Actors

Beau Knapp, Daveed Diggs, Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke

Moods

A-list actors, Action-packed, Challenging

It’s often said that history is told by the victors. Thankfully, this isn’t the case in The Good Lord Bird, which tracks the tumultuous events preceding the Civil War, as led by real-life abolitionist John Brown (Ethan Hawke). 

Some viewers might already be familiar with the story of how Brown “saved” slaves, but with Black teenager Henry (Joshua Caleb Johnson) as the narrator, history is repositioned and recounted through a fresh new lens. Nuanced questions about slavery, abolition, and even the revered Brown himself are brought up by Henry and his kin, such as: how much of the movement is driven by justice and how much of it by guilt? Should the white savior be absolved or are his intentions inevitably marred by ego?

Accompanying this thought-provoking tale are richly detailed costumes and backdrops, impressive cameos by historical and celebrity figures, and of course, career-defining performances by Hawke and newcomer Johnson. 

6. Chernobyl

best

8.5

Country

Lithuania, UK, United Kingdom

Actors

Adam Nagaitis, Adrian Rawlins, Alex Ferns, Barry Keoghan

Moods

Discussion-sparking, Intense, Mini-series

It’s a near-impossible feat to turn something as tragic and devastating as the Chernobyl disaster into a gripping and enlightening tale, but the HBO miniseries does just that. Through insightful storytelling, affecting performances, and sharp dialogue, Chernobyl the show stuns viewers into awareness and, at its best, galvanizes them into action. 

It’s a well-crafted five-hour series that does just enough in the way of humanizing a distorted reality, bringing to light the all-too-relevant consequences of power plays and placing the interests of the political elite and national image over real, human lives.

5. The Playlist

best

8.6

Country

Sweden, United Kingdom

Actors

Agnes Kittelsen, Christian Hillborg, Edvin Endre, Ella Rappich

Moods

Binge-Worthy, Mini-series, Smart

In the early 2000s, amid the rapid rise of online piracy and the consequent fall of paid music, tech genius Daniel Ek would find Spotify, a revolutionary streaming platform that served as a middle ground between user accessibility and artist rights. But even now, at its peak, Spotify’s success seems mystifying. How did they get away with providing free music to all? 

Enter The Playlist—an impressive attempt at answering that very question. In this fictionalized account, key players in Spotify’s success are given their own episode-long arc, starting with the visionary himself, Ek (played by Edvin Endre), followed by the artist, the coder, and the industry insider, to name a few. By employing multiple perspectives, each with its own cinematic style (a particular favorite is that of the lawyer’s, the most experimental out of all the episodes), The Playlist manages to spin the technical and complicated story of Spotify’s origins into something fresh, dynamic, and addictive. Despite utilizing the Rashomon effect—risky but rewarding in this case—The Playlist rarely strays from its main point and, the result is a lean, well-rounded story that’s just as credible as it is heightened. 

4. The Last Kingdom

8.6

Country

UK

Actors

Adrian Bower, Adrian Schiller, Alexander Dreymon, Alexandre Willaume

Moods

Binge-Worthy, Instructive, Thrilling

This historical fantasy show is based on the best-selling novel The Saxon Stories, a story set during the Viking / Dane invasion of Britain.

Uhtred was a small boy when he was kidnapped and then raised by the Danes. When he unexpectedly gets caught up in the conflict, his half-Saxon half-Dane mix makes at the same time valuable and untrustworthy for both sides.

There has never been a better alternative to Game of Thrones. The great writing and great performances from a cast of newcomers inevitably induce the same sense of addiction.

3. Black Bird

best

8.8

Country

United States of America

Actors

Greg Kinnear, Paul Walter Hauser, Ray Liotta, Robert Wisdom

Moods

A-list actors, Binge-Worthy, Challenging

Based on true events, Black Bird follows James Keene (Taron Egerton), a narcotics dealer sentenced to ten years in jail. He makes a deal with the authorities to reduce his sentence, but in return, James has to befriend their deadliest convict—a child murderer played by the excellently terrifying Paul Walter Hauser—and extract a confession out of him before it’s too late.

If you’re a fan of gripping crime thrillers, anti-heroes, star-studded shows, and watching British actors do a perfect American accent, then Black Bird is right up your alley. The miniseries is also an excellent showcase of topnotch performances; Egerton and Hauser bring the house down in their excellently staged two-handers, Greg Kinnear is reliably sturdy as the determined detective, and Ray Liotta in one of his final roles is devastating as an ailing father. 

2. This Is Going to Hurt

best

8.8

Country

United Kingdom

Actors

Alex Jennings, Ambika Mod, Ashley McGuire, Ben Whishaw

Moods

Binge-Worthy, Dark, Depressing

In the dark comedy This Is Going to Hurt, Ben Whishaw stars as junior doctor Adam, who’s barely keeping it together in the understaffed and under-equipped ob-gyn ward of Britain’s NHS hospital. We see, often in sad and graphic detail, what goes on in a public hospital and the heavy toll this takes on both the patients’ and medical staff’s personal lives. It’s hard to look away, especially when Adam addresses us in the first person. 

Even more upsetting? The miniseries is based on a memoir. Former medical trainee Adam Kay wrote a best-selling book detailing his horrific time at the NHS, and now he serves as executive producer and writer of the series.

1. Escape at Dannemora

best

9.3

Country

United States of America

Actors

Benicio Del Toro, Bonnie Hunt, David Morse, Eric Lange

Moods

Binge-Worthy, Gripping, Mini-series

The story is so jaw-dropping that it almost had to be put to film: steadily sawing through pipes and cutting through walls, two convicted murderers managed to break out of a maximum-security prison in upstate New York in 2015. The elegant and realistic dramatization was released by Showtime in 2018 and directed by none other than Ben Stiller in what marks his TV directorial debut.

The protagonists of this unlikely feat included the shrewd, boss-type felon Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro) and the much younger, excitable David Sweat (Paul Dano). You will hardly recognize Patricia Arquette in her role as Joyce ‘Tilly’ Mitchell, a married prison employee overseeing the sewing workshop, who supported and had sexual relations with both men. She rightly received a slew of awards, including a Golden Globe in 2019, for her stunning transformation and brilliant performance.

While the pacing of this somber thriller might be a bit too slow for some, the stellar performances of the main cast are enough to keep you on the edge of your chair. It’s a cinematic TV rendition of an unbelievable story and an engrossing view inside the life and minds of disenfranchised Americans.

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