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.

20. A League of Their Own

7.0

Country

United States of America

Actors

Abbi Jacobson, Chanté Adams, D'Arcy Carden, Dale Dickey

Moods

Character-driven, Discussion-sparking, Funny

Based on the 1992 classic of the same name, A League of Their Own tells the story of the Rockford Peaches—how the women’s baseball team came to be, who its eccentric members are, and what life was like in wartime America, especially for driven women with unconventional goals.

More than a remake, 2022’s A League of Their Own actually updates the premise to be more conscious of sexuality and race, making it feel very modern and up-to-date despite its period setting. It’s a funny and enlightening show with some anachronistic tendencies here and there (expect non-1940s pop music to play), which might rebuff historical purists but will likely charm everyone else.

19. Mrs. America

7.5

Country

United States of America

Actors

Ari Graynor, Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth Banks, Jeanne Tripplehorn

Moods

A-list actors, Character-driven, Discussion-sparking

Though it primarily revolves around the conservative, anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly (portrayed as a fascinatingly contradictory character by Cate Blanchett), Mrs. America is a true ensemble drama. Each episode becomes a primer for a different significant figure in the movement for women’s rights in the 1970s, but it also emphasizes how difficult it was for this movement to cohere. As these wildly different perspectives clash, the need for a truly inclusive and intersectional coalition begins to arise. Blanchett is brilliant as always, but the miniseries also showcases stunning work from Rose Byrne, Uzo Aduba, Margo Martindale, Tracey Ullman, and many more.

18. Mo

7.5

Country

United States of America

Actors

Mo Amer, Teresa Ruiz

Moods

Character-driven, Dramatic, Feel-Good

Mo is the semi-autobiographical tale of creator and star Mo Amer, whose tricky bouts with immigration, interfaith relationships, and growing up Arab-American all figure in the show. It’s a bittersweet series that brings the Palestinian and immigrant experience to the forefront—a tricky act that’s dealt with deft ease here. The series may be rife with social, cultural, and political issues, but there’s a big and heartfelt message at the center of it, and Amer tells it with genuine warmth and humor without ever being too self-serious and preachy, making Mo a breezy but meaningful watch.

17. Under the Banner of Heaven

7.6

Country

United States, United States of America

Actors

Adelaide Clemens, Andrew Garfield, Billy Howle, Chloe Pirrie

Moods

A-list actors, Challenging, Character-driven

In Under the Banner of Heaven, Andrew Garfield plays Detective Jeb Pyre, a devout Mormon whose faith is shaken when he takes up a violent case that involves his church. When he discovers the gruesome death of a fellow worshipper and her 15-month-old child, he is driven mad by the choices he needs to make about his faith, his family, and the threat of fundamentalism these two pillars present. Terrifying and compelling, Under the Banner of Heaven is not for the weak-hearted, but it is recommended to anyone up for a good, challenging watch. 

16. The Dropout

7.7

Country

United States, United States of America

Actors

Amanda Seyfried, Bill Irwin, Dylan Minnette, Elizabeth Marvel

Moods

Binge-Worthy, Character-driven, Dramatic

The Dropout is an eight-part series about disgraced biotech entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes, played here to eerie perfection by Amanda Seyfried. The show follows Holmes as she drops out of Stanford and pursues her dream to be rich and famous at any cost—even if it means swindling her way to the billion-dollar finish line.

With the facts of the case publicly available and a plethora of scammer shows already streaming on the internet, it’s a small miracle that The Dropout is still able to stand out as a compelling series. This is thanks in large part to Seyfried: she plays Holmes as a shaky, self-conscious, and hyper-ambitious magnate with little to no remorse, and it works. Even though Holmes is pretty much a cautionary household name at this point, The Dropout is still worth watching if only to see Seyfried’s thoughtful portrayal. 

15. I’m Sorry

7.7

Country

United States of America

Actors

Andrea Savage, Danny Trejo, Esai Morales, Kevin Hart

Moods

Easy, Funny, No-brainer

In one scene, the main character’s husband looks at her with disdain after she makes an inappropriate joke –  “you are somebody’s mother!” She looks back with the same disdain – “I’m sorry, I forgot, moms aren’t supposed to be funny.”

Funny is a good word to use here, because this show is hilarious. Comedian Andrea Savage makes a TV show based on her life, or rather, that is her life (it’s a thin line). The show’s easy going tone is only interrupted by Andrea’s lack of consideration of what is appropriate.

Her jokes are heavy and offensive, and if you don’t mind either, so funny. They range from teaching her mom about unexpected sexual slang to trying a by-all-means approach to comfort her daughter’s fear of Nazis. 

Funny, natural and entertaining – I’m Sorry is a joy to watch.

14. We Own This City

7.8

Country

United States

Actors

Dagmara Domińczyk, Darrell Britt-Gibson, David Corenswet, Delaney Williams

Moods

Binge-Worthy, Character-driven, Discussion-sparking

We Own This City is a six-part miniseries following the ins and outs of the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force. Hailed by critics as the “spiritual successor to The Wire” (both shows were developed by David Simon), the gritty crime drama works as a smart and gripping exposé not just of the Baltimore police department, but of big and flawed institutions, in general, and the seeming inherence of corruption. The series is based on the book We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption by Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton.

13. High School

7.9

Country

United States of America

Actors

Amanda Fix, Brianne Tju, Cobie Smulders, Esther McGregor

Moods

Character-driven, Discussion-sparking, Dramatic

Based on a forthcoming memoir by queer music duo Tegan & Sara, High School follows the twin sisters in ’90s Canada as they figure out their place in school, in family, and ultimately in each other’s lives. Despite the well-worn premise and the throwback setting, High School feels fresh and honest in ways that are not always present in teen stories. It’s delicate and subdued while still being potent and edgy—a great alternative if Netflix’s brasher teen fare isn’t for you. High School has been likened to other great authentic coming-of-age shows like Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life.

12. How to Sell Drugs Online (Fast)

7.9

Country

Germany

Actors

Bjarne Madel, Damian Hardung, Danilo Kamber, Danilo Kamperidis

Moods

Binge-Worthy, True-story-based

This is Breaking Bad meets The Social Network. Based on a true story that took place in Leipzig, Germany in 2015, this show is about Moritz, a high-schooler who starts Europe’s biggest drug market online. He initially does this to impress his ex-girlfriend, who had just come back from the States with new drug experiences.

The transformation of a nerd into a drug kingpin is fascinating. But because it is based on a true story, there is an important nuance to that transformation. Moritz is rarely portrayed as a hero, and his creepy side is always present. This makes for an interesting and exciting plot-heavy show.  

11. Move to Heaven

8.0

Country

South Korea

Actors

Hong Seung-hee, Im Won-hee, Jeong Seok-yong, Ji Jin-hee

Moods

Character-driven, Depressing, Discussion-sparking

In Move to Heaven, a man and his son clean up after the dead—specifically, the dead who have no one else to look out for them. Believing that no one should be robbed of a respectable farewell, they piece together the deceased’s possessions and celebrate them postmortem. It’s a noble job, but its existence is threatened when the father passes away. It’s now up to the ruffian uncle with a heart of gold to continue the business and bond with his nephew, who himself struggles with Asperger’s. 

It’s easy for Move to Heaven to feel weighed down by all the important stories it tries to tackle; represented here are disabled people, depressed people, queer people, overworked people. But it breathes so much life into these stories that they hardly feel like the drag other shows and movies make them out to be. Tragedy here is expertly blended with humanity, and the result is a moving and compassionate series that stands out even in the saturated content space that is Netflix. 

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