In Truth Be Told season 3, podcaster Poppy tackles sex trafficking [Apple TV+ recap] ★★★☆☆

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ReviewsTop stories Podcaster Poppy Scoville-Parnell (played by Olivia Spencer, left) jumps on a kidnapping case in season three of Truth Be Told on Apple TV+.★★★ Podcaster Poppy Scoville-Parnell (played by Olivia Spencer, left) jumps on a kidnapping case in season three of Truth Be Told.
Photo: Apple TV+

TV+ ReviewTruth Be Told, the Apple TV+ drama created by Nichelle D. Tramble about a true crime podcaster, returns for its third season this week. This season, Poppy Scoville-Parnell — the intrepid reporter played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer — must blow the lid off a sex-trafficking ring that resulted in at least one kidnapping, maybe more.

Politics, tech money, school board in-fighting, and police reform are all tied up in this case — and our podcasting hero Poppy is at the center of the swirl, as usual.

Truth Be Told recap: ‘Unto the Sweet Bird’s Throat’

Season 3, episode 1: For those who are just joining Truth Be Told, Poppy is a button-pushing true crime reporter whose podcast investigations all make national news. In this week’s season three opener, entitled “Unto the Sweet Bird’s Throat,” Poppy tackles a local kidnapping.

When we meet her this time, she and her producer Noa Havilland (Katherine LaNasa) are preparing for their podcast’s next season. Last season, we checked in on a friend of Poppy’s, Charisse Spivey (Erica Tazel), whose daughter Drea Spivey (Nia Sondaya) went missing for a few weeks before she was found by members of the Capstones, a local motorcycle group. Poppy’s father Leander (Ron Cephas Jones) is a charter member.

Now Drea’s gone missing again, and though that’s part of the story, it’s not the whole thing. Drea wound up in a kind of drug den last time she went missing. And, then as now, people weren’t too interested in locating a runaway black girl with a drug problem. The white authorities decided this was out of their hands. Now, that’s infuriating enough for Poppy, but there’s more. A white teen girl named Emily Mills (Jane Widdop) has also gone missing — and her case is getting the full San Francisco Bay Area news coverage and search effort. Why does Emily deserve this treatment while Drea is left for dead?

Poppy’s friend, former cop Markus Killebrew (Mekhi Phifer), who does the occasional favor for her, and his pregnant wife Zarina (Merle Dandridge), are wondering the same thing. They’re at a local school board meeting when school principal Eva Pierre (Gabrielle Union) makes it clear to every parent present that what happened to Drea and Emily could happen to any of their kids. This has Zarina and Markus worried about their daughter, Trini (Mychala Lee), who’s the same age as Drea and Emily.

Poppy is on the case

Poppy only has one lead. Drea mentioned a drug or something called “High Hunter” in her last interview with her, so Poppy goes to talk to her local police department connection, Detective Aames (David Lyons). She’s hoping to get some information from Aames, who has a new job in a different precinct after his last entanglement with Poppy, which unearthed a ton of corruption and made him very unpopular around the office.

Aames plays tough with Poppy so he can blend in better with his new colleagues, but he tells her in private that he’ll look out for info. However, he warns her that a new mayoral candidate, Andrew Finney (Peter Gallagher), is running on a law-and-order ticket. So he won’t be dropping the Emily Mills case until he gets elected or she’s found, whichever comes first.

Leander and Poppy’s sisters Desiree (Tracie Thoms) and Cydie (Haneefah Wood) are all chipping in to help locate Drea because they know that if the streets don’t find her, the police sure won’t. The election is just going to muddy things. Poppy organizes a demonstration to bring awareness to Drea’s disappearance during a mayoral debate, to make sure that bluster and empty promises — to say nothing of the interference of tech mogul Lee Hackman (Xander Berkeley) — don’t knock Drea’s name out of people’s mouths.

Things get complicated

Eva takes part in the demonstration and it gets her into trouble, but she’s uncowed. She and Poppy interview some of Drea’s classmates, and they discover that she talked about a controlling man before she disappeared to her “happy place.” They head to a Japanese garden that Drea mentioned in her interview to hang up flyers.

Noa gives Poppy bad news that night. Seems her corporate sponsors want her to lean into the narrative that Drea’s life was a series of bad decisions under tragic circumstances. To give them “sensationalist chum,” in Noa’s words. Noa isn’t comfortable with any of it, and says that this will be her last outing with Poppy, even after Poppy tries to renegotiate her contract.

Just then, those tragic circumstances rear their head. Drea calls Poppy and says to stop looking for her. Turns out “High Hunter” isn’t a drug, but a place she goes to with a man. Drea got drugs or something from this guy, and she has to repay that by sleeping with guys. She doesn’t want to be found.

Poppy, Markus and Leander meet up with Charisse to tell her the news. Poppy tries to give her an out; she won’t talk about the sex trafficking on air if Charisse doesn’t want her to. Charisse says it’s OK. Anything to bring Drea home. Eva agrees. That night, she goes out cruising for young girls in the bad part of town, to see if she can get some information on her own. Either by coincidence or something darker, she’s nearby when Drea turns up dead at the High Hunter motel. Poppy sees her leaving the scene.

Sensationalist chum

Can we trust Eva (played by Gabrielle Union)? The actress is shown in a still from the "Truth Be Told" season three opener.Can we trust Eva (played by Gabrielle Union)?
Photo: Apple TV+

Moreso than the direction or the writing, the fun of Truth Be Told is in the cast. Octavia Spencer is always fun to watch, but she’s got a really deep bench of supporting players around her to make sure that every scene really sings. The appearance of Gabrielle Union as Eva is a blessing — she’s a real movie star with good dramatic instincts.

The camera loves her, but Union’s more than just a perfect, expressive face. She brings to Eva a slippery quality that makes her distrust seem natural, and allows us to also mistrust her. She could be good or evil! We don’t know yet, and she plays up the contradictions to ensure we stay on our feet.

It’s good to see greats like Peter Gallagher and Xander Berkeley joining the fray as well — they’re both skilled at playing smarmy heels. And then, of course, there are the Truth Be Told regulars; Thoms, Lyons, Cephas-Jones, Wood, Phifer, Tazel and Dandridge all bring grit and zeal to their parts. Plus, they bring out different sides to Poppy that she isn’t always at ease to demonstrate herself, as a public-facing figure. It’s a pleasure to be surrounded by these faces again.

★★★

Watch Truth Be Told on Apple TV+

Season three of Truth Be Told kicks off January 20 on Apple TV+. New episodes will follow each Friday.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.

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