20 Best Shows Based on True Stories

Updated May 27, 2024 • Staff

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.

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20.

Last Call: When a Serial Killer Stalked Queer New York

"No one lives just one article or one headline of a life. There's more."

 

Last Call may be a true-crime docuseries, but it doesn't pigeonhole itself as such; the advocacy for humanizing LGBTQ+ people is undoubtedly at its helm. The series expands past the context of each crime, giving testimonials and evidence of the lives, struggles, solidarity, and fears of the community. It acknowledges the efforts of the New Jersey State Police whilst shedding light on the inherent biases of society, law enforcement, and media when responding to crimes against gay people. Interviews with family members, detectives, and activists round out the narrative, ensuring that the lives lost are not forgotten due to shame, hatred, or sensationalism.

Our staff rating: 8.1/10
Genre: Documentary
19.

Flint Town

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.

Our staff rating: 8.2/10
Genre: Action & Adventure, Crime, Documentary
Actor: James Tolbert, Karen Weaver, Wayne Suttles
Director: Drea Cooper, Jessica Dimmock, Zackary Canepari
Rating: TV-MA
18.

The Staircase

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.”

Our staff rating: 8.2/10
Genre: Mystery
Actor: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
Director: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
Rating: TV-MA
17.

The Staircase

The bizarre case of Kathleen Peterson's death, which has yet to be fully resolved to this day, has been the subject of many a media article. The press covered it relentlessly when it all started in 2001, then a critically-acclaimed documentary was released in 2004. This was followed up with a sequel in 2018, and now more than 20 years after the deed, a dramatization has come out in the form of a miniseries. You'd be forgiven for thinking the latter couldn't possibly have anything new to offer, but you would also be wrong. In fact, the series is a masterclass in storytelling. Led by an a-list cast (of which Colin Firth is the absolute standout) and told with such layered depth, The Staircase is a must-watch not just for true crime but for film and TV fans everywhere. 

Utilizing time jumps and crafty transitions, The Staircase isn't set at one particular time, which is fitting considering the trial lasted for 16 years. It also isn't centered on just the mystery or the family, but instead is just as interested in the making of the 2004 documentary that introduced (and humanized) the case to an even wider sect of people. If you're looking for a neat ending or some form of satisfying retribution, you won't find it here. But you will be getting an engrossing meditation on truth and its elusiveness

Our staff rating: 8.2/10
Genre: Crime, Drama
Actor: Colin Firth, Dane DeHaan, Juliette Binoche, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Olivia DeJonge, Parker Posey, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Rosemarie DeWitt, Sophie Turner, Tim Guinee, Toni Collette
Rating: TV-MA
16.

Dickinson

Dickinson takes more than a few creative liberties in telling the story of one of America's greatest poets, Emily Dickinson (played here by the effervescent Hailee Steinfeld). As soon as the first pop song blasts in the background, followed by more than a few expletives blurted by the characters, it becomes clear that the series is more interested in making Emily's life story not just understandable to a new generation, but timeless and universal too; it's a tale about freeing oneself from the constraints of gender and society, and how regardless of whether you succeed or not, it's the attempts that keep us human. 

The series is funny and tender and vivacious, kept afloat by its modern sensibility and desire to showcase a whole new side of Emily. Here, she's a fighter, a (queer) lover, and an intellectual. But she's also spoiled, narrowminded, and selfish—she is after all, still a growing girl. Dickinson succeeds on two counts: as an enlightening biopic, artistic license notwithstanding, and as an energizing coming-of-age series, complete with awkward epiphanies and inspiring character developments. 

Our staff rating: 8.3/10
Genre: Comedy, Drama, History
Actor: Adrian Enscoe, Amanda Warren, Anna Baryshnikov, Chinaza Uche, Ella Hunt, Hailee Steinfeld, Jane Krakowski, Toby Huss
Rating: TV-14
15.

This World Can’t Tear Me Down

This World Can’t Tear Me Down is a timely release on friendship, punk, and anti-fascism. From the Italian cartoonist Zerocalcare, his second Netflix show shifts his musings over mental health to his experiences with regard to the country's rising neo-Nazism. As xenophobia tears his friend group, it's easy to feel the fear and self-doubt Zero's cartoon counterpart feels. It's easy as well to empathize with Sarah and Cesare, characters failed by the system around them. In many ways, they themselves feel like they haven't met their potential. But the show suggests that perhaps status and achievement aren’t what being successful is all about– it's about holding onto principles. Through punk soundtracks and shifts between stop motion and 90s cartoon style, This World Can't Tear Me Down captures the millennial generation's bewilderment, as well as their hope.

Our staff rating: 8.4/10
Genre: Animation, Comedy, Drama
Actor: Valerio Mastandrea, Zerocalcare
Rating: 16
14.

Chernobyl

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.

Our staff rating: 8.5/10
Genre: Drama, History, Thriller
Actor: Adam Nagaitis, Adrian Rawlins, Alan Williams, Alex Ferns, Barry Keoghan, Con O'Neill, David Dencik, Emily Watson, Fares Fares, Jared Harris, Jessie Buckley, Mark Lewis Jones, Michael McElhatton, Paul Ritter, Ralph Ineson, Robert Emms, Sam Troughton, Stellan Skarsgård
Rating: TV-MA
13.

The Good Lord Bird

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. 

Our staff rating: 8.5/10
Genre: Drama, Western
Actor: Beau Knapp, Daveed Diggs, Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Jack Alcott, Mo Brings Plenty, Nick Eversman
Rating: TV-MA
12.

Five Days at Memorial

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).

Our staff rating: 8.5/10
Genre: Drama
Actor: Adepero Oduye, Cherry Jones, Cornelius Smith, Cornelius Smith, Jr., JR, Julie Ann Emery, Michael Gaston, Robert Pine, Vera Farmiga
Rating: TV-MA
11.

Trial by Fire

Tragedy can strike at any time, but some instances are preventable, and rare is the instance where people do seek justice for it. After all, after losing so much, it would be awful to fight and lose again. But these instances do still exist, and one such incident is the Uphaar cinema fire. Trial by Fire depicts this tragedy, but rather than focusing on the fire itself, it focuses on the fight the victims’ families took in order to seek justice. The show doesn’t play out as a courtroom drama, it takes an intimate look into their day-to-day actions, faithfully portrayed by the excellent Rajshri Deshpande and Abhay Deol. And while the industrial giants depicted tried to file an injunction against this show’s screening, thankfully, Trial by Fire is still able to make its stand. It’s solemn and grim, but it’s a potent reminder of the power we hold as a collective.

Our staff rating: 8.5/10
Genre: Crime, Drama
Actor: Abhay Deol, Ashish Vidhyarthi, Rajesh Tailang, Rajshri Deshpande, Shilpa Shukla
Director: Avani Deshpande, Prashant Nair, Randeep Jha
Rating: TV-MA

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