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20 Best TV Shows Based on True Stories

Because fact is often stranger than fiction.

Movies based on true stories are ubiquitous—think of how many biopics get nominated for Best Picture year after year at the Oscars. On the small screen, though, real life doesn't seem to be as frequently mined as source material. (Not counting reality TV or docuseries, of course. That's a whole other topic.) However, in recent years, more and more TV shows have turned to true stories for inspiration.

This is partially because of the rise of the limited series. It's easier to tell a true story if it has a definitive ending, something that's tricky in an ongoing series with multiple seasons, although there are some great multi-season exceptions). And the streaming boom has also led to lots of shows that tell an in-depth, dramatized version of a true story (or several). Read on to learn more about 20 of the best TV shows that are based on true events, including history series, true crime, and more.

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American Crime Story

Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown in American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson

The anthology series American Crime Story has tackled some of the biggest, most high-profile cases in this country's recent history and dramatized them with aplomb. The first season, The People vs. O. J. Simpson, covers the infamous trial and is arguably the best of the three. The other seasons, which focus on the murder of designer Gianni Versace and the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, are worthwhile, too, and all three star-studded seasons manage the difficult trick of finding new angles and insights in these news stories that were exhaustively covered at the time.

Available to stream on Hulu.

Band of Brothers

still from band of brothers

Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks created this 2001 HBO series which dramatizes the exploits of "Easy" Company during World War II. Based on Stephen E. Ambrose's book of the same name about the historic regiment, Band of Brothers followers these soldiers from the beginnings of Operation Overlord (executed on D-Day when "Easy" Company parachuted behind Nazi lines) to the end of the war.

It was the most expensive miniseries ever when it came out, and it looks like it, delivering a blockbuster-style war epic that was rarely seen on the small screen to that degree. The Pacific, a companion series from 2010 about WWII's other theater, is also worth watching.

Available to stream on Max and Netflix.

Boardwalk Empire

Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire

Boardwalk Empire is sometimes unjustly overlooked in discussions of the great shows of the "Peak TV" era, not mentioned as often as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones. But the five-season HBO historical drama earns its place in the pantheon. Based on Nelson Johnson's nonfiction book about crime and corruption during the Prohibition era in Atlantic City, the series stars Steve Buscemi as Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, a character who is loosely based on a real-life crooked political boss.

Available to stream on Max.


Jared Harris and Emily Watson in Chernobyl

Craig Mazin, who would go on to co-create The Last of Us for HBO, first made this 2019 miniseries about the Chernobyl disaster. Chernobly stars Jared Harris as Valery Legasov, a Soviet scientist who helped oversee the heroic cleanup efforts that stopped the disaster from being even more catastrophic and drew near-universal acclaim for its attention to historical details and the way it brought this deadly tragedy to horrifying life.

Available to stream on Max.

The Crown

Dominic West and Elizabeth Debicki in The Crown

It's fair to say that Netflix's dramatization of the life of Queen Elizabeth II fell off a bit in its later years, but the first several of the show's six seasons are exceptional and deserving of the many Emmys the show won. Claire Foy plays the monarch in the first two seasons, Olivia Colman in the middle two, and Imelda Staunton in the penultimate and final seasons. Some of the other notable cast members include Matt Smith, Tobias Menzies, and Jonathan Pryce as Prince PhilipVanessa Kirby, and Helena Bonham Carter as Princess MargaretGillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher, and Emma Corrin and Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana.

Available to stream on Netflix.

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Michael Keaton in Dopesick

The majority of the characters in Hulu's limited series about the opioid epidemic are not based on any one particular historical figure. Except for the members of the Sackler family, whose pharmaceutical company created and pushed the addictive, potentially deadly painkiller OxyContin, almost all of the characters are composite characters, including Michael Keaton's doctor-turned-user. Although their specific stories might not be real, Dopesick conveys the truth of how destructive the drug has been, inspired by countless true, tragic stories.

Available to stream on Hulu.

The Dropout

Amanda Seyfried in The Dropout

The Dropout, Hulu's dramatization of the rise and precipitous fall of Elizabeth Holmes and her company Theranos happened to come out around the same time as two other shows about infamous startups: WeCrashed (WeWork) and Super Pumped (Uber). Those shows have their merits, but The Dropout, which stars Amanda Seyfried as the woman whose biotech startup briefly was the buzziest company in the world until it came out that the product didn't work and the whole thing was a fraud, is the clear best of the batch.

Available to stream on Hulu.

I, Claudius

Still from I, Claudius

Robert Graves' seminal 1934 novel I, Claudius, a work of historical fiction written in the style of the Roman emperor's autobiography, was adapted into a miniseries for the BBC back in 1976. Though some aspects of the show's age are evident (it may shock you to hear that TV miniseries weren't as elaborate as expensive 50 years ago as they are in the age of streaming and HBO), it remains a landmark television event. Derek Jacobi stars as Claudius.

Available to stream on Hoopla and Acorn TV.


Still from Mindhunter

Fans are still clamoring for more of this Netflix series from David Fincher—a historical psychological crime drama exploring the origins of crime psychology. Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany star as two agents in the FBI's nascent Behavioral Science Unit, and the show follows their attempts to understand what makes serial killers, including real ones such as Ed Kemper and Richard Speck tick. Engrossing and disturbing in equal measure, Mindhunter ended after two seasons despite Fincher at one point talking about wanting to make more.

Available to stream on Netflix.


Wagner Moura in Narcos

Wagner Moura stars as kingpin Pablo Escobar in Netflix's dramatization of the rise and fall of the Medellín Cartel in Colombia and the DEA's attempts to end the drug lord's reign of terror. Boyd Holbrook and Pedro Pascal co-star as two real agents.

Available to stream on Netflix.

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The Offer

Still from The Offer

The Godfather is not a true story, but The Offer, a Paramount+ series starring Miles Teller, dramatizes the surprisingly wild story of how the iconic film was made. Scrambles to obtain the rights to the book, casting drama, and pushback from the actual mafia are just a few of the things that happen behind the scenes of Francis Ford Coppola's landmark film, all brought to life in the show's 10 episodes.

Available to stream on Paramount+.


Merritt Wever and Toni Collette in Unbelievable
Beth Dubber/Netflix

Netflix's miniseries Unbelievable is based on the harrowing 2015 ProPublica and The Marshal Project's jointly published article "An Unbelievable Story of Rape," the true story of a woman who was charged with a crime for making a supposedly false accusation. Kaitlyn Dever plays the woman, while Toni Collette and Merritt Wever play the two cops who actually end up investigating her claims years later, eventually exonerating her and bringing a serial rapist to justice—albeit much later than they should have if she'd been believed the first time.

Available to stream on Netflix.

Under the Banner of Heaven

Andrew Garfield in Under the Banner of Heaven

Jon Krakauer's book about the history of fundamentalist Mormon sects and a brutal double murder in 1984 that shined a new light on this darkness gets a protagonist in the form of Andrew Garfield's Jeb Pyre, a detective whose investigation into the murders causes him to doubt his own devout Mormon faith, in this limited series. Although Detective Pyre is fictional, the murders were very real and horrific, and the Hulu show delves deep into the sordid history of a major religion and the problematic splinter groups that arose as the faith developed.

Available to stream on Hulu.

Under the Bridge

Lily Gladstone in Under the Bridge

Riley Keough and Lily Gladstone star in this 2024 Hulu series, which dramatizes the 1997 murder of Reena Virk, a Canadian teenager, who was beaten to death in a horrific bullying incident. The show is an adaptation of Rebecca Godfrey's 2005 book of the same name, and Godfrey is a character in the show (played by Keough). Sadly, the real journalist died in 2022 of lung cancer, just one week after Hulu announced the series.

Available to stream on Hulu.


Still from Unorthodox

Netflix's four-episode miniseries Unorthodox is inspired by Deborah Feldman's 2012 memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, documenting her life in an ultra-Orthodox community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and her escape to secular life. Primarily in Yiddish, Unorthodox the series received lots of acclaim, especially for Israeli actress Shira Haas' performance as Etsy, the protagonist whose story was based on Feldman's real experiences.

Available to stream on Netflix.

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still from Shōgun

There have actually been two TV adaptations of James Clavell's 1975 novel, which tells the story of the dawn of Japan's Edo period and the founding of the Tokugawa shogunate using fictionalized versions of real historical characters. The 1980 miniseries was a smash hit, and the Hiroyuki Sanada-led series which debuted on FX on Hulu earlier this year, might be the best TV show of 2024 so far.

Available to stream on Hulu.

The Staircase

Still from The Staircase

The HBO Max dramatization of the death of Kathleen Peterson and the subsequent trial of her husband, author Michael Peterson, shares its name with the acclaimed documentary series that French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade made during the many years of legal proceedings. The documentary is a masterpiece, but the TV show, which stars Toni Collette and Colin Firth, more than justifies its existence, and the two Staircases are fitting companion pieces.

Available to stream on Max.


still from waco

Friday Night Lights actor Taylor Kitsch stars as David Koresh in this 2018 miniseries about the Branch Davidians fringe group and the deadly siege that captivated the nation in 1993. The highest compliment there is to say for Waco is how thoroughly it humanizes—but stops short of exonerating—both the Branch Davidians and the FBI and ATF for their roles in the tragedy that would end with 86 people dead.

Available to stream on Paramount+ and Fubo.

When They See Us

Jharrel Jerome in When They See Us
Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

Ava DuVernay's four-part Netflix miniseries tells the story of the Central Park Five, dramatizing this infamous travesty of justice. The show begins in 1989 when five boys are arrested and eventually wrongfully convicted of the brutal rape and murder of a jogger in Central Park, despite flimsy evidence, and follows them through a decade behind bars and beyond after they've been exonerated. Featuring a number of stellar performances, especially Jharrel Jerome, the only actor to play one of the Five as both a child and an adult, When They See Us is a deeply moving true story.

Available to stream on Netflix.

Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty

Still from Winning Time

HBO's series about the Los Angeles Lakers in the '80s was, unfortunately, canceled after two seasons, ending before Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the rest of the team fully became the unstoppable basketball juggernaut we all remember them to be. Even so, the series is an entertaining look at one of the NBA's most hallowed teams, featuring an all-star cast whose ranks include John C. Reilly, Jason Clarke, Jason Segel, Adrien Brody, Quincy Isaiah, and more. (A series about the other LA basketball team, Clipped, is coming to Hulu this year.)

Available to stream on Max.

James Grebey
James has been an entertainment journalist for more than a decade, writing and editing for outlets like Vulture, Inverse, Polygon, TIME, The Daily Beast, SPIN Magazine, Fatherly, and more. Read more
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