Just about any crime story can find an audience if it’s told with enough drama and intrigue. Though the true crime genre has been exploding in recent years thanks to podcasts (“Serial”) and documentary series (“The Jinx,” “Making a Murderer”), the widespread fascination with what makes people turn on each other — and how to withstand it — has fueled shows like “Unsolved Mysteries” and “Law & Order: SVU” for decades. As much as anything else, true crime and the fiction inspired by it has something of a built-in audience, ready and waiting to see what the hell new twist reality can serve up.
In this respect, “Dirty John” is a no-brainer of a programming choice. Christopher Goffard’s story about a drug addict grifter marrying wealthy women until they were no longer of use to him was released in October of last year as both a written Los Angeles Times report and a podcast. The latter been downloaded more than 30 million times. In both iterations, Goffard reported the ill-fated story of John Meehan and Debra Newell (Meehan’s final target) as if he knew it would someday be onscreen, peppering in details about Debra’s Gucci heels and “corn silk hair,” elaborating on sources’ descriptions of John to paint a picture of “a devil-tongued con man with the cold intelligence of a spy, a void where his soul should have been, and a desperate drug addiction that he would marshal his dark talents to feed.”
So it’s not altogether surprising that the Bravo adaptation — created by Alexandra Cunningham and directed by Jeffrey Reiner — hews so close to its source material. Even with more time and money to tell the story, the first three episodes of TV’s “Dirty John” are structured just like the report and podcast are, with the glamorous Hollywood pairing of Connie Britton (Debbie) and Eric Bana (John) acting out the domestic drama beat for beat. (The third episode gets more narrative mileage out of cross-cutting flashbacks between their marriage and John’s disastrous first one, but again, this is cribbed directly from the original report.)
In fact, the only times the show ever really deviates from the way Goffard told the story is when it steps away from the couple to see a little more of Debbie’s daughters, headstrong Veronica (Juno Temple) and fragile Terra (Julia Garner), or her earnest mother (played somewhat inexplicably by Jean Smart in extreme grandma drag). Even then, though, the first three episodes only show them in service of the main story, never truly revealing more about who they are or why they react to John like they do. This could hopefully change; the original report included six sections, while the Bravo series will run for eight episodes, so there has to be some deviation at some point. This isn’t to say that the series needed to fabricate more conflict where there was none in reality. But there are so many opportunities to flesh out both John’s story and the complicated and tragic Newell family history, and so far, the show eschews them in order to keep plugging away at the story as once written.
That might excite original diehard “Dirty John” fans; maybe that’s all they wanted or needed from an onscreen adaptation. But I have a feeling that if you didn’t already know what was coming, the show’s slavish attention to replicating the story and its clues as once laid out in a podcast may be hard to parse as presented in a TV series. Good storytelling in one medium doesn’t necessarily make sense in another. Bravo’s “Dirty John” might have been better served to remember that and try something new.
Drama, 60 mins. Premieres Sunday, November 25 at 10 pm on Bravo.