×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

TV Review: ‘Dirty John’

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.

TV Review: 'Dirty John'

More TV

  • Supergirl -- "Elseworlds, Part 3" --

    'Elseworlds, Part 3' Recap: 2019 ‘Arrowverse’ Crossover Theme Revealed

    SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Elseworlds, Part 2,” the final part of the 2018 “Arrowverse” crossover, which aired Dec. 11. After John Deegan (Jeremy Davies) got another go at using the Book of Destiny to rewrite reality, the “Elseworlds” finale saw Barry (Grant Gustin) and Oliver (Stephan Amell) facing [...]

  • The Netflix logo is displayed at

    TV Roundup: Netflix Orders Ted Bundy Docu-Series

    In today’s TV roundup, Netflix has ordered a docu-series on serial killer Ted Bundy and “Love, Gilda” sets a premiere date on CNN FIRST LOOKS More Reviews Film Review: 'Springsteen on Broadway' Off Broadway Review: 'Clueless' the Musical Variety has obtained an exclusive clip of “Into the Okavango,” the upcoming National Geographic film. Premiering Dec. [...]

  • Amy Poehler Is Ready for a

    Amy Poehler Is Ready for a 'Parks and Rec' Reunion

    Is Amy Poehler just getting our hopes up? We hope not, because the funny lady tells Variety that she’s ready for a “Parks and Recreation” reunion. More Reviews Film Review: 'Springsteen on Broadway' Off Broadway Review: 'Clueless' the Musical “I am technically available,” Poehler said on Monday at Smart Girls’ 10th anniversary celebration dinner. “I have [...]

  • Liz Meriwether Lake Bell

    Lake Bell, Liz Meriwether Comedy 'Bless This Mess' Moves From Fox to ABC With Series Order

    “Bless This Mess,” the single-camera comedy co-created by Lake Bell and Elizabeth Meriwether, has been ordered to series at ABC, Variety has learned. The series had previously been in contention at Fox and is a co-production between 20th Century Fox Television and ABC Studios. Bell also stars in the series alongside Dax Shepard. In the series, a [...]

  • 'Get Shorty' Renewed for Season 3

    'Get Shorty' Renewed for Season 3 at Epix

    Epix has renewed “Get Shorty” for Season 3. The loose adaptation of the 1990 Elmore Leonard novel and subsequent film stars Chris O’Dowd, Ray Romano, Lidio Porto, Megan Stevenson, Sean Bridgers, and Carolyn Dodd. In the series, O’Dowd plays a hitman from Nevada who struggles to shed his criminal past after he moves to Hollywood to [...]

  • Goliath Season 2 Amazon

    Amazon Renews 'Goliath' for Season 3

    Amazon has renewed legal drama “Goliath” for a third season. “Goliath” centers on washed-up lawyer Billy McBride, played by Billy Bob Thornton, who has one shot at redemption after a client he successfully defended from a murder charge went on to slaughter a family. Thornton won a Golden Globe for his performance in 2017. More [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content