Near the end of the hit podcast “Dirty John,” a super-creepy true story about a predatory Southern California con man and one of the women he targeted, the reporter Christopher Goffard poses a question that’s been hanging for six episodes: What made John Meehan, a handsome, athletic nurse anesthesiologist, Dirty John? What goes on in the mind of a man who exploits and brutalizes one woman after another while claiming to be their victim?
Goffard concludes that there’s no answer, that the expectation of one is “basically an illusion fostered by the movies we love and our need for comprehensible narratives.” Which is fine for a podcast. The audio series, based on reporting Goffard did for The Los Angeles Times, doesn’t entirely work as drama, but it’s mesmerizing — it’s like being in the middle of a multicar pileup that spins around you in slow motion, all the wreckage floating through the air for your examination.
Television dramas need their comprehensibility, though, and “Dirty John” is now a scripted TV series, beginning Sunday on Bravo. Only three of eight episodes were made available, so we don’t know if it will provide the sort of answers Coffard was willing to forgo. But it’s already clear that “Dirty John” has been turned into a different, lesser, more digestible beast for TV.
Recounting the story of Debra Newell, a successful Newport Beach businesswoman who fell hard for Meehan despite copious warning signs and the vociferous opposition of two of her daughters, the podcast imposes a sense of inexorable menace from the start. It also refuses to go soft on any of its characters, many of whom are interviewed by Goffard and readily describe their own blindness, cowardice and seemingly inexplicable actions.
A TV show could have taken a similar approach, but this one doesn’t. Relatability is one goal of the series, which was created and written by Alexandra Cunningham (whose credits include “Desperate Housewives” and “Chance”) and directed by Jeffrey Reiner (“Friday Night Lights,” “The Affair”). Another, it seems, is resemblance to a standard woman-in-peril thriller, like a Lifetime movie stretched to four times the length.
Toward those ends, there’s an attractive and talented cast: Connie Britton as Newell, Eric Bana as Meehan, Jean Smart as Newell’s mother, Juno Temple and Julia Garner as her daughters. Britton, who effortlessly manifests intelligence and capability, and Bana, who’s good with bland insincerity, might be solid choices for the roles, but they’re stranded because Cunningham’s script (in these episodes) doesn’t do its one job, which is to show us why this particular smart woman fell victim to this particular evil man.
You could respect that as a desire to play fair with the real-life characters, or to replicate the podcast’s open-endedness. But the overall effect of the series — its lack of any visual or narrative originality, its embrace of movie-of-the-week formulas — makes it seem more likely that the goal is to keep as many viewers as possible happy. Bana’s Meehan is a sociopath lite, threatening but not especially disturbing. (If that changes later, it’ll be an abrupt shift.) Britton’s Newell appears to fall under Meehan’s spell simply because her previous bad experiences with men make her susceptible to his act.
Those experiences are relayed in a generic bad-date montage that’s indicative of what the series comes up with when it “adds” to the material in the podcast. There are larger inventions, conveniences of plot or characterization like a five-figure theft of cash and the discovery of a long-term affair, that will aggravate people who have read or listened to the original story.
If you’re one of those people, there’s really no reason to watch the Bravo series. (It’s being called an anthology, leaving open the possibility of future seasons based on different cases.) It’s not nearly as compelling, and its continual efforts to make the characters and situations more palatable grow wearying. One small but telling example: At a chilling moment when, in the podcast, we’re told that Newell laughed off a frightening remark made by Meehan, “not taking it seriously,” Britton plays Newell as clearly upset and unamused. Onscreen, letting us be put off or confused by the main character isn’t an option.
And if you haven’t already experienced “Dirty John”? There’s still no reason to watch the series. The podcast is available free through iTunes or apps including Spotify, Stitcher and TuneIn. Or listen to it at latimes.com, where it’s accompanied by the photos that ran with the articles.
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