'Dirty John': TV Review

Based on a true story, but now so conventional it might as well not be.

What Bravo's adaptation of the popular podcast gains in performances from Connie Britton, Eric Bana, Julia Garner and Juno Temple, it loses in grounding and authenticity.

If podcasts truly are the next horizon of IP adaptation for film and television, potential adapters would be wise to ponder this question: What is the best narrative film or television show based on a documentary?

Tough one, right? (The answer may be Rescue Dawn? Or possibly not. The list of worthy contenders is surprisingly limited.)

It's one thing to turn a fiction podcast into a TV show, as Amazon's Homecoming has done with reasonable success. But lifting a nonfiction podcast for a new medium runs into the same problem as a documentary presents: You're stripping away the immediacy of what was real, substituting performance and production design for authenticity.

This isn't to say that Bravo's limited series adaptation of the Los Angeles Times podcast (and article series) Dirty John is awful, just that in the transition from "I can't believe that's real!" source material to "Aren't Tami Taylor and the Incredible Hulk giving solid performances?" some of the essential vitality and veracity of the material has been lost. In its place, I can't point to much insight or advantage added by the new medium.

Through the first three Dirty John episodes, Alexandra Cunningham has transferred Christopher Goffard's reporting fairly literally. Connie Britton plays Debra Newell, a Southern California interior designer. In business, Debra has been wildly successful, allowing her to raise her daughters (Juno Temple's Veronica and Julia Garner's Terra) in superficial opulence, but she has been less successful in love, with four failed marriages. Despairing at the type of men she's finding on dating apps, Debra latches onto the apparent candor of John Meehan (Eric Bana), an anesthesiologist who makes her laugh. Sure, the red flags with John begin popping up before the end of their first date and sure, Debra's daughters immediately distrust the man their mother has quickly become involved with, but John listens and seems to understand when he's made mistakes and Debra appreciates that. This will prove to be a bad idea, because John is a dangerous con man and he's about to turn Debra's life upside down.

The changes Cunningham has made to the real story are cosmetic — Debra's eldest daughter is actually named Jacquelyn, while Terra's unhealthy fascination with The Walking Dead, utterly essential to the arc of the story, has just become a more generic fascination with the idea of a zombie apocalypse — and my instinct is that they probably should have been more widespread. Once the story has gone from "true" to "based on true," it's better to evolve the material dramatically to suit the strength of the medium, since every iteration past the black-and-white of a print story adds its own contrivances and each contrivance runs the risk of making the story more conventional.

In this respect, director Jeffrey Reiner has contributed little inspiration other than a string of happy real estate-shopping, smoothie-making montages and an episode featuring flashbacks to John's earlier life in Ohio given the most predictable of gloomy Rust Belt filters. Throw in an emotional-button-pushing score from Mark Mothersbaugh and bordering-on-Harlequin-romance intercutting to moments of intimacy or violence and in moving to scripted TV, Dirty John has too often reinstated the rules of the "woman-in-peril" dramas that the realism of the earlier formats allowed it to escape. At least the drone shots of Newport Beach and carefully dressed sets are impeccable for fans of cautionary wealth porn.

Because nobody was willing to take any aesthetic risks in attacking this story, the selling point for Dirty John as a TV series is the casting and even then you have to debate if it's actually a good thing that the assembled actors are "better than the real thing." Britton exudes vulnerability and more than in the articles or podcasts, she's able to foreground Debra's intelligence and make her romantic misstep feel like something other than misguided neediness. Of course, the Dirty John screeners stopped before the point at which the podcast became frustrating and repetitious for me and I wonder if the downward half of the story, one that left some listeners perplexed at Debra's motivations, will track as well with this more capable interpretation of the character. Through three episodes we also haven't seen Bana go full Dirty John, but he plays John's sympathetic guise well and in the character's chillier moments — all taken directly from the reported record — he's got a scary intensity that won't surprise Chopper or Munich fans.

My favorite part of the series thus far is the one that may require the most knowledge of the source material. I can imagine some people saying that Temple and Garner are playing flighty caricatures when, once you've heard the real daughters, they're both eerily on-point and rather spectacular. Temple's character, a designer bag-collecting Nancy Drew, adds some humor to the series and Garner adds yet another entry to her scene-stealing portfolio and I can't wait to see how she handles the rest of the story's arc. The relationship between the sisters and with their mother is the most complicated part of the series, providing a rich history of trust and distrust that I wish the rest of the series could live up to. A third level of generational bonding is somewhat undone by the decision to have Jean Smart, as Debra's ultra-religious mom, hidden beneath what much have been categorized as "'70s Grandma" in the wig department.

Dirty John is getting a more traditional unscripted TV treatment on Bravo's sister network Oxygen in January, and I'd imagine that will basically be the podcast with pictures. This exposes, though, an entire problem with this project. Doesn't Dirty John want to be more than just a tawdry Oxygen-style true-crime series with a script and an A-list cast? So far, it's not.

Cast: Connie Britton, Eric Bana, Juno Temple, Julia Garner, Kevin Zegers, Jean Smart
Creator: Alexandra Cunningham, from the podcast by Christopher Goffard
Premieres: Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Bravo)