Dirty John — A True Crime Drama Hamstrung By the Truth?

TV's latest binge-able show is based on a fascinating true story, so why does it feel vaguely underwhelming?

This article contains spoilers for Dirty John, the TV series and the podcast. It originally ran on Den of Geek UK.

A series of articles in the LA Times, a podcast that was downloaded over 10 million times in its first six weeks of release and now an eight-part TV drama that debuted on Bravo and has just landed on Netflix in international markets, Dirty John is the latest insane true life story to come to the small screen.

It tells the story of John Meehan, a con artist and general scumbag who seduced and insinuated himself into the life of successful business owner Debra Newell. A whirlwind romance built on lies quickly turns nasty as Debra and her family begin to uncover the truth about John’s past, ending in violence. It’s a pretty amazing story and the podcast is cracking.

The show is based very closely on Christopher Goffard’s original reporting, with Goffard on board as one of the writers. It’s no surprise that it has stuck to the same format, since the podcast is a well-structured piece of storytelling that introduces you to the characters and allows the action to escalate over a series of six episodes (the TV series is eight).

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further reading: Best TV Episodes of 2018

Connie Britton is perfectly cast as Debra, beautiful but naive, married four times already but unwilling to give up on love. Eric Bana is the charming but scruffy John who says he’s a doctor but doesn’t seem to have any money or even a home. It’s Debra’s daughters Terra (Julie Garner) and Veronica (Juno Temple), based on Debra’s eldest Jacquelyn, who immediately distrust John creating tension that leads to John’s undoing. It’s good. It’s an easy watch. We’d recommend it. But for a story that made such a thrilling podcast as a show, it’s somehow vaguely underwhelming.

And the truth – and the way we now consume true stories – could be to blame.

True crime structured as drama (but not necessarily dramatised) is in its heyday, kicked off by This American Life’s Serial and popularised on screen by Making A Murderer. Now true-crime documentary films and series are everywhere, from The Jinx and The Staircase to more recently Abducted In Plain Sight and Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. These are docs told as dramas with the real life protagonists becoming like characters to analyse and judge. Everyone who’s seen Making A Murderer has an opinion about whether Steven Avery killed Teresa Halbach. Lots of people have weird crushes on Dean Strang. No one likes Ken Kratz. It’s easy to forget that these are actual real people who didn’t necessarily ask to be cast in a drama.

Dramatizing true-life cases isn’t new at all either, in feature-length or serialised formats – most famous serial killers have their own spin-off movies and shows like 2016’s Rillington Place and 2019’s Manhunt, which landed in January, have adapted true stories for the small screen. We’re used to watching “based on a true story” dramatisations and we’re also used to taking the ‘facts’ with a pinch of salt. It’s not just serial killers either. Looking at awards season this year, Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book have both come under scrutiny for presenting versions of the truth that suit the dramatic form but aren’t necessarily complete or 100% accurate. 

Dirty John, though, is slightly different.

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Anyone who’s listened to the podcast will know that Dirty John is made up of interviews and contributions from all the main players in the story (the ones who are still alive at least). Debra Newell is the main voice, her youngest daughter Terra is the second most prominent, with contributions from Jacquelyn, Debra’s mother, her lawyer, John’s sister and various other key players in the story. The show exists because of the popularity of the podcast and it means the show isn’t just based on a true story, artistic license and all – it’s specifically based on the podcast’s version of the truth; it’s tied to it. Manipulating the story to any great extent outside the podcast wouldn’t have worked, so while the show does it’s best with the material it has, as a drama it sometimes feels like it doesn’t quite go far enough.

In fact, it’s when the show does stray from the truth that it has the most fun. Jacquelyn, the stronger, more rebellious of Debra’s daughters is transposed to Veronica – clearly based on Jacquelyn but sexed up enough to warrant a name change. Juno Temple as the super-self possessed, acerbic Ronnie is the best thing about the show, spitting out zingers like “I don’t deal with people, people deal with me” and sporting a wardrobe to kill for. 

The dramatisation does have other advantages though. The performances are excellent and casting the handsome and charismatic Eric Bana as Meehan gives the audience a chance to understand how Debra Newell could go back to him even after she’d discovered his extremely shady past. The real Meehan, by necessity, has no voice at all on the podcast so the show isn’t a slave to the truth when it comes to John and nor does it need to fairly present his side of events. But while Dirty John is entertaining and enjoyable, by the show’s conclusion the whole thing is just lacking a little bit of, well, drama.

Because of similar themes, Dirty John has been compared to recent Netflix show You, which also deals with a charming, manipulative and violent stalker. But that’s the thing: You is what you’d write if you had free reign with Dirty John. Loads more murder, drama, twists and cliffhangers. You is complete fantasy and all the more thrilling for it.

read more: Best New TV Shows of 2018

Dirty John is by no means a failure. In fact, it’s a really interesting step in how TV might evolve going forward. With podcasts increasingly becoming a cheaper way to essentially pilot an idea and gauge interest, more and more podcasts are being converted into shows. Look out for TV versions of fictional podcasts Welcome To Nightvale and Limetown, and true-crime shows Sword And Scale and Up And Vanished in the future. Though these of course are either pure fiction or pure fact – not, like Dirty John, a hybrid of the two.

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Art imitating life is something we’re all very used to. But Dirty John is art imitating art imitating life. Or rather: a drama based on a true story which was told as if it was a drama. It has the feeling of a photocopy of a photocopy, or a shot-for-shot remake. Fascinating, but hamstrung by our changing relationship with truth and fiction.

Dirty John is available to stream on Bravo for cable subscribers, and available to buy or rent via Amazon’s Prime Video, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.