"Dirty John", as in the addictive investigative series of the Los Angeles Times reporter, Christopher Goffard, or the hit podcast that came to pass, or the Bravo limited series that will debut on Sunday at 10 pm, is a story of women in danger on steroids. It was born that way, a story of crimes with tendrils that go back many years in the past and reveal to the victims that John Meehan caught long before he got to Debra Newell, a successful Newport Beach businesswoman with little luck in the arena of romance.
The Goffard pieces and the podcast, both released last October with great success, are fascinating lessons about how anyone can fall into the right trap. It is a simple inherent defect in humanity: no matter how intelligent and sensible we imagine ourselves to be, there are predators that can swim through all the pits and enchant the crocodiles to let it pass.
Those who read or heard "Dirty John" might have seen Newell as an easier brand given his quest to find true love, a path that walked through multiple failed marriages before Meehan toppled her, claiming to be an anesthesiologist and a veteran of the Iraq war that worked with Doctors Without Borders. When he showed up for his first date with worn clothes, Newell wrote his appearance to his business schedule and his attitude toward Earth.
And in the series, John, played by Eric Bana, is handsome and attentive in his conversation. He does so many of the right things on the first date, except for a couple of massive red flags, that Debra, played by Connie Britton, forgives the mistakes and chooses to focus on his cavalry demonstrations. His materialist and brutally honest daughter Veronica (Temple of Juno), on the other hand, can not ignore how voraciously John observes all the nice things in Debra's house.
The next thing Debra knows is that he is exchanging vows with him in a Las Vegas chapel, a decision he took very seriously to be similar to his choice even though those of us who have read or heard this story know better. Not long after this, everything goes terribly, tortured badly.
Podcasts have become hot mines for content development, and "Dirty John" was always a natural thing to make the transition from the page to the audio to the screen. Maybe Goffard had that hunch, even before the podcast was downloaded more than 30 million times. The flowery language used to recreate scenes and develop characters in his articles creates a vivid enough image for creator Alexandra Cunningham (whose pedigree includes "Desperate Housewives") and director Jeffrey Reiner emulate it. That they do it, almost to the letter, in the three episodes available for review, for the benefit and detriment of the series. The first episode, by the way, is currently available on video on demand, and airs on YouTube and on the Bravo website.
"Dirty John" is the kind of lovemaking turned mortal that spurred the entire industry of the murder mystery and provided the backbone of the entire channel movie library before the real crime became fashionable. Readers and listeners loved "Dirty John" in part because it follows the established pattern of the genre. The character of the same name is a muscular coquettish who says everything right and anticipates the needs of his brand. A montage at the beginning of his courtship shows that John is a prince and wealthy that takes the form of awakening the woman who pretends to love each day with a different flavor to a homemade milkshake: blueberry one day and kale the next. With a touch of turmeric! Just a drop in a california ocean dreaming.
But these romantic gestures mask the warning signs and accumulated deceptions, and the protests of Debra's children, portrayed as pampered adults who have witnessed that their mother was blinded by bad decisions in the past. For her, her vocal disapproval of John is an example of a wolf crying, only this time the wolf, along with his addiction to drugs and his teeth, are real and dangerous.
And his story ends with a fight for survival that resembles a horror movie. Goffard could not have invented the accidental glitter of the fact that Debra's daughter, Terra ("Ozark" student Julia Garner) owes her survival to her devotion to "The Walking Dead." Only by studying a fictional apocalypse on television was he able to emerge from a deadly, alive and victorious confrontation, and it provides a stupendous ending made for TV.
The Bravo of all that, forgive the shorthand, but I hope you understand what I mean, it's the ostentatious flash of Newell lifestyle and the audacity of Meehan's scam. This is a parable of homicides set in the country "Real Housewives of Orange County". If Bravo was not doing it, it would be broadcast on Lifetime.
Lifetime can still make its own version. Who knows?
The point is that "Dirty John" has no creative surprises for those who are familiar with the case, and does not break any widely-established convention by, say, Investigation Discovery or Oxygen. That does not make it useless, look. It has all the characteristics of a frivolous, ephemeral moment, a pointy ornament made to stand out among the soft December offers of television.
This can be read as a pan or a warning to anyone who has been attracted to Goffard's reports or the podcast, which is basically the audiobook version of the story. It is not the first, and only the last if it is expected that the adaptation will match the artistic quality of the source material. In that case, prepare to be insufficient.
But if you've been looking for an excuse to touch that pink wine box lurking in the back of your refrigerator and yelling and panting on your TV screen, happy holidays.
What I am saying is, adjust your expectations accordingly. This is not a top-shelf work "based on a true story" but an eight-part drama that follows almost directly the format of the newspaper series, but nevertheless can not avoid suffering a dilution through the dramatization.
As with most sweets, consuming "Dirty John" requires overlooking a bit of reality, that is, the fact that the people you threatened are still with us. On the other hand, two real life key players walked the red carpet in support of the series, so maybe you do not torture yourself too much on that front.
It must also be accepted that some details that caused Goffard to say the song are included in the translation. The obsession of Terra's "Walking Dead" is key to the story and adds a strange cosmic poetry to its reward, but in the television adaptation that has been reduced to a non-specific zombie apocalypse of the brand. Which is a very different proposition.
And it may disagree with Garner's interpretation of Terra. His squeaky mouse voice announces a presumed passivity, as if to compensate for the loss of that "Walking Dead" reference so we can find a new shock in the end. Meanwhile, Temple is so disturbing that one imagines that his representation will be recreated for the challenge of the "RuPaul Drag Race". That's just a problem for viewers who come to "Dirty John" with high viewing standards. For anyone involved in a release and working on their nightly cheese, their work is a delight for vampires.
In fact, with so many viewers who know how it evolves and ends "Dirty John", much of the weight falls on the stars to keep us interested.
Britton plays his role with empathy and spark, when not? – and it is a bit devastating to see her fall apart when she discovers the horrible and violent truth behind the dream weaver to whom she is legally bound. And it helps to have some awareness of Meehan's wickedness as he watches Bana play the early stages of his courtship. In his first dates, he slightly exposes his romantic gestures with a touch of sinister, providing a little too much detail about his story invented in his conversations with Debra. When darker questions arise, he observes Bana's jaw, which takes over, albeit slightly, while risking a defensive explanation in the face of highly suspicious circumstances. Fortunately, you do not have to play subtly for a long time. In the third episode, the nightmare scenario is in bloom, told in scenes that intermingle Debra's awakening in the present with the ex-wife who cheated, and then threatened, in the past.
It is not clear at this time if "Dirty John" can sustain the temptation and terror in eight episodes without filling the plot. Goffard's story works because he achieved a firm balance between detail and precision. The initial episodes represent the story almost exactly as Goffard wrote it, and that's fine. But Goffard wrote six chapters. I'm curious to know what aspects of those parts deserve an elaboration and how successful the series will be that will achieve that.
Is Bravo's "dirty Juan" necessary? Essential? No, but what is the piece of fear of the real crime made on television? Surely there is an answer to that, even if this thriller is not. But it works like a thin thread of crime at a time of year wrapped in feelings of holly and ivy that, like fresh snow in a still warm earth, are celebrated before melting, forgotten. Taking into account the other options in the calendar, this limited series is the kind of proposal that makes sense at the moment. You know, something like a grift designed by experts.
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