There was a time—it wasn’t even that long ago!—when true crime series were considered trash TV.
Considering the recent explosion of the genre on streaming services like Netflix (Making a Murderer, Mindhunter) and its embrace on pedigree cable networks like HBO (The Jinx, The Night Of) and FX (American Crime Story), one might confuse it for being part-and-parcel of the Golden Age of Television, the vaunted crest of the #PeakTV flood. But it is not!
True crime has long been the hallmark of guilty pleasure television, perhaps the most perennially popular and misogynistically maligned brand of pop-culture obsession. But finally, it has been been given credit for its pulpy, addictive, naughty-fun virtues and cleverly embraced by whomever those powers may be who signify what qualifies as “prestige TV.”
Thus we arrive at Dirty John, the new Bravo limited series based on the wildly popular Los Angeles Times report and podcast, and the beautiful, messy marriage of those two once seemingly opposing kinds of television, guilty pleasures and “serious” drama. And as any true friend of the genre knows, we like those marriages messy as hell.
I don’t know how or why I got indoctrinated into the very specific, circa ’90s-millennium brand of Lifetime programming: tales of murderers and stalkers and kidnappers and husbands gone bad, lovers gone mad, and women in peril, some ripped from the headlines and others gruesomely concocted to seem real. I do remember that the network just always seemed to be on. I think we’d watch Designing Women reruns after school and then just be too lazy to change the channel as the Sugarbakers’ hijinks gave way to MURDER. (I had so many friends growing up.)
In any case, the programming was irresistible, though largely terrible, and undeniably popular, though largely embarrassing. At least, that’s how the audience was supposed to feel. It kind of still is, even as the likes of Rob Lowe and Angela Bassett sign on to projects, and movies about tragic media figures like Natalee Holloway break ratings records. Meanwhile, Investigation Discovery, which almost exclusively airs true-crime series, is the most-watched network by women.
In tandem came a rise in serialized crime dramas produced by “respected” networks and award-winning creators with A-list actors on the screen. There was something more masculine about these series, with men often behind the scenes, that reflexively earned these projects more gravitas—a bizarre, though unsurprising, gendering of storytelling.
It’s as if someone realized the wild narrative potential in these outrageous crime capers and had their minds blown when they realized, wait, that many people watch them? Frankly, few things have been more of a no-brainer in the #PeakTV area than the rise of the genre, albeit decades after women had already been shamed for embracing it.
In any case, that brings us to the catharsis, as well as the uniqueness of Dirty John. When it premieres Sunday night, it might finally bridge the gap between the Lifetime movie and the hallowed HBO drama. That may be a bridge some people would rather jump right off of. But there are probably even more people eager to watch a pulpy limited series that dramatizes those deaths.
The series is based on a Los Angeles Times investigation published last October in tandem with an addicting podcast that serialized it—and happened to be downloaded more than 30 million times.
It’s the story of Debra Newell, a kind, wealthy, and ultimately too-trusting California woman—played in the series by Friday Night Lights and Nashville hero Connie Britton—and Eric Bana’s John Meehan, the drug-addicted grifter who spent years stealing from the women he conned into marrying him, and then tortured once they found him out.
The warmth and compassion Britton gives Debra helps you understand how, despite four marriages already under her belt, she falls so hard and so fast for a stranger who alarms her almost as often as he sweeps her off her feet. Bana’s Jekyll-and-Hyde intensity is the perfect amount of unsettling for a show that is basically meant to supply the viewer with a Costco-sized order of red flags to wield wantonly as Debbie gets herself further and further entangled with this obvious psychopath.
To the point of the guilty-pleasure-prestige hybrid, it’s interesting to ease into the tone of the show and how we’re supposed to feel about it, given the markers we’re used to signaling opposing things. Based on a news report and a podcast, starring Connie Britton and Eric Bana, and a limited series: These are things that elevate a series to a certain pedigree. But airing on Bravo, with a Lifetime-tailored story, and a soap-opera tone: Those signal that this should be nutrition-less TV junk food.
That juxtaposition is the fun of it all.
The performances, particularly from Britton, are excellent, with a gravitas not routinely pitched to this kind of tale. And the cinematography, production value, and mood of the series is top-grade. It’s a visually arresting, sumptuous show, and one that moves at a blessedly fast clip. It only takes until episode two for Debbie to learn John’s secrets, off-the-bat introducing a juicy cat-and-mouse game where each tries to figure the other out without giving away their own cards.
But for all that elevated craft, the show is shrewd enough to not eschew the Holy Trinity of trash TV: cheesy dialogue, a campy tone, and laughably melodramatic music cues—dunh dunh dunh, a twist! (My boyfriend overheard the first few episodes from the next room and asked why I was watching a ‘90s soap opera on a Wednesday afternoon.)
It all stays true to what I like to think of as interactive television, in which characters infuriate you to the point where you yell, “Girl, are you kidding me right now?” at the screen. If you’ve never done it, it’s unbelievably satisfying. Especially when Connie Britton is that girl!
Some may react as if this is a waste of top-tier talent or, because the series airs on Bravo, that it should be relegated to the same unfairly maligned TV ghetto as the network’s reality shows. Well, folks, it’s 2018. Let’s go dumpster diving.
Oh, and by the way, there is something slyly political, though certainly not overt, to the Dirty John story that mirrors the derision and skepticism that the true-crime genre has for so long been met with off-screen, simply because largely female audiences were fans. As the dizzying number of charges against John come to light—harassment, stalking, robbery, violated restraining orders, and more—and the upsetting number of women whose lives he’s terrorized begins to clarify itself, you become keenly aware of the ways in which the judicial system fails to protect women.
The charges aren’t taken seriously. John manages to litigate his way out of blame and restitution. Sentences are reduced and commuted. Once Debra realizes what she’s gotten herself into, a detective puts the onus on her: “You need to get yourself out.”
There are issues with the show, of course. Despite a stacked cast including Juno Temple, Julia Garner, Jean Smart, Kevin Zegers, and Judy Reyes committing themselves to strong performances (and, in some cases, curious accent work), the series never really digs into their characters beyond having them warn Debra not to trust John in different shades of hysteria. And while camp and soapiness are often the point, they also too often are a liability. It’s a delicate dance to hit that right tone, and sometimes Dirty John seems encumbered by two left feet.
Still, if the idea here is to present a story like this with a certain amount of seriousness and craft, it by and large accomplishes the task. To which I say about time! It is the credit the genre deserves!
This isn’t high art. It’s fun art, and god bless it for that. It is a holiday-timed gift to anyone who found themselves hypnotized into a burrow on their couch for an entire weekend transfixed by a marathon of Lifetime or Hallmark movies, emerging bleary-eyed at the end of it wondering, “What if any of these movies were actually good?” Comrade in sweatpants, I present Dirty John.