Dirty John is a familiar story with an unusual middleman. The new Bravo limited series blends in easily with the true crime dramatizations (American Crime Story, the latest Law & Order spinoff), parodies (American Vandal, Trial & Error), and documentaries (The Keepers, Making a Murderer) that make up a still-growing chunk of television real estate. And with a basic plot that sounds like it was generated by an algorithm raised on a steady diet of Lifetime original movies, Dirty John hearkens back to even more established tropes. A wealthy white woman enters a whirlwind romance with a handsome doctor who seems like the perfect man. You can already hear the ominous voice-over: Or is he?
But while the stranger-than-fiction story of Dirty John does come from real life, the doomed marriage of Orange County businesswoman Debra Newell and violent con man John Meehan first gained an audience not as a cable news story, but as a podcast. In October 2017, the Los Angeles Times ran a six-part series from reporter Christopher Goffard detailing Newell and Meehan’s relationship—which soured from a fairy-tale seduction to a terrifying cautionary tale in a matter of months—and its effect on Newell’s family. In addition to the print story, the Times partnered with production company Wondery to narrate the Newells’ ordeal in audio form, with assistance from the Newells themselves. Within weeks, Dirty John had received more than 10 million downloads; within months, Bravo had ordered an anthology series in the vein of American Crime Story or Hulu’s upcoming The Act. (There will also be a straightforward docuseries on Bravo’s sibling network Oxygen, which recently pivoted to true crime.)
The podcast-to-television pipeline is neither new nor an overnight development. The genre technically dates back to 2012, with Comedy Bang! Bang!’s absurdist take on a talk show for IFC. But this latest wave already includes unscripted offerings like HBO’s 2 Dope Queens, the podcast turned special series successful enough to earn a second volume; the episodic horror anthology Lore on Amazon, which riffs on Black Mirror with a storytelling structure borrowed from its namesake podcast; and the short-lived network comedy Alex, Inc., based on Gimlet Media’s StartUp, which ABC canceled this spring after just a couple of months. Clearly, not all of these efforts have been successful, and none thus far has replicated the culture-consuming success of a Serial. But they’ve come at a steady clip, and they may finally be building some momentum.
Earlier this month, Amazon released Homecoming, based on a fictional podcast from writers Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, directed by Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail and starring Julia Roberts. Dirty John, too, boasts formidable star power: Eric Bana and Connie Britton play the not-so-happy couple, with Jean Smart, Juno Temple, and Julia Garner rounding out the ensemble as Newell’s mother and daughters. Combined with the popularity of their source material, Homecoming and Dirty John form a pair that cries out for both acknowledgement and trend pieces. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that The New Yorker chose this month to publish a sweeping, somewhat reductive survey of the medium. Podcasting has matured, and it has the establishment’s awkward appraisal to prove it.
Nor are the back-to-back premieres of Homecoming and Dirty John purely coincidence. They’re a sign of what’s to come, with a long list of imminent follow-ups that promise to turn this blip into a steady stream: Wondery also produced Dr. Death, which is currently in development at Universal Cable Productions, the studio that oversaw Homecoming and is working on adaptations of Alice Isn’t Dead, a haunting paranormal mystery, and Bronzeville, a realist social drama set in 1940s Chicago. FX has optioned the rights to Welcome to Night Vale, the popular mock-news show from a deeply strange desert community; Jessica Biel will star in Limetown for Facebook Watch. These are glossy, big-budget, often faithful works of storytelling, the result of a symbiotic relationship that feels like it’s just getting started.
That risk-averse Hollywood prefers road-tested concepts is, at this point, more truism than observation. Yet podcast-based TV feels like a potentially fruitful extension of this impulse; the kinds of stories that have succeeded as podcasts are often exactly the kind of original, thoughtful, and/or labor-intensive storytelling many complain is missing from entertainment these days. On the one hand, if it takes Homecoming to get a new mid-budget thriller made in 2018 or Bronzeville a socially conscious, human-scale period piece, so be it. On the other hand, there’s a clear gold rush in motion: Dr. Death’s development was announced in early October, just over a week after the podcast’s initial run concluded. It’s only a matter of time before podcast TV’s equivalent of optioning a creepypasta comes to fruition.
Homecoming and Dirty John are drastically different stories, a testament to the diversity of both podcasts and the shows that may eventually result from them. They also face drastically different challenges in their adjustment to the screen. The original Homecoming is a pure invention that adheres to the choreographed tension of a thriller; Bloomberg, Horowitz, and Esmail had to both sustain that tension for longer—10 episodes instead of six—and convey it with sight as well as sound. The solution Homecoming landed on was to lean into the attributes it had and an all-audio experience could not: Esmail’s skills behind the camera; Roberts’s world-famous, highly expressive face; the opportunity afforded by the combination of the two to pay more explicit homage to thrillers past.
Dirty John is sourced from people’s actual lives and, in podcast form, told retroactively, often in the actual words of those affected by its events. In the hands of playwright and Desperate Housewives alum Alexandra Cunningham, the TV version must re-create the feeling of experiencing Meehan’s deception in real time, but without the immediate intimacy of hearing the story from its survivors’ mouths. Dirty John is not quite as inventive as Homecoming and, inevitably, not quite as successful in its efforts to distinguish show from inspiration. But in its cast—particularly Britton, Temple, and Garner—Dirty John finds an effective proxy for Goffard’s sources, with nuanced portraits of the players involved that convincingly answer the million-dollar question of any abuse narrative: How did this happen, and how did it go on for so long?
Dirty John excels at outfitting the trappings of newly acquired Orange County wealth, which Newell got through a successful, self-started interior design business. Her daughters, Veronica (Temple) and Terra (Garner), haven’t inherited Debra’s tenacity: Veronica is a classic California princess, stashing designer handbags in her mother’s glitzy condo; Terra is sweeter, but also more adrift and easily overwhelmed. Combined with the thrice-divorced Debra’s desire for a life partner, their codependent family is the perfect opportunity for an interloper to rightly point out the Newell kids’ overreliance on Debra—and wrongly cast himself as the solution.
Bana, unfortunately, can’t quite measure up to a role as demanding and contradictory as John Meehan. Instead of fully inhabiting either his charisma or his fearsome, vindictive rage, Bana makes Meehan almost wooden, certainly discomfiting but not convincing as either seducer or tormentor. (Smart, for her part, is saddled with a distractingly bad wig that undercuts the subtle emotional work she’s trying to do as Debra’s loving enabler.) The script also leaves some crucial gaps: The three episodes provided to critics don’t yet delve into the Newell family’s extremely, even excessively forgiving form of Christianity, nor how that forgiveness has manifested before in the family’s violent past.
Nevertheless, Dirty John mostly compensates with its central trio of brittle, sensitive women. Temple walks the line between a parody of a mean girl and a winningly assertive one; Garner softens herself into a far gentler soul than the one she portrays on Ozark. Still, it’s Britton who rightly anchors the whole effort, playing overwhelmed and vulnerable without veering into the doe-eyed, or feeling like a betrayal of Debra’s savvier side. In the absence of a more detailed exploration of the Newells’ background, beliefs, and overall context, Britton is the greatest addition Dirty John makes to its namesake podcast and its greatest asset in channeling what makes the podcast so compelling.
Podcasting’s versatility speaks to its potential as a TV wellspring over the long term. There are parallels in each format’s appeal—just as podcasts feel intimate because they accompany us on a walk or on our commutes, so TV meets us in our living rooms—and yet they’re immersive in different ways. Even a show that re-creates a podcast line-for-line, as some of Homecoming’s scenes do, demands more attention and offers room for innovation; the most faithful of podcast adaptations still require some measure of creativity. Their original medium is too diverse and the shows too specific for either Homecoming or Dirty John to serve as proof of concept on their own. They are, however, an invitation to keep experimenting and a promising indication of those experiments’ chances at success.