Review: Bravo’s ‘Dirty John’ feels like ‘Real Housewives of Orange County,’ but with the great Connie Britton
As you knew it would, Bravo’s TV version of the podcast “Dirty John,” starring Connie Britton and Eric Bana, doubles nicely as a Very Special Episode(s) of its “The Real Housewives of Orange County” franchise: Affluent suburban businesswoman falls for dangerous con man (insert presidential-election voter demographics joke here).
Glossy and well-acted, its transfer from your daily commute’s most suspenseful listening stretch ever to serviceable wine-and-laundry-folding companion show feels, all in all, a smooth one.
It’s also potboiler-friendly enough to make you forget it started as investigative journalism, a six-part true-crime roller coaster brought to you last year by this newspaper, and whose audio version was met with the kind of download numbers destined to catch the eye of television executives. In the wake of “Dirty John” and Amazon’s adaptation of “Homecoming,” podcasts are the new source niche, unearthing or creating stories that lodge nicely into the increasingly popular event-series maw that episodic television wants to feed. (Now in the works, apparently: a TV adaptation of the medical horror podcast “Dr. Death.”)
Of the three episodes out of eight made available for review, the series, which starts Sunday, so far hews closely to the reported details. But it also wouldn’t feel entirely out of place in the sun-kissed noir of a Ross Macdonald novel about family secrets. Interior designer Debra Newell (Britton), unlucky in love after four marriages, meets anesthesiologist John Meehan (Bana) via online dating, and sparks fly. Debra’s perma-sneering grown daughter Veronica (Juno Temple), however, hardly considers this shorts-and-sneakers suitor boyfriend material. To her mom, John’s charming attentiveness and riveting backstory of being a combat medic in Iraq wins out over his limited wardrobe. But Veronica’s first impression, as she relates to her and Debra’s family counselor, is, “Who’s the homeless frat guy?”
(Veronica’s a name change from Jacquelyn, in case you listeners were wondering.)
Things move fast for Debra and John, but the suspicions of Veronica and her younger sister Terra (Julia Garner), who openly despise mom’s new squeeze, move just as quickly and spur them to check his background. Caught between basking in the glow of being in a committed romance again and aggravating daughters she’s never had the best relationship with, Debra tries her best to be Switzerland as tensions mount. But when the work of a private investigator, and Debra’s own snooping, reveals a scarier picture of John’s background and possible motives, circling the wagons seems the only option.
To the unfamiliar, “Dirty John” the series, as shepherded by showrunner Alexandra Cunningham (“Desperate Housewives,” “Chance”), may come off as one more Lifetime-adjacent women-in-peril story — albeit elegantly scissored from the headlines. But fans of the podcast will surely be looking to see how closely the performances synch with their first clenched experience hearing it from an omniscient host reporter with the recollections of the subjects themselves. In that respect, the cast chosen to be this iteration’s dramatic avatars was shrewdly assembled.
Britton effortlessly conveys the vulnerable romantic inside the capable, put-together exterior of a successful woman. Bana, whose star power has always suggested something mysteriously closed off, does his part selling the rascally appeal — and, of course, the escalating creep factor. But it’s Britton who does the heavy lifting of semi-willful obliviousness, and she’s great. Her best scenes are when, as the evidence mounts against John, denial begins to color her measured words and freeze her expression, like the faintest hint of a captive fragrance.
As Debra’s daughters, Temple looks to be mining a well-trod Southern California materialistic stereotype for flashes of tart humor and sneaky intelligence, while “Ozark” regular Garner — vocal fry intact, big eyes ever expressive, but blond frizz straightened — effectively renders the sensitivity and fear in someone who believes in a coming zombie apocalypse but may need to briefly supplant that concern with her doubts about mother’s new dude.
There’s also the reliably sturdy presence of Jean Smart as Debra’s soft-spoken mother, who adores John and supports Debra, but maybe not in the way that’s most emotionally healthy. During a quiet heart-to-heart when Debra expresses worry about her kids hating John, the message subtly conveyed is to make the relationship work when Smart casually sighs about her romantic prospects, “I think this is it for you.” Mom!
“Dirty John” is solidly pulpy, but so far, no more. There are lies big and little, and there will be an object that is sharp, but hardly anything to threaten HBO’s serialized drama cache. If the first two episodes suffer from anything, it’s the weight of expectation, the knowledge that menace is around the corner, but rudimentary scene-setting is what’s immediately in view. Episode three, however, effectively splits the action between present dread and past sins — just as the original podcast did with the unveiling of John’s background — and amounts to an old-fashioned nail-biter with some effectively chilling moments. You might not get everything from the dryer squared away during that one.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rated: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)
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