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'Dirty John' makes messy leap from pod to screen

Traditional print outlets are understandably starry-eyed about finding new ways to cash in on their content,...

Posted: Nov 16, 2018 1:56 PM
Updated: Nov 16, 2018 1:56 PM

Traditional print outlets are understandably starry-eyed about finding new ways to cash in on their content, compensating for a dwindling business model. Enter "Dirty John," a Bravo event series adapted from the salacious multi-part Los Angeles Times articles and podcast, which -- the classy underpinnings notwithstanding -- basically plays like an old-school Lifetime movie, just stretched into episodic form.

The casting, certainly, helps elevate the material, with Connie Britton ("Friday Night Lights") as Debra Newell, the successful career woman swept off her feet by John Meehan (Eric Bana), who she meets through a dating service. A whirlwind romance ensues, despite the skepticism -- when not outright hostility -- of her friends and family, understandably concerned that it's all too soon, too fast.

The main problem with "Dirty John," though -- both the character, and the series -- is that as structured here, his web of lies begin unraveling pretty quickly. Yes, it's Eric Bana (sigh), but Britton's not exactly chopped liver, which makes her character's blinders when it comes to seeing John's flaws feel as if they strain credulity -- even knowing it's a true story -- as questions keep mounting about his claims of being a doctor, his war history, and so on.

Complicating matters is Debra's relationship with her daughters (Juno Temple and Julia Garner), who "hate him," Debra laments, and start seeking to uncover the truth.

Connie Britton's in a toxic relationship in 'Dirty John' trailer

Positioned as a longform thriller when it become a sensation in print and podcast, the series comes across as more mundane, perhaps because women being manipulated by lying, no-good men is such a familiar staple of the fact-based drama. (It's also popular in documentaries, and sister network Oxygen has its own companion project, "Dirty John: The Dirty Truth," scheduled to air in January.)

Jean Smart also turns up as Debra's mom, but through the episodes previewed it's largely Britton and Bana's showcase, and they help make the series watchable enough, even if it doesn't feel particularly distinctive or special.

There's a temptation to endorse anything that supports investigative journalism, and the Times receives a production credit on the series, which carries the requisite disclaimer about certain events having been altered for dramatic purposes. That's not the kind of thing that's considered kosher in newspapers, but when you get into bed with Hollywood, you generally wind up playing by their rules.

"Dirty John" premieres Nov. 25 at 10 p.m. on Bravo. The premiere is available online via YouTube and Bravo's web site.

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