Dirty John‘s unkempt pilot doesn’t know what it wants to be, while the star of this limited series vehicle, Connie Britton, is so far above and beyond the rest of the cast and script she sticks out like a sore thumb.
This recap of the Dirty John Season Premiere contains spoilers.
Limited series’ and true-crime shows are all the rage lately, with networks desperately looking for material that’s new and fresh. They have gone rummaging for a good podcast to make into a series (Amazon’s new limited series Homecoming, starring Julia Roberts, just aired this past month, based on a fictionalized podcast of the same name). Bravo has decided to jump into the fray with a true-crime podcast from Los Angeles Times Report Christopher Gifford, who covered the events and used many of his own articles as source material. After watching the first episode, I am uncertain if the creators of the pilot want to make a campy, fun, Lifetime–type series, or something of a hard-hitting expose; that’s a problem, considering this episode should be setting the tone for the entire series.
The show starts with Debra Newell (Friday Night Lights’ Connie Britton, American’s real favourite redhead) who has been divorced four times and whose two adult daughters are anchors that are weighing her down. She goes on a string of very bad dates through online services, that range from an alcoholic, a mama’s boy, an arrogant know-it-all, and probably worst of all for any single woman, a frugal one. So, when she meets a laid-back doctor, even if he shows up in a t-shirt and cargo shorts, expectations can’t go any lower than the rock bottom she is standing on (personally, I think she should have grabbed a shovel, she hasn’t found it yet).
Connie Britton is a natural television star, capable of carrying any series, and it’s clear she is holding up the pilot on her back. The script is weak, teeing up tedious dialogue, and none of the supporting characters is three-dimensional. Besides one joke made early on by one of her daughters (played by Juno Temple and Julia Garner), their selfish, spoiled act tries to be a source of comic relief or outrageous fun but is more grating than anything.
Which brings us to the real problem with the show’s first episode: the miscasting of Eric Bana. I don’t know what it is about Bana, but every time he plays a character with any type of personality, I start to cringe when he opens his mouth. He is built for the strong, silent, brooding type (Munich, Black Hawk Down, Chopper), not the fun, light-hearted, or especially charming ones (Lucky You, Funny People, The Time Traveler’s Wife); which is strange for an actor who got his start doing sketch comedy on Australian late-night television and even recording his own comedy album. And that is precisely the issue with Dirty John, a series that is structured on (and described as) John being charismatic and even sleazy when his portrayal is anything but. His character is unkempt and annoying when he is supposed to be charming. John is intrusive, but not sordid; if anything, he comes across as needy. The lack of chemistry between the leads is apparent, and when Bana lacks the appeal to pull the character off, John comes across as desperate. By the end of the pilot, he is more aloof than anything.
There are five episodes left of Dirty John, and based on the first, it needs to make up ground quickly to establish what type of series it wants to be. I can only hope the guest role of Jean Smart, who plays Debra’s mother, gets more screen time soon, so Britton has someone else on the par to match her talents. As it stands right now, she is so far above and beyond the rest of the cast and source material, she sticks out like a sore thumb.
M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.