Overwrought and overwritten, Dirty John is part serious drama, part soap opera and never manages to overcome its clunky script and identikit characters.
Any streaming platform worth its salt needs an adaptation of a successful podcast, right? Dirty John, now streaming on Netflix, is based on the hugely successful podcast of the same name. It tells the story of Debra, a successful and glamorous interior designer who after a string of disappointing online dates finally hits it off with someone and falls head over heels. John seems to be all kinds of perfect: he’s handsome and charming, a doctor who has been working in Iraq for MSF until… well, of course, you can probably guess the rest. John is actually a sociopath and over the course of the 8-episode run, we get to see the full extent of his mania.
The first thing that caught my eye about Dirty John is its cast: Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights, Nashville), Eric Bana (Munich, Troy), Juno Temple (Atonement, Mr. Nobody) and Jean Smart (Garden State, Fraiser) all star. Unfortunately, for the most part, the talented ensemble struggles with a very clunky script that is badly overwritten and regularly succumbs to cliché. The exception to this perhaps is Britton, whose charisma papers over some of the cracks. In her performance you see a woman who is so desperate to be happy and see the best in John that she is willing to overlook the red flags. She is strong, yet vulnerable, and Britton manages to embody both of these things.
As a serious drama Dirty John doesn’t quite work, but if you are able to view it as a melodrama or a soap opera there is some pleasure to be taken in it. Once you accept that it is totally over the top it’s easier to relax into the ride. The flashback sequences have the feel of a low budget dramatic reconstruction in a documentary series; they are all sepia-tinged and feature an overwrought and overplayed soundtrack. Most of the characters are written as very broad archetypes; John Meehan is a by the numbers sociopath whose pathological lying gets progressively more outlandish until the drama reaches a particularly over the top conclusion, and Debra’s daughter is a spoiled brat who despite getting the measure of John quickly remains deeply unlikable.
The problem with Dirty John is that the team behind it are really trying to make something more meaningful and hard-hitting than the end result gives us. The subject matter (based on a true story) demands sensitivity and it is clear that the showrunners are doing their best to take it very seriously. Unfortunately, the script and melodrama weaken Dirty John to the point where it borders on disrespectful.