(Spoilers for Dirty John, both the podcast and the TV series, will definitely be found below.)
Bravo’s Dirty John series doesn’t 100% match up to the true-crime podcast (from Christopher Goffard of the LA Times), and that’s to be expected, given a longer runtime and the visual medium that encourages more creative license. Before the TV show launched, star Eric Bana promised Uproxx a more unsettling experience, and Bana’s predictions are coming true in the latter half of the season. When the series finale arrives, it’ll be time to talk about the show’s take on abusive relationships, but for now, the Bravo series is making John more of a well-rounded villain (which does present drawbacks), one with a past and less of a mysterious entity who seemingly emerged fully-formed to forge a path of destruction. In doing so, Bravo illuminates how John was able to deftly maneuver within a system that was no match for his manipulative “talents.”
What’s also scary is the paradox that Bravo’s extended narrative presents. By detailing more of John’s past, he doesn’t become scarier simply because he’s portrayed as even more monstrous than his real-life counterpart. Instead, he grows slightly humanized because we see (with graphic specificity) how he was groomed to be bad. Yet the most terrifying by-product is how the legal U.S. system made it more of pain in the butt to incarcerate John, long-term, and shut him down. (After all, dozens of restraining orders and several felony convictions can’t be wrong.) We see this during episodes 5 (“Lord High Executioner”) and 6 (“One Shoe”) — after Debra (Connie Britton) has tried once to flee from her husband’s manipulative, grifting, and drug-addicted behavior. Debra wants to believe that John wants to be a better person, and there are arguments to be made about how quickly she’s willing to forgive his misdeeds, but John’s been conning people for decades already. He’s a pro.
With Debra, John truly achieves the perfect psychopathic storm by zeroing in on her history and vulnerabilities. Yet I do struggle with whether the “cautionary tale” aspect of the podcast rings true, thanks to pulpy scenes like the next one. In “Lord High Executioner,” we see the childhood roots of John’s grifting in visceral detail. This history is very briefly touched upon in the podcast — John’s mafia-wannabe father urged him to stuff glass into a restaurant taco and dash into the street in front of a moving vehicle to collect insurance money — but it almost feels like Goffard mentions these acts in passing, to de-emphasize them. Whereas on Bravo’s series, we actually see this happen, along with the aftereffects. The acting isn’t stellar, and John’s dad throws Goodfellas vibes that play as darkly comedic rather than terrifying, but still, Bravo takes great pains to flesh out a broken-boned young John while he’s executing a scam.