One of the quirks of being a full-time pop culture writer is getting invited to media events and having no idea what to expect. Usually you go, see a new movie or show, and then leave. Sometimes there’s a Q & A with the principals, free popcorn, maybe even a cheese plate. Occasionally there are sliders.
This past week we were invited to cover the premiere of Bravo’s new series Dirty John at an event space in Hollywood. I was a big fan of the podcast, a lurid true crime series about a fascinating stalker/sociopath who glommed onto an Orange County family and almost tore it apart. Its central figure, John Meehan, was somehow completely, compellingly insane, yet also with traits recognizable from every scumbag you’ve ever known. He pretended to be a doctor and also a combat vet, mainly to bilk women into paying his way while lounging on the couch playing CounterStrike. He went to a screening of American Sniper with his fiancée and told her “that’s how it was over there.” The show had the fatal attraction element, was a perfect slice of Orange County life, and there was no murder victim at the center of it that you’d have to worry you were exploiting by listening to it. I loved it. I didn’t know how it would translate to a scripted show, but Bravo seemed like a perfect fit.
I should’ve known it was going to be a fancier affair than usual by the “red carpet” part of the invitation, but when you go to screenings almost every day of the week you stop reading these things carefully. I showed up just as Eric Bana was passing in front of the step and retreat, being ogled by photographers. Ah, so it was a real premiere premiere. Bana plays Dirty John, and I do love Eric Bana. His performance as “excited Australian guy who tries to explain Aussie Rules Football to Adam Sandler” in Funny People doesn’t get talked about enough.
The premiere space was a big, modernist warehouse kind of a thing, with a screen at the far end and some white faux leather chairs in front of it. An ocean landscape was being projected onto the side walls, over which was superimposed various words, which would move and change. The word FAMILY in white font transformed into FEAR in black font, as waves crashed behind it. LOVE became LIES. People I didn’t recognize but who carried themselves like celebrities posed in front of the word art, taking pictures for longer than seemed acceptable. All around me mingled famous people in designer t-shirts and unfamous people in suits and cocktail dresses. Was I overdressed or underdressed? The eternal LA question.
With no date and no one I recognized, I did what I usually do at these things: drink the free wine, and awkwardly stand. There was some good people watching. As I was making my way back from the open bar I walked past someone wearing a giant, shiny, leather bomber jacket with “CHATEAU MARMONT” stitched onto the back in ostentatious white lettering. “Oh brother,” I thought to myself, shaking my head. As I continued walking more of the jacket wearer’s face hove into view and I got a pang of familiarity. Those cheekbones… those laugh lines… I know this person. It turned out to be James Franco. (Further research reveals the jacket was made by Gucci, the company who sponsored his art film, Dicknose in Paris).
I saw a few other celebrities, including a handful I respected. I didn’t introduce myself or acknowledge them in any way so as not to be weird. Then I saw the dog from Dirty John. That is, the miniature Australian Shepherd who was with Terra when John… [spoilers redacted for anyone who has not yet read, listened to, or plans to watch the scripted adaptation of Dirty John]. I immediately went up to pet Terra’s dog from Dirty John, who I soon discovered was standing with Terra from Dirty John. I did not introduce myself to her. Terra’s dog was great though. Friendly, outgoing, totally down to Earth. In a perfect world, all celebrities would be dogs.
It seemed like the show was about to start so I went down front to get a seat. It didn’t look like there were enough seats for all the people and all the seats that were there had cards that said “RESERVED” on them. But… reserved… for who? Deep down I knew the answer. “Buddy, if you have to ask…” But then what was the alternative? Were we to stand the entire time, like beasts? Just as I was pondering this, a woman’s voice came over the loudspeakers announcing that we should begin to take our seats, and that more seating was available in the mezzanine. Ah, the mezzanine. I hadn’t noticed that. We had to walk back out the front door and into a side door to find it.
Once properly situated, Dirty John‘s showrunner (Alexandra Cunningham) and director (Jeffrey Reiner) gave short speeches, noting that it was particularly poignant because some of the places they used as locations in the show — Agoura Hills, Calabasas — were on fire. Cunningham said she hoped the show could be relatable, but also offer distraction in times like these.
I’ve never seen a podcast become a television show before and I didn’t know what to expect from this one. I’ve also never watched a scripted show on Bravo. I was impressed on pretty much every level. Tone-wise, Dirty John is comparable to The Assassination Of Gianni Versace show on FX. The casting is spot on — Bana as John Meehan, Connie Britton as Debra Newell — and it has that quality of making you happily anticipate another retelling of a story you already know. Sort of in the way it’s inexplicably exciting when Jason Mitchell drops the first line of “Boyz In the Hood” as Eazy E in Straight Outta Compton, even though you know the moment is coming and have probably even seen it in the trailer.
One of the biggest questions in translating Dirty John to screen was how they would capture the joy of Debra’s daughters as Orange County archetypes. It turned out to be one of the strongest aspects. Juno Temple is fantastic as Debra’s older daughter, Veronica, the type A one, getting big laughs almost every time she was onscreen. In the first episode, it’s a little hard to tell whether Veronica’s instant aversion to John is prescient, or just her being a spoiled brat (Veronica famously has a safe where she stores designer purses). Which might not necessarily be true to life (it seemed like John was growing red flags from his forehead basically from day one), but it may make for a better series arc. It certainly makes Debra’s credulousness more believable.
Dirty John was funny, compelling, and all in all a promising first episode. It could definitely find a place on my DVR. And now when I watch the rest at home, I can pretend I’m still in a big weird room full of glamorous celebrities and James Franco’s shiny jacket.