Dirty John….. Oh dear. Where to start?

I honestly had no intention of reviewing a podcast I wouldn’t recommend listening to but the fact that this series is, one, produced by the L.A. Times & Wondery and two, extremely popular, means I cannot ignore it.

Dirty John – terrible name, which I’ll come back to – tells the story of Debra Newell, an interior designer and her relationship with John, a doctor, which ultimately takes a disastrous turn as her family grow fearful of his power over her. The premise is great. A love story that tears a family apart. With lots of potential for twists and turn as John’s true character is revealed. Alas, it never delivers. Surprising, seeing as it is produced by the L.A. Times, but the reporters fail to deliver this story in the manner it should it be. A nail biting, edge of your seat, dark thriller. Instead it is more of a cheap, sensationalist, true crime saga that limps along episode by episode.

By the end of the first episode I was asking myself how this clearly successful, intelligent woman, with a strong family network, could have been duped by this evident con man? (My next statement may be controversial). But when you realise it’s her fourth marriage, questions begin to arise about her ability to choose a suitable partner.

I have no problem with Debra being married four times. We don’t know the circumstances of her marriages. Whether they ended in bereavement or divorce? Were they abusive or just standard break ups? But the fact that she had been married so many times previously is just casually slipped in. Perhaps in the hope the listener wouldn’t notice it. This could be down to ignorant journalism or, more likely, by not discussing it, the producers are hoping the listener won’t prejudge Debra. However, I believe by not explaining the circumstances or even setting a scene, we’re left to think the worst.

This seems to be the modus operandi of the reporters. A higgledy piggledy mish mosh of facts and events that are thrown together, without thought or proper discovery. Yes, there is a thread along which the story runs but it lacks finesse and understanding of how true crime dramas have become so popular. Suspension. Slow reveal of twists and turns. Compelling characters that are believable and that the listener can empathise with.

Dirty John lacks all of this.

The elusive John is painted by Debra as a modern day Don Juan. Charming, sophisticated, and career driven who knows all the right things to say to her. Unfortunately it quickly becomes clear that Debra lacks a certain self confidence making it is easy for a man like John to worm his way into her life. As such, a rapport is never built between the listener and Debra. As she continues to ignore sage advice from family and friends, it is not difficult for the listener’s level of sympathy to wane. On the other hand, John is painted as such a caricature of himself that it’s hard to take any of his actions seriously. Perhaps we’re meant to believe John is in love and cares about Debra at the beginning but she is such an unreliable witness that I, personally, never believe their relationship and as such start this series off on the wrong foot.

For me, however, the biggest crime of this podcast, is the recording of the interviews. It surprises me that the L.A. Times and Wondery did not make more of an effort to record clean, professional sounding interviews. Exceptions can and are often made for interviews that are recorded in cars or on iPhones or with external noise interfering. However, the onus is on the presenter to mention this but they neither acknowledge this nor is it a once off. All interviews are recorded in the same manner. As though with a mobile phone in some loud echo chamber where clean sound is not a consideration. Imagine watching a film that was recorded on VHS? You wouldn’t accept the fuzzy, slow, pixellated images. So why do people think it is okay with audio?

It is not.

And finally, the name Dirty John. It immediately sets you on a path that this man is not who he says he is. So the series never produces that proper twist you’re expecting and feel deserving of. Yes there are a few road bumps but they’re predictable. The series is ham fisted, lacking subtly and cunning a well told and thought out thriller could produce. Honestly, it’s disappointing. And how it is so successful is even more surprising.

My advice, listen only if the world is on fire and you’re bored out of your brains x

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