Friday 19 July 2019

Dirty John on Netflix review: 'A cheesy account of a bizarre case'

2 stars

Eric Bana and Connie Britton in Dirty John
Eric Bana and Connie Britton in Dirty John

Pat Stacey

Strange as it might sound, there’s something almost comforting about the prospect of watching ITV’s Fred and Rose West: The Real Story with Trevor McDonald, which makes its overdue appearance tomorrow night, having being pulled from the January 31 schedules at the last moment due to legal concerns, since resolved.

The details are horrific, of course. The sadomasochistic Wests are the most notorious serial killers in British history, who tortured and murdered young strangers, as well as their own children, and buried them in the cellar and garden of their house at 25 Cromwell Street.

But you know you’re going to be in safe hands with Sir Trevor, the veteran newsman who British viewers regularly named the most trusted person on television throughout his years anchoring News at Ten.

You know the programme, disturbing as the subject matter is, won’t be unnecessarily lurid or sensationalist. It won’t wallow in the gruesome details and, just as importantly, it won’t outstay its welcome. It’ll be over and done with in an hour.

This is an increasing rarity at a time when true-crime series have come to dominate TV and streaming services, not just because of the sheer volume of them, but also in terms of their sometimes punishing length.

The two seasons of Netflix’s Making a Murderer ran for 10 episodes apiece, even though the (non) events of the second could just as easily have been dispensed with in a two-hour special.

The extremely dubious Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, also from Netflix, tried desperately hard to persuade us, over the course of four chunky episodes, that the vile serial killer, rapist and necrophile was a fascinating character worthy of deep study, when in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Behind the psychopathic rage, all there was was more psychopathic rage. Bundy — like Charles Manson and John Lennon’s murderer Mark Chapman — was a nothing, a narcissistic mediocrity.

Documentarian Joe Berlinger, who made Conversations with a Killer, isn’t done with his Bundy obsession. He’s also directed a feature film called Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, which stars Zac Efron as Bundy and comes out in May. It’s anyone’s guess how that will be received by the public, but if anything suggests the true-crime genre is entering its dying days, it’s Dirty John, which landed on Netflix (again!) last week, having gone out on pay channel Bravo in the US before Christmas.

It’s an unusual one, this, in that it’s based on a very popular podcast of the same name by LA Times journalist Christopher Goffard. I can only assume that was a lot better than the dramatised version.

For a change, the subject, John Meehan, wasn’t a killer, although there’s no doubt he would have become one if — SPOILER ALERT!— his intended victim hadn’t managed to grab hold of his knife during a struggle and stab him 13 times. He died in hospital four days later.

Meehan, played by Eric Bana, was a sociopathic conman, stalker and manipulator who charmed and married wealthy Californian interior designer Debra Newel (Connie Britton).

Newell swallowed every lie Meehan fed her, including that he was a doctor who’d served in Iraq. Her daughters, played by Juno Temple and Julia Garner, smelled a rat from the beginning.

For a series rooted in fact, Dirty John is strangely flat and artificial. It resembles a cheesy Hallmark Movie of the Week, dragged out to eight hours.

Obviously, we’re supposed to sympathise with Debra. As played by Britton, though, she’s infuriatingly passive and gullible; a walking definition of the old saying “more money than sense”. Maybe she really was this gormless, but the truth has never looked phonier.

Dirty John is streaming on Netflix.  Fred and Rose: The Real Story with Trevor McDonald is on UTV/ITV tomorrow, Thursday, at 9pm

Read more: Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes review: 'It attempts to imbue Bundy with a mystique that was never there'

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