The LA Times almost-unbelievable podcast Dirty John was one of the most popular podcasts of the year, staying at number one on the iTunes charts for several weeks. It is the story of the Newell family and their run-in with terrifying con man “Dirty” John Meehan, with a twist at the end that you would never, ever see coming. It’s a radical, brutal kind of justice that we rarely get to hear about, and it feels good.
In an exciting announcement this week, Bravo, recently rebranded as an all-true-crime-all-the-time network, has picked up Dirty John as a scripted TV series for at least two seasons. The first season will tell the story of the Newell family, but just how they will choose to tell the story for TV remains to be seen. How involved in the production will journalist and host Christopher Goffard be? Will the Newell family have a lot of say in how the story is told?
Oxygen has also green lit a companion docuseries that will include interviews with the family in the style of the podcast. I'm hoping that they are able to do away with the bad reenactments and booming narration that often cheapens stories of real people. These two series have the opportunity to big things in the genre of true crime--if they are done well.
A lot of the writing I do for this blog, and the conversations I have with guests on Hunt A Killer’s podcast Behind True Crime, center around how to create responsible true crime. Among all the TV series that are being pumped out at quicker and quicker rates, trotting out crimes out for profit, carelessly reopening wounds, I hope Dirty John is able to rise above the fray. Bravo can choose to present a more serious endeavor that will highlight domestic abuse and the reality that our vulnerability to people like John Meehan is very real, and that we need to start to understand emotional abuse as well as physical, and how dangerous pairing with a someone as narcissistic as John Meehan can be (I write about this more extensively here).
The writer of the Dirty John TV series will be Alexandra Cunningham, also the writer of the popular soap opera-esque series Desperate Housewives. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good campy drama, but how her writing style will translate into telling a true story of abuse, manipulation, and fear, well, I guess we will just have to find out.
The thing is, Dirty John already feels like it could be a drama written by Hollywood. I binged the series quickly, feeling distracted throughout the day when I couldn’t just sit down and listen to the next episode. It wasn’t that Chris Goffard’s storytelling was over-the-top or sensationalizing; it was simply that the story itself, a story of a whirlwind romance, a new husband with so many dark secrets, drugs and money, two daughters trying to find the truth through car trackers, research, and phone calls, all in the backdrop of an affluent family in the LA area, and an ending that somehow wraps the whole thing up in one dramatic, satisfying scene… it feels like it could be the next Big Little Lies. But this story is true, brutally true, and terribly common. See, oftentimes stories of this kind of manipulation and violence often have a different kind of ending, one that would leave you sick to your stomach. Perhaps you know one of these stories.
What I loved about Dirty John (outside of the fantastic storytelling and larger than life characters) was that it highlighted a far-too-common problem in romantic relationships, a phenomenon called coercive control, in which one partner manipulates another with threats of violence, restrictions, and in many cases, physical attacks. Chris Goffard was a guest on our podcast, Behind True Crime, and spoke with me extensively about this issue. Here is the episode:
In the above interview, Christopher talks with me about the importance of spreading awareness around coercive control, as well as other types of partner abuse. The laws around coercive control in the UK are very different than the laws here in US--we simply don't have any. In December 2015, controlling or coercive behavior in an intimate or family relationship was made illegal in both England and Wales, carrying a prison sentence of up to five years. Christopher hopes that similar laws can be created in the US.
Polly Neate, former chief executive of national domestic violence charity Women’s Aid, explained coercive control to the Telegraph: “From our point of view, when we are talking about domestic violence it’s not the case that one argument crosses the line and it becomes an abusive relationship. It’s a pattern in the relationship, where one partner is controlling and there's an ongoing sense of fear.”
I have faith for this TV series, as long as it stays true to the podcast and articles of which it is based. And really, there is simply no need to change a single detail, exaggerate a single moment, because the story as it happened is unbelievable enough. Chris Goffard was one of my favorite folks I have interviewed on the show, and even off the record when we talked, I just found him to be a kind, curious, generous kind of person. I am really hoping he has a lot of involvement in the new series, or, at the very least, Alexandra Cunningham refers to his storytelling as much as possible.