It used to be that Lifetime was the trusty purveyor of women-in-peril content, while the TV networks churned out tabloid crime tales as quickie movies of the week. These narratives all stuck to a simple melodramatic formula, one in which shocking things happened to regular (white) people. But since the relatively recent rise of more prestige, high-brow true crime entertainment, with podcasts like Serial, documentaries like Making a Murderer, and scripted shows like Ryan Murphy’s The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story, more and more true crime stories are being mined for profound meaning. And in order to compete in this new marketplace, TV writers and producers seem to increasingly feel an obligation to reveal larger truths — about the justice system, or identity, or American culture — through the story of each and every shocking crime.
Even the stodgy procedural Law & Order got in on the act in 2017 with a look back at the murderous Menendez brothers. Despite the show’s paint-by-numbers dialogue, it reconsidered the brothers’ crime through the lens of sexual abuse, and managed to say something new about the case and about the workings of the culture of silence at the time. And Murphy’s production company has made this crime-as-cultural-criticism philosophy the very literal — titular — focus of the American Crime Story franchise launched from the success of The People v. O. J. Simpson. Despite the clunky plotting and dialogue that marred last year’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, its commitment to connecting the dots of the story through anti-gay prejudice in the ’90s made the resulting program awards show catnip — garnering, among other accolades, an Emmy and a Golden Globe for Darren Criss’s role as serial killer Andrew Cunanan.
Not every format for retelling is equally powerful, and not all crime stories provide richer insight through adaptation.
There’s nothing wrong with a search for deeper meaning, or with serious reconsiderations of crimes that were covered by media in a sensationalistic or surface-level way at the time. But not every format for retelling is equally powerful (Murphy’s O.J. series accomplished a less meaningful analysis than the ESPN documentary that aired soon after), and not all crime stories provide richer insight through adaptation. Two scripted shows that recently aired on cable channels — Dirty John and Escape at Dannemora — both highlight ways in which the unending search for real-life crimes to flip and renovate into “prestige” properties may be hitting a wall.
Both series are products of this new crime wave, in the sense that they are true stories seen through the lens of high-profile actors (and directors) spending an entire season of scripted television grappling with the source material that inspired them. And both circle around the cultural fascination with charming con men and the women who love them. Bravo’s Dirty John is based on the LA Times report and critically acclaimed podcast that became a huge hit last year, focused on Debra Newell, an Orange County entrepreneur who fell under the spell of a serial stalker and con man. Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora is about the story of two men who escaped from a maximum security prison in upstate New York in 2015, aided by the head of the prison’s tailoring program, Joyce “Tillie” Mitchell. Both adaptations have captured public attention — and garnered their leads plenty of awards notice — but neither program ultimately provided a new interpretation interesting enough to sustain the self-serious, season-long treatments they were subjected to.
The podcast that served as the basis for Dirty John has now been downloaded more than 26 million times, 10 million within the initial 10 weeks — the kind of numbers that would make any TV producers’ ears perk up. Despite the title, the podcast’s actual mystery was about why a successful, attractive business owner from Orange County could fall for — and repeatedly return to — a swindler, John Meehan, who lied about his job and background, mistreated her daughters, installed cameras in her interior design firm to monitor her, and set her car on fire, among other things. The appeal of the six-episode podcast was in hearing all the different voices and perspectives of the people — including Newell’s daughters, mother, and nephew — who lived through Meehan’s wrath.
A big reveal (spoiler alert) comes during the podcast’s fourth episode, when we learn that Newell’s sister was murdered years before by her abusive, stalker husband, who was ultimately forgiven by Newell’s religious mother, who also agreed to testify on his behalf at trial. The episode gave crucial context to the kind of gendered ideologies that might have led Newell to overlook Meehan’s obviously toxic traits. Only one episode was devoted to filling in the blanks of “Dirty John” himself — whom we never actually hear, but imagine through the prism of multiple women’s voices, including his ex-wife and sister, who also grapple with his toxic legacy. In short, the podcast wasn’t about Meehan, but about the women impacted by his actions.
Listeners were incredulous and furious that Newell stayed with Meehan, but she was also strangely relatable — like your best friend who inexplicably keeps dating losers, heightened to the worst possible scenario. And grappling with Newell’s perspective, shared through her own words, is a big part of what made the original story so compelling. All that was lost in the translation to a prestige TV formula. In order to stretch it out to nine episodes, the show takes what made the podcast interesting — the relationship between Newell and her daughters, the backstory of the sister, and Newell’s reasons for staying — and juxtaposes those threads with Meehan’s backstory, giving him almost equal narrative weight.
Interestingly, Dirty John’s showrunner Alexandra Cunningham, who wrote for Desperate Housewives, said she told star Eric Bana, “I don’t ever want to try to explain why John is the way he is.” But the show is full of ancillary characters — Meehan’s ex-wife, lawyers, sister, and father — whose sole functions appear to be exposing information about Meehan’s background and evil ways. The show takes great pains to detail all of his lies and treachery, and connect the dots from his father’s conning philosophy to his own through flashback storylines. But part of what kept listeners hooked on the podcast is that Meehan was never fully fleshed out; there was subtlety in the way it didn’t try to explain him.
The show is thus turned from an edge-of-your-seat serial thriller into a limp melodrama with anticlimactic dialogue. For instance, in one scene Newell (played by Connie Britton) sits with her lawyer, and asks, “So are you saying that John’s getting angrier?” “It’s what I’m afraid of,” he replies. “It’s what I’m afraid of too,” she says, to portentous background music. By then there is no mystery — the scene reveals nothing new about any of the characters. And whatever frustration one might have felt about the real-life Newell and her decisions becomes mere exhaustion in the face of a nine-hour-long Lifetime movie that feels more like an educational cautionary tale than anything else.
That isn’t to say the performances aren’t memorable. Britton — who received a Golden Globe nomination — is perfect at capturing Newell’s sugary uncertainty as she attempts to gain control of her life. Julia Garner and Juno Temple, who play her daughters Terra and Veronica, respectively, nail an Orange County sensibility, complete with upspeak and vocal fry. Bana is also believable as Meehan, especially during the early throes of the couple’s romance, which, as the real-life Newell recently pointed out during an appearance on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live, the show kind of skimps on. Once he has to start scowling with rage and saying evil things, it becomes harder to convey an original character. But even with quality acting and high production values, the central, simple fascination of the original story — trying to understand and relate to a woman making terrible decisions — is muddled and diminished, rather than deepened, in translation.
Escape at Dannemora is not competing with its own source material, like Dirty John. But like the Bravo production, the Showtime series struggles to find a wider cultural angle to frame the story that inspired it. The show is based on news coverage of Richard Matt and David Sweat’s 2015 escape from Clinton Correctional Facility, a prison in the town of Dannemora in upstate New York. The breakout was covered everywhere from cable news to the New York Times, initially because of the shock that two men could escape a maximum security prison.
The story might’ve died down after Sweat was recaptured and Matt was killed, but it was ultimately revealed that Joyce “Tillie” Mitchell, who ran the prison’s tailor program, helped the men escape. And it was the lurid details about the supposedly sex-starved, middle-aged Mitchell that caught the eye of the tabloids, who dubbed her the “Shawskank.”
Dannemora might have made for an interesting two- or three-episode miniseries.
"What really interested me was how they were able to do this, how they were able to get away with this,” director Ben Stiller told NPR. “It seemed like such an old-fashioned sort of escape, and I thought, 'Wow, how can that happen in today's prison system?'" Dannemora’s attempts to answer that question might have made for an interesting two- or three-episode miniseries. Instead, the resulting program — hardly able to generate Oz-level drama — takes too much time (and perhaps too many liberties in fictionalizing the facts) revealing the context of the prison, and how Sweat (Paul Dano) and Matt (Benicio del Toro, who oozes the real-life Matt’s creepy charisma) fit into and navigate its hierarchies. Matt in particular — who later made headlines for his uncannily accurate paintings of dogs, Hillary Clinton, and Tony Soprano — is able to manipulate a guard who gets him paint supplies and who reportedly aided the escape almost as much as Mitchell (Patricia Arquette).
The real-life Mitchell famously admitted to investigators that she got “caught up in the fantasy” of another life with the inmates, and that’s why she aided them with their escape — helping them smuggle in utensils in meat to saw their way out of the prison, all of it dutifully shown onscreen. But she has also since said she never had sex with Sweat (which he also said) and that her sexual encounters with Matt were forced.
On the show, Mitchell is depicted as using her role as the head of the tailoring unit to keep a kind of harem of inmates, and when Sweat is transferred out of the shop because of their closeness, she quickly takes up with Matt. The show takes her at her word about yearning for fantasy — arguably too much — and dramatizes her dreary life as a working-class woman desperate for some attention, carnal or otherwise.
We get a sense of the rhythms of Mitchell’s life with her gullible husband, Lyle (Eric Lange), whose idea of romance is to take her to a library’s showing of some historical movie she has no interest in. Those scenes illustrate how much she wants to escape both her husband and her class; in one scene at a nail salon she chats up disinterested, gentrifying visitors (not unlike Debra Newell) for whom Olsen’s upstate New York town is just a quaint escape. Through the portrayal of Mitchell, the writers seem to be trying, as a Times critic pointed out, to turn it into a bigger story about rural working-class malaise, but there’s not enough material here to do justice to Mitchell’s story.
The depiction of her as desperate for more romance and luxury verge on slut-shamey class condescension. In real life, the question of Mitchell’s motivations, how much she was actually involved in the breakout, and whether she meant to go with the men was at least somewhat unclear. Mitchell recently told the New York Post, “Ben Stiller is a son-of-a-bitch liar just like the rest of the world. He doesn’t care about the truth. All he cares about is making millions off me. He’s an idiot.” (Stiller responded: “We think it is a real representation of what went on. It’s not a documentary. We did have to create scenes based on us inferring what we believed to be the truth.”)
In searching for enough drama to sustain eight episodes and offer its actors awardworthy parts, the show ends up feeling half-baked.
But in searching for enough drama to sustain eight episodes and offer its actors awardworthy parts, the show ends up feeling half-baked. Arquette makes the most of the role, and really captures Mitchell’s combination of matter-of-fact gruffness and faux-naivete; she has won a Golden Globe and a Critics Choice Award for her portrayal. And it was the performances, especially Arquette as Mitchell — and the script’s attempt to turn her into a compelling antihero — that were arguably the most memorable aspects of the show.
TV’s prestige true crime moment has worked best to boost the profile of cable channels — like FX, Showtime, and now Bravo — and to give some brilliant actors more screentime. But in the scramble to layer big meaning onto these stories, these shows actually make them less interesting. In the case of Dirty John, the TV version flattened the nuance of the original podcast, which smartly avoided moralizing. Dannemora, meanwhile, failed to reveal any underlying subtleties that could merit such a weighty reconsideration.
Given how successful this kind of programming has been, though, these artistic considerations probably won’t deter any producers from airing more of it. Dirty John became reality TV powerhouse Bravo’s highest-rated scripted series premiere, which it smartly cross-promoted with Real Housewives of Orange County, because, as the network went out of its way to point out, Newell’s story bore a remarkable resemblance to an Orange County star’s storyline. One subplot in a multicast show sounds more like the right TV size for the story that ended up onscreen. Bravo — and the other new crime chasers — should take note. ●