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‘Dirty John’: LA Times True Crime Podcast Series is an Eerie, Timely Storytelling Experiment

The longform/podcast hybrid about one grifter's story has plenty more to say about power and what we allow when we feel helpless to change things.

Dirty John Podcast LA Times

The mere fact that “Dirty John” exists proves that John Michael Meehan is not the man we hear that he claimed to be. It’s part of the true crime series dilemma, knowing that the very fact that this story is being told means that trouble is on the way. But rather than approach the lives and times of “Dirty John” in a by-the-book manner, this long-form hybrid is another worthy addition to the ranks of true crime obsessions.

Meehan is the subject of the seven-part podcast feature series, produced by the LA Times and distributed by Wondery, that looks at an unsettling past through the lens of his relationship with Debra Newell, a successful interior designer who made her home at different locations across southern California before and after meeting Meehan. As the story of Meehan’s past unfolds, the audience learns the truth along with Newell.

Newell’s story, spanning coastal and Orange County homes and environments, isn’t necessarily a universally relatable LA story. But it does use the city, in addition to the people involved, to evoke a very specific sense of both lavishness and uncertainty. Debra’s financial means figure into the story, mainly as a way to illustrate control and concession, both within her family and within her relationship.

Given the recency of this story (the details surrounding the series’ ambiguous opening happened just over a year ago), “Dirty John” brings with it an immediate nature that not all true crime fascinations can attain. Still, the meticulous reporting that went into the story doesn’t sacrifice decades of perspective. Later episodes that dig into the personal lives of some of these individuals in the greater Newell/Meehan story move far back beyond anything that happened in the past 36 months. It’s not a comprehensive personal history, but in order to add extra layers to the audience’s understanding of John, the show expands that net wider than you might expect.

It’s also fitting that a story set in the greater Los Angeles area deals so much with the storytelling that criminals can use to delude not only others, but themselves. Talk of James Bond and Don Draper and other shadowy mysterious cultural characters are used as touchstones for how John was able to draw unsuspecting figures into his orbit. In doing so, “Dirty John” also deconstructs the myth of the suave, antihero con man. This isn’t an innocent sweetheart scam or a victimless traipse through one man’s idiosyncrasies. The phone records and audio recordings of John speak volumes about how charm can go bad and how a doting exterior can sour awfully quickly.

Avoiding some of the occasional pitfalls of true crime entertainment, “Dirty John” forgoes the usual dread-drenched score in favor of something that matches how the story unfolds. Narrator Christopher Goffard (who also reported the story for the LA Times), keeps a healthy dose of suspicion, doling out information in small doses without overplaying the revelations that come later on.

There’s also something horrifically timely about this whole narrative. The idea that a man of Meehan’s age, with a felony record and dangerous past behavior towards women was potentially allowed access to firearms (and was obsessed with them in written words and spoken conversation) shows that the ramifications of this story extend out far beyond a lover’s quarrel or one person’s lies about the misdeeds of their past. In looking at a tale of implicit trust gone wrong, it raises an indirect point about what we as a society are willing to tolerate in the face of feeling powerless to change things.

The actual format of the “Dirty John” podcast is not too dissimilar to much of the medium’s best long-form audio journalism: Goffard pieces together testimony from multiple sources and threads them all together with his own explanatory connections. But there’s a multimedia component to this story that makes this an interesting podcast experiment.

As new installments get released on the podcast end, accompanying articles are running in the LA Times and online. These daily pieces cover much of the same story ground, but they highlight how this profile is compelling across multiple venues. Both articles and audio take advantage of the opportunity to approach “Dirty John” in a literary way, evoking a not-too-distant time and place with a precision of detail. The result is a throwback, small-s serial sensibility, effectively bridging a traditional form of storytelling with its digital descendants.

There’s also something satisfying about the idea that this is a self-contained tale. As a week-long deep dive into one man’s web of deceit, there’s an accompanying focus that a series concerned about setting up a sequel or establishing a brand wouldn’t be able to afford. With brand new episodes released over the course of a single week — continuing through until this Sunday — “Dirty John” also seems to have gotten close to the optimal podcast release model.

Hitting #1 on the iTunes charts before its debut date was over, it’s been able to find an ideal middle ground between an all-at-once Netflix-style dropping and a slower unveiling that requires audiences to stay engaged in the seven days between each episode. That’s fitting (and probably healthier) for a story that plays out less as a mystery and more of a tragedy, something to be processed and reckoned with as all the facts come to light.

All available episodes of “Dirty John” can be found here

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