Journalism as Noir Entertainment
“Dirty John,” a suspenseful and psychologically intense true-crime series released in its entirety last week, is the first podcast by the veteran newspaper journalist Christopher Goffard. It’s a new kind of hybrid: a podcast-and-print collaboration, between Wondery and the Los Angeles Times. It was released chapter by chapter over the week, beginning one Sunday and concluding the next, in the style of an investigative print series. It’s garnered some five million listens and has been the No. 1 podcast on iTunes for much of the past two weeks. Its aesthetic is a kind of journalism noir, blending entertainment and news in powerful, sometimes unnerving ways.
The podcast begins with an autopsy report: an Orange County assistant district attorney reading a description of stab wounds from a homicide in the summer of 2016. We don’t learn the identity of the victim or the assailant. Then we go back two years, to 2014, to the story of a successful Newport Beach interior designer, Debra Newell, who is fifty-nine and divorced; John Meehan, a handsome, seemingly perfect man she meets online; and Debra’s grown children, who mistrust him. In the print series, “Dirty John” is stylishly designed, with large photographs of its subjects and expensive real estate; it features pull quotes such as “The most devious, dangerous, deceptive person I ever met,” styled like tabloid headlines, in maroon capital letters. The podcast’s logo is a red rose and a latex-gloved hand holding a hypodermic needle on a black background, like a horror-movie poster, or a “Flowers in the Attic” cover. The theme music, one of the show’s strongest aesthetic choices, is a gorgeously fiddle-heavy song called “Devil’s Got Your Boyfriend,” by Tracy Bonham. Goffard liked the song because it “allowed us to transcend the setting and suggest some of the more universal themes at play,” he told me. “The image in my mind was like a creature from a fairy tale, or like a shape-shifting goblin from a swamp, who was invading this Southern California family and devouring the matriarch—and they have to take their stand against it.”
Goffard is a fan of podcasts—he likes “This American Life,” “Invisibilia,” and “S-Town”—but what influenced “Dirty John” more than any of them, he told me, was “the old-time radio drama that I used to listen to as a kid.” Growing up, he’d get tapes in the mail or at science-fiction conventions: “Escape,” “Suspense,” “Quiet Please,” “Lights Out,” Orson Welles’s “The Shadow,” “The Lives of Harry Lime.” He told me about an episode of “Escape” that he loved called “Leiningen Versus the Ants.” “If you want twenty terrifying minutes, I’ll send you a link,” he said. I laughed—in these troubled times, ants seemed like a quaint, benign foe—and Goffard was patient, trying to make me understand. “Oh, this is about man-eating ants,” he said.