Although the podcast medium has been slow to establish itself within mainstream culture, every now and then a particular podcast breaks out to become a minor phenomenon, making its presence known to an audience beyond regular podcast listeners.

Past examples of this include Serial and My Dad Wrote a Porno. In 2017, it was a true crime podcast called Dirty John, which has now been adapted into a Netflix limited series starring Connie Britton and Eric Bana.

Eric Bana as John Meehan, Connie Britton as Debra Newell. Photo / Netflix
Eric Bana as John Meehan, Connie Britton as Debra Newell. Photo / Netflix

The Dirty John podcast was an extension of a series of Los Angeles Times' articles about a woman named Debra Newell and a man named John Meehan, played by Britton and Bana in the series.

Newell, a successful business owner in picturesque Newport Beach, California, met Meehan, supposedly an anaesthesiologist, via an online dating service, and the pair began a relationship. Newell's adult daughters were wary of the shifty Meehan, but Debra was blind to his faults. As Meehan started to reveal his true nature, Newell's family found themselves in genuine peril.

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As anyone who's listened to the podcast knows, the story takes some truly surprising turns from there, many of them centred around Newell and her reaction to discovering the "truth" about Meehan.

Britton spent time with the real Newell prior to production.

"It's helped give so much insight into the story in a way that maybe we weren't able to experience in the podcast," Britton tells TimeOut in Los Angeles. "To really have a better understanding of what her experience was and how she was pulled in by this guy, is so important. Because ultimately we're telling the story of how a con man was so effective, and so it's important to make Debra relatable so we can all see ourselves in her."

Jean Smart as Arlane Hart, Connie Britton as Debra Newell. Photo / Netflix
Jean Smart as Arlane Hart, Connie Britton as Debra Newell. Photo / Netflix

Newell's relatability is what made the podcast so gripping. The listeners came to understand how an intelligent, accomplished woman could be taken for such a ride.

"If you've talked to anyone who's ever ended up in a relationship with a sociopath," says Britton. "The one thing that they say is: they can say anything to get you to stay. It's amazing. It's also coercive control, which is a really viable thing that happens, especially to women. And we're able to show what that looks like. It's really about John and what he's capable of doing."

A strong argument for the notion that evil is bland, Meehan is very much a villain for right now, a physical embodiment of toxic masculinity. Although Britton relished the chance to dig into the psychology of the real person she was playing, Bana preferred to keep Meehan at arm's length in preparing for the role.

"It's an interesting one because I think sometimes it can be a bit like quicksand," Bana tells TimeOut. "While there's a lot of factual information about John, I actually find him really mysterious, and so there's a lot of stuff about him that I don't want to know. It's not him individually that's fascinating, it's his behaviour and it's that type of character."

Bana says he relates to Debra's flawed decision-making.

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"We think we're so much better than we are," says Bana. "We think we're going to be able to rise above. But something happens when you're in the company of someone and you just get a whole lot softer and you just get a whole lot more malleable."

Although Britton is a veteran of TV shows like Friday Night Lights and Nashville, this is Bana's first small-screen endeavour.

"TV is something that hasn't really been a viable option for me simply because I live in Australia," says Bana. "The film landscape lent itself perfectly to my lifestyle. But this was one of the first occasions when something came along that was do-able and extremely attractive. I've looked at a lot of TV stuff over the last 10 years, and this was the one that got me."

Journalist Christopher Goffard, who wrote the original articles and hosted the podcast, was in the writers' room for the series and brought with him thousands of pages of vetted research, which allowed the show to explore avenues that weren't covered by the podcast, which neither Britton nor Bana had listened to before being approached for the roles.

"I had a group of friends talking about how amazing it was," says Britton. "The next day I got an email about it from my agent, and I thought, that's so crazy. So I have to admit I was already swept into it just by sheer hearsay."

"I wasn't aware of it," says Bana. "So I think my agent was quite nervous to bring up the general concept. But I love true crime, so I listened to the series and then we started talking about it. Then once I signed on I had a lot of people at home saying 'I've heard of that podcast'. Even in Australia, some people had cottoned on to it."

LOWDOWN:
What: Dirty John, season one
Where: Netflix
When: Eight episodes available from today.