In a month that’s seen two high-profile podcasts, Dirty John and Homecoming, adapted for TV, understanding the industry’s clamoring hunger for IP and the built-in audiences they bring isn’t the hard part. The comic land grab continues and J.K. Rowling’s magic factory continues to spin jilted goodwill into gold. Podcasts are just the latest avenue of acquisition. What is new about the podcast trend is that watchers and listeners have the freedom of few guidelines in answering the key question: What’s the best way to make the transition from a form still working to define itself—one partway between audiobook and radio play—to the small screen?
How the podcasts themselves approach their form often comes down to genre: Lore, which saw its documentarian’s take on folklore adapted to a horror-ish series for Amazon, tells its stories like a historian, while some fictional podcasts, like Welcome to Night Vale, make the Lovecraftian most out of their listeners’ inability to see what they refer to. Then there are the narrative-building podcasts of the actual-play variety—role-playing games that generate fiction on their own, like The Adventure Zone or Friends at the Table, which use the language of cinema to spark the imaginations of players and listeners alike. Both are intensely visual experiences thanks to hosts that describe shots, camera movements, and montages to anachronistically apply a movie vocabulary to a radio audience. (In fact, the former has already been turned into a bestselling graphic novel.) And it works.
Often, it can work even better—or at least work more—than something like Homecoming, the podcast that spawned the Julia Roberts-starring Amazon series. Homecoming’s co-creator, Eli Horowitz, is no stranger to creating content with a specific medium in mind. His app/novel The Silent History is a wild and engaging use of technology to tell a serialized story—on that couldn’t be told any other way, which is one of the reasons it works so well. Understanding the format allows the story to achieve its greatest potential: A great melody works best in a pop hit.
Horowitz’s co-creator, Micah Bloomberg, commented on their approach in an interview with Vanity Fair: “It’s important to emphasize that we were really only trying to make a podcast,” he said, “because I think there’s a danger, if what you really want to do is write a movie or a TV show and you’re trying to kind of sneak your script into this audio format… [that] you’re not really taking the form seriously.” Leaning in to what makes a podcast a podcast—and not putting your TV script into a format that’s cheaper to develop for the sake of your résumé—can certainly do the form justice. But it can also lead to hokey storytelling moments that point out the limitations of the medium.
For instance, the podcast version of Homecoming features quite a bit of belief-suspendingly silly audio-based drama, twists, and mysteries. It’s a hammer-nail scenario that keeps our imaginations focused on what the show wants them focused on, eliminating too many questions that a TV show could answer with production design, acting, or split-screens. That’s not a problem, necessarily, but it is a formal quirk that bleeds into the narrative. Nobody talks on the phone this much, right?
As with radio dramas, the narrative podcasts that are apt for translation to TV gain a lot more nuance by virtue of spreading the storytelling around the various senses. On screen, we don’t just have language and sound effects to go by. And if, as in Homecoming, we’re detectives enjoying a mystery, attempting to crack components without solving it all, moving to TV gives us far more clues to play with—and the director many more ways to drop them.
Where Homecoming’s podcast form has to make narrative excuses to change scenes—such as the villainous Colin Belfast struggling to play a sound file, supplementing the funny-in-a-scary-way ineptitude of the management with the paranoia of constant surveillance—on TV, we just cut. It can sometimes feel contrived, but the commitment to the bit is part of what makes the Homecoming work so well: How much the series changed to become a TV show is why it’s continued its tradition of greatness.
The TV program’s foundational piece of visual grammar—creating an aspect ratio-dependent timeline, with the 1:1 square for the past and the traditional 16:9 for the present—exists for clarity. The podcast’s use of recordings, often embedded within phone calls, uses audio quality—with its fuzzy distortion acquired over increasingly layers of removal from live interaction—to achieve a similar distancing effect. Finding the right way to engage with these concepts is something that the formal bridge between podcast and TV show is still navigating, especially as a torrent of IP is headed across it.
Dirty John, another podcast-turned-TV show, was adapted because of IP and, seemingly, because showrunner Alexandra Cunningham didn’t really get the podcast. The generation-spanning story of deceit, forgiveness, and betrayal, reported first by the L.A. Times’ Christopher Goffard, told the story of a trusting woman raised on an overwhelming, irrational, aspiringly Christ-like capacity for forgiveness, who’s taken in by a con man with a history of duping women for money. Cunningham said she wanted to make it into a show because the podcast, which features six or so hours of interviews with the real people involved, “doesn’t necessarily put you inside the heads of the people who were living this experience.”
Perhaps that understanding (or lack thereof) is why Bravo’s adaptation demolishes Dirty John’s intimate, confused, searching empathy with broad strokes. The relatively candid prose of the podcast, which you might expect from a journalist, is undone with diced-up montages and florid musings. Applying the very mechanism of voiceover to the story attributes far more pointed self-reflection than any party associated with the podcast ever employs.
The way people come to their realizations in the podcast is subtle, slow, and painstakingly reported, with plenty of background research—augmenting the story’s narrative with news reports, transcripts, and interviews from third parties that allow listeners to understand Dirty John’s flawed subjects by understanding everything around their behavior. The TV show, by contrast, puts poor Eric Bana and Connie Britton in a cheesy rom-com/thriller that not only ruins the narrative’s shocking climax by making it the opening scene, but also feels a bit unseemly in its treatment of the real people involved.
The more podcasts that get adapted, the more experiences executives and showrunners will have to work with: The podcast is such a formally flexible space, with many of the same conventions as TV, that—like radio before it, in the 1950s and 1960s—it’s a perfect, serialized format to adapt. And as TV moves more and more towards streaming, podcasts are one of the few places that people engaging with modern media hear commercials, or feel the constraints of the episodic structure. It’s an old-school form that only seems fresh because you keep it on your phone. Podcasts are longform news reports, history lectures, and radio plays in your pocket; useful for testing stories and building ones that stand alone, they inhabit a space where those aiming to be TV and those that become good TV don’t quite line up. Studios and creatives alike simply need to pay attention to why.
Homecoming is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Dirty John premieres Sunday, Nov. 25 at 10 p.m. on Bravo.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.