TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. These are high times for TV shows based on true stories. The new Showtime series "Escape At Dannemora," which began last Sunday, stars Patricia Arquette, Benicio Del Toro and Paul Dano in the story of a notorious 2015 prison break. This Sunday, Bravo will be airing "Dirty John," starring Connie Britton and Eric Bana based on the true story of a con man and the woman who fell in love with him. Our critic at large John Powers says these shows plunge viewers into two very different worlds.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Back in the 1980s, there was a best-selling book called "Smart Women/Foolish Choices," which was all about ruinous romantic decisions. Of course, men make foolish amorous, choices, too. The history of film noir is populated with them, but for deep-seated cultural reasons, we have a special fascination with women who fall for Mr. Wrong. In fact, that mistake is the pivot of two wildly different new TV shows, both torn from the headlines. "Escape At Dannemora" is a new Showtime series steeped in the Hollywood movies of the '70s. Directed by Ben Stiller - yes, that Ben Stiller - this gritty, superbly acted seven-parter tells the story of a 2015 prison break from the Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Pointedly - even proudly - dark, it focuses on characters for whom the American Dream is a bitter joke. Packing 40 extra pounds in a thick upstate accent, Patricia Arquette plays Tilly Mitchell, the married overseer of the prison workshop who's a blue-collar Emma Bovary forever flailing toward romantic transcendence. She finds herself getting sexually involved with two convicted murderers - boyish David Sweat - he's definitely played by Paul Dano - and wily Richard Matt. That's the superb Benicio Del Toro, who exudes the slow, easy confidence of the smartest python in the zoo. Here, Matt makes his initial seductive overture to Tilly.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ESCAPE AT DANNEMORA")
BENICIO DEL TORO: (As Richard Matt) Did you know that out in nature, there are no right angles? But in here, it's all right angles. It's an engineered environment - bars up, bars down, bars across. And the people inside, they get to be right angles, too.
PATRICIA ARQUETTE: (As Tilly Mitchell) What the [expletive] are you talking about?
DEL TORO: (As Richard Matt) And there are the angles that get bent. And you know who that is.
ARQUETTE: (As Tilly Mitchell) Who?
DEL TORO: (As Richard Matt) That's you and me.
POWERS: Naturally, what he wants isn't sex - though he'll take it - but help in breaking out. "Escape At Dannemora" is the first real drama that Stiller has directed, and he's clearly on to something. He displays a strong sense of mood, a vivid awareness of place and a keen eye for layered characters. Dano's Sweat sees himself as a nice guy, while del Toro's Matt is a gifted artist. Neither seems like a killer until they kill someone.
As for Tilly - at times, there seems to be a struggle going on for her soul Between Stiller and Arquette, who's nothing if not fearless. Where he nudges Tilly toward mocking caricature - he began as a satirist after all - she gives a spectacularly headlong performance, transforming the needy, annoying, not very likeable Tilly into a woman who may be lost but is still all too human. Now, "Escape At Dannemora" moves slowly, sometimes too slowly, as it carefully lays out Matt and Sweat's prison routines, the painstaking preparation of their breakout and Tilly's boredom with her dopey husband and the prison-dominated village of Dannemora. Yet if the show often feels densely claustrophobic, that's almost the point. A portrait of entrapment, it captures the desperation of those who, facing limited possibilities in society, only endure by shattering the rules.
You may think you've entered a much happier universe when you begin "Dirty John," a new Bravo series based on Christopher Goffard's LA Times series and podcast. Connie Britton plays Debra Newell, a 50-something woman who would appear to have it made. She's good-looking, sports Gucci heels and owns a successful interior design business. But she craves true love, too. And she thinks she's found it when she first meets her online date, John Meehan, played by Eric Bana - handsome, charming and giving. He talks about having worked with Doctors Without Borders. John says all the right things when she nervously tells him she's already had four husbands. She's smitten. Not everyone is. Debra has two grown daughters, a sniffish one played by Juno Temple and a wounded one played by Julia Garner, who trusts John so little they want to put a tracker on his car - no matter. Five weeks after she meets him, Debra's renting them a $6,500-a-month place in Newport Beach. What could possibly go wrong?
What follows is an enthralling tsunami of lies, delusions and dangers. There's a reason why the podcast has had tens of millions of listeners. And based on the three episodes I've seen, the series is exceedingly entertaining if stylistically bland. It's nicely acted by Britton, whom we root for despite Debra's disastrous choices, and by Bana, who has the slightly detached warmth of the natural conman. At the same time, you keep wishing "Dirty John" was more ambitious, where today's defining shows, like "Mad Men" or "The Assassination Of Gianni Versace," expand outward to reveal our society. "Dirty John" has the glossy thinness of a made-for-TV film from the Reagan era. Taking upper middle-class life for granted, it never digs into the story beneath the story, be it Debra's culturally ingrained ideas of romantic love or her sense of entitlement. Filled with sunshine and oceanfront real estate, the show feels so light that it almost began missing those dark cells in Dannemora.
GROSS: John Powers writes about film and TV for Vogue and vogue.com. After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review the new film "The Favourite." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GABRIEL MERVINE, ERIC GUNNISON, KEN WALKER, PAUL ROMAINE, PETER SOMMER AND STEVE KOVALCHECK'S "PEOPLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.