“While this program is based on real events, some scenes and characters have been dramatized or fictionalized.”
That’s the disclaimer that runs at the end of each Dirty John episode, and somehow, just by having that, it feels like the show pays more respect and attention to its source material than a good number of other projects that are “based on true events.” Dirty John the series isn’t exactly a 100% adaptation of the Los Angeles Times’ true crime podcast, but it straddles the line between being the type of show people will classify as a “guilty pleasure” and telling a pretty genuine, authentic story, all things considered.
An admission: true crime podcasts (as well as true crime documentaries or the entirety of Investigation Discovery’s programming) do nothing for me. Real people suffering real trauma as both logic and the system fail them? This is why comedy podcasts were invented, because who would want to listen to that all day? That’s how I feel, anyway. But put in the form of a scripted series and bringing in some proper talent to play these “real people?” That’s a hook I can get behind. Especially when Connie Britton and Eric Bana are involved.
With Dirty John, even after seeing only three episodes, I can state pretty confidently that there are a few certainties to come out of the series. The first is that Juno Temple deserves her own special award, specifically for playing Veronica Newell, Debra’s older daughter. Neither an Emmy nor Golden Globe will be enough. The second certainty is that Dirty John is truly special for casting Jean Smart and Connie Britton as mother and daughter, and also kind of brilliant for subtly showing how the thought process that allows Debra to avoid the warning signs when it comes to John (and presumably, any man she’s been with before) was so clearly passed down to her from her mother. And last, but not least, there’s the certainty — or at least a very strong argument — that Connie Britton is and remains our greatest living television actress.
At this point, when it comes to a show with Connie Britton, the character doesn’t necessarily matter as much as the fact that it’s being played by Connie Britton. That’s the draw, and it honestly could lead to a lot more underwhelming choices, under the realization that the character doesn’t matter as much as the actor. (It kind of felt that way toward the end of her run on Nashville.) But like any great actor, she manages to bring something new to the role of Debra Newell that doesn’t just say “Connie Britton’s new character.”
The default might be to dislike her oblivious — willingly so, especially very early on — character here, but Britton brings out an empathy for this character (and for the real-life person it was inspired by) who unfortunately just wants to be loved. While it would be so easy (though, not necessarily good) to make Debra the joke and “just as much” of the villain (in her poor decision-making) as John is, Dirty John and Britton really take care not to, instead standing by Debra (despite the bad choices) in terms of agreeing that it is not easy for a woman her age to find love, or even honesty. The series opens with a voiceover from Debra, essentially explaining how she can continue to go through all the red flags she does:
“I believe in dreams. Dreams you can live in. If you design the space where the story will happen, you can control them both. You can create rooms of beautiful people, where only good things, occur. Peaceful mornings. Elegant parties. Romantic dinners. Love. If you design the most beautiful life, nothing ugly can get it.”
The voiceover truly explains it all, as the literal interior designer sees life through figurative interior designing, through compartmentalizing. It’s a very naive, yet also somehow world-weary, approach to life. It makes sense why Connie Britton would then be drawn to a Lifetime-esque series like this.
Similar to how it may foster more of an appreciation for Connie Britton, Dirty John will also likely make you appreciate Eric Bana more as an actor. Early on, if anyone seems like the “weak link” of the series, it’s Bana. It’s difficult to watch this at first without thinking, “Oh, it’s Eric Bana playing a world class creep. Didn’t I like him in Troy?” You probably did like him in Troy — he was very likable there — and you could probably say the same about his work elsewhere. This is a role that is arguably very against type for him because of all the times you’ve probably liked Eric Bana in things, and it’s kind of difficult to buy this role at first. You might even watch his performance as the show’s “charismatic con-man” (and eventually full-blown nightmare) and wonder, “What’s Eric Bana’s deal?” But that’s sort of what ultimately makes for the actual argument as to why he’s perfect for this role. The likability allows him to creep through.
That all said, Dirty John is pretty quick with establishing Bana’s John Meehan as the villain of this story. In a way that allows the viewer to just watch Dirty John on cruise control and take in the “cautionary tale” as it unfolds. And honestly, it unfolds pretty fast, which is both a truly frightening sight to see and also one the show intentionally pokes a slight amount of fun at; because while a great deal of the decisions Debra’s made that landed her in John’s grasps are troubling and against anyone’s better judgment, it’s kind of funny that one single person could make so many terrible decisions.
Dirty John feels simultaneously like Bravo’s version of Big Little Lies — in terms of star power, a very specific aesthetic, and its approach to high-concept mystery/thriller — and a better-acted, better-budgeted, extended Lifetime movie. It may signal a new direction for the network, as Imposters was never actually this sleek or glamorous, and Girlfriends Guide to Divorce attempted to be relatable but didn’t do it all that well. The Lifetime movie aspect of it all isn’t even necessarily a negative for the series though. In fact, Dirty John very clearly has a tongue-in-cheek self-awareness of itself that Lifetime movies don’t really have, which in turn provides a more realistic (and genuinely scary) approach to these “it could happen to you” type stories than any other straightforward, humorless story about why you should fear strangers.
As things progress, the humor in Dirty John serves as the type of awkward or uncomfortable humor you cling to in order to defuse a bad situation, to tell yourself everything’s going to be okay. It grows less funny that Debra and John move in together after just five weeks of dating, as the illusion of his perfection is quickly wiped away, especially as the red flags are there even before the character does anything more overt than end a first date in an ungentlemanly way. And things move shockingly fast on Dirty John, with the first three episodes suggesting there won’t be any pacing issues in the eight-episode season, while also signaling that a lot more of Debra’s decisions after the fact are only going to continue to be maddening.
Watching Dirty John, it immediately makes sense why it became a highly-addictive podcast that managed to become a TV show. In fact, with as much of the show that actually is like the source material — there are plenty of direct quotes — it proves that the truth really is stranger than fiction.
‘Dirty John’ premieres on Bravo on Sunday, November 25.