“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.”