For those who listened to and were engrossed by the podcast Dirty John, based on the reporting of L.A. Times journalist Christopher Goffard, Bravo’s new miniseries captures the same absorbing sense of mystery and strangeness without feeling repetitive. For those who are new to the story, well, prepare thyselves for this tawdry true crime story that is both fascinating and infuriating. The series, like the podcast, is framed by a murder, though of whom and by whom are at that point a mystery. From there we are introduced to a wealthy Orange County businesswoman, Debra Newell, a multiple-divorcee who finally thinks she has met Mr. Right in the titular John Meehan. But with a title like Dirty John, you can safely assume that things will not go quite as planned.
The series plays out like a long Lifetime movie, but is elevated by its outstanding cast. Connie Britton portrays the kind but misguided Debra, and Eric Bana takes the role of the charming, handsome, and manipulative John. Every Newell woman is shown to be kind but lost in a fantasy, including Debra’s mother (Jean Smart) and her youngest daughter Terra (Julia Garner). The only sharp edge comes from Debra’s older daughter Veronica (Juno Temple), the one person who sees through John immediately and then acts to try and stop him. (Veronica is inspired by Debra’s real-life daughter Jacquelyn, who comes off better in the podcast than in the series, and is one of several participants in the story who didn’t allow the use of their real name in the show).
Things with John and Debra unravel quickly, but this comes after an exceptionally fast escalation in their relationship. John essentially sweeps Debra off of her feet; he’s a charming schlub who makes a lot of mistakes but seems to own up to them and apologize genuinely. But it’s clear from the very start how John works to alienate the wealthy Debra from her family, showering her with love and doting on her, making her feel special and understood. All the while, he’s closing in on her, something that you want to scream at Debra for — not because she doesn’t see it, but because she does see it and forgives him for it.
The characters of Dirty John are fascinating, particularly Debra and especially because of her willful ignorance. As the stories of John’s exes and some of his past transgression begin to weave into the story though, it paints a clear pattern of a man whose boldness and attractiveness have allowed him to manipulate woman after woman to get what he wants. What exactly that is isn’t always clear, but what is clear is that he’s a scumbag loser who presents himself as whatever his mark wants him to be. His lies are easy to buy into because the women want them to be real. It’s easy to judge, and so much harder to acknowledge our own experiences with people we keep giving chances to despite knowing better.
Dirty John is very entertaining, though it’s not without faults. It doesn’t dig very deep, or present Debra’s daughters as full characters (their main roles are to look confused or upset, which is a waste of big talent), and its storytelling can be a little convoluted. But it never claims to be high art. The show’s placement on Bravo really tells the story — if this was trying to be a prestige drama, then NBC might have put it elsewhere. It’s a crazy true story, but one that’s hard to call “fun” because it’s about an unstable man taking advantage of a woman and ruining her life. The cast is also too good to call the series a guilty pleasure (although Juno Temple sometimes seems to be on a different, much campier show), but there’s something so utterly ridiculous about the gilt-y lifestyle of Debra Newell and the frothy-minded way she and her family think sometimes that it’s hard to believe it’s real.
Even for those who (like myself) were fans of the podcast and thus know the beats of the story (the TV series is structured similarly to the podcast, although not all of the asides to John’s past work particularly coherently), Bravo’s Dirty John proves to be just as engrossing the second time around. It’s not just the strength of the cast, which is immense, or in the way Alexandra Cunningham has adapted the story. It’s in the truly Californian portrayal of a bright, lavish world that Debra has built as her castle in the sky, one that becomes hellishly tainted by deceit and a hailstorm of red flags. Yet after watching the three episodes available to critics, which brings us to the point where Debra starts to think she’s had enough, all I wanted was more.
Dirty John premieres Sunday, November 25th on Bravo.