At a time when Hollywood is talking empowered women and the #MeToo movement, Bravo’s “Dirty John” seems like a throwback to another era.
The eight-part, closed-ended series (Sunday, 8 p.m.) — based on the Los Angeles Times podcast and newspaper print series — recounts the story of Debra Newell (Connie Britton), an attractive, successful, wealthy woman who meets and marries John Meehan (Eric Bana), a manipulative monster who’s hiding dark secrets.
Family members warn Debra. She ignores them. Even after she learns the truth and leaves John, Debra goes back to him.
“One of the things that pains me the most is when people talk about — ‘How could Debra be so stupid?’” said executive producer Alexandra Cunningham. “They like to believe that this wouldn’t happen to them. And I know for a fact that it would.”
It’s gradually revealed that Debra isn’t his first victim — she’s the latest in a long line of people he’s conned. And Britton argued that what happened to Debra and her family (no spoilers here) is a cautionary tale for women.
“Inasmuch as we do say, ‘How could she fall for that guy?’ — we can actually explore the familial history, the cultural history that impacts her generationally and otherwise,” she said. “That is why she is available for him.”
Cunningham asserted that “it’s very hard for women … to throw off their societal conditioning about how they should behave, especially in relation to the people they’re in relationships with.” Debra had “internalized” the wrong messages about how women should behave with men, Cunningham added, and that the thread ran through her family — her mother (Jean Smart) and her sister and her daughters (Julia Garner and Veronica Juno Temple).
Britton said she’s been “amazed” at “the people in my life who have come out of the woodwork, that I’ve known for years, who have been, like, ‘Oh, my gosh. Yeah, I was in a relationship with a sociopath.’” And, from them, she’s learned about “coercive control, which is a really viable thing that happens particularly to women.”
If all that makes “Dirty John” sound like some sort of dry, academic treatise, it’s not. It’s a taut, engaging true-crime drama that will suck you in and make you root for the relationship between Debra and John at the beginning — then keep you on the edge of your seat as the truth is revealed.
Britton and Bana make it work with great performances.
Sure, “Dirty John” works as a cautionary tale. Yes, women should listen not just to their friends and family but to their own instincts.
But “Dirty John” also excels as a thriller of sorts, eight episodes that will keep you coming back until the definitive ending.
That ending is not exactly a secret, but, again, no spoilers here.