Note to readers: Dirty John is about emotional and financial domestic violence.
“Dirty John” Meehan is a man of utter evil, of no remorse, a bad guy who knows how to play a long con. He’s charming and persuasive, until he’s not. He’s a grifter and a con man who targets wealthy women, isolates them from their families, and finds ways to siphon off their wealth. He’d been in and out of jail on various charges involving weapons, drugs, stalking, and harassment. He had no job but wore faded scrubs and called himself an anesthesiologist. He had no income and no nice clothes, but had explanations for everything, and enough swagger to be convincing. He met Debra Newell, a wealthy interior designer and businesswoman, over a dating app the day after he left prison, and persuaded her to marry him only a two months into their relationship. He installed security cameras to watch her every move, isolated her from her family, and took her money.
Dirty John, currently airing as a limited miniseries on Bravo, wants to be a prestige TV drama, but it can’t reckon with that lurid narrative. The podcast was a carefully researched and reported story, layering interviews and background information, letting an outrageous story speak for itself. Christopher Goffard wrote the series of articles in the L.A. Times and also hosted the Wondery podcast, which includes interviews with Debra Newell, an Orange County interior designer; her two grown daughters, Jacquelyn and Terra; her nephew, Shad, and mom, Arlane; and a handful of other extended family members and law enforcement agents. There’s no titular Dirty John in earshot, though listeners don’t know until the last episode whether he’s in prison, dead, or just out of the picture. In the deluge of true-crime podcasts, Dirty John stood out because the story is so shocking, particularly in its final twist (which we won’t reveal here.) Goffard does a fine job of reporting and narrating the podcast, though to its detriment, he doesn’t engage with some of the bigger questions the narrative raises. Consuming true-crime as pop culture already requires some private moral negotiation of finding entertainment in somebody else’s trauma; when that trauma isn’t framed within a larger purpose, it’s a slippery slope into popping popcorn while watching a barely fictionalized man prey on a woman and her family.
And that’s how we find ourselves in front of the TV watching Dirty John, which heats up a real-life story that needs no more fuel. That might have worked—if the events hadn’t happened so recently, maybe, or if the show was more heavily fictionalized—but it hits so many of the actual events note for note, uses many of the same names, and completely disengages from the violence and terror that form the bones of the real narrative. Dirty John Meehan is a more malicious and masterful criminal than most, and Debra Newell has more money and style than most, but the core of the emotional abuse is sadly ordinary. As played by Eric Bana, Dirty John goes through motions of violent outbursts and apologies without a convincingly evil center. We know he’s a bad guy because Debra’s older daughter, renamed Veronica in the TV show, keeps telling us so. There might have been some pleasure to glean from a miniseries like this, an enjoyably salacious story—something like Desperate Housewives, which creator Alexandra Cunningham also produced. But the show extricates itself from the true story it’s telling; instead of digging into it, it dresses it up in gold-sequin dresses and stilettos.
Juno Temple plays that sour-faced older daughter, a flattened caricature of bratty rich-kid entitlement. Her actions, we’re told, are rooted in love and concern, but it’s hard to find genuine warmth beneath Veronica’s cool stereotype. Veronica (Jacquelyn in the podcast and real life) is ostensibly one of the most interesting personalities: Her Valley Girl accent belies outspokenness and determination, and she’s immediately convinced, before there’s much actual evidence, that John is out to get her mom’s money. Veronica turns her skepticism into action, doing some actual detective work to figure out what John’s M.O. is. But she’s written as an outspoken bitch, not a woman with spot-on intuition whose deep concern can manifest as being a difficult daughter.
Julia Garner plays Terra, Debra’s sweet-voiced, zombie-obsessed daughter. Garner, who did excellent work in The Americans, isn’t given enough room to establish Terra’s motivations, and in the early episodes, the script mechanically walks her through a few big plot points. Debra and her two daughters form a compelling relationship that the miniseries glosses over—an oversight that diminishes the abuse Dirty John fractures them with.
Steadying this ship is Connie Britton, who embraces the contradictions in Debra Newell: she’s a successful, wealthy businesswoman; a confident interior designer; a naive and trusting woman who just wants a relationship with “a good man.” She’s the one character whose complexities are given more shape on the screen than in the podcast, where Newell could come across so naive and suggestible that it was easy for listeners to fall into the trap of victim-blaming, questioning how she never saw this coming. Britton plays that wide-eyed innocence with increasing worry, exposing insecurities in Newell’s personal life and balancing them against her professional confidence. In Britton’s hands, Newell isn’t dumb, she’s a woman open to love, full of vulnerability and optimism. Sure, it’s worrying that Dirty John took $80,000 or $90,000 of her cash without telling her, but she loves and trusts him, and if he said he invested it, why wouldn’t she believe him? Plus, her mother, Arlane—a complete waste of Jean Smart, who they couldn’t even get a good wig for—loves him.
There are plenty of plot points that are re-created according to Goffard’s reporting, but without the context the podcast provides. The TV show, in its first three episodes, mentions Debra’s sister, who was killed by her own husband decades earlier. Arlane, moved by her faith, forgave him within hours of the murder. That’s a rich background for Debra’s current abusive relationship, but it’s lightly explained with some clunky dialogue while Eric Bana angrily eats a sandwich. That’s a neat summary for the problems of this adaptation as a whole: Instead of digging into characters and context, Dirty John the TV show bobbles to the surface, clumsily pulling out some exposition as needed.
The conclusion of the podcast (and real-life events, and presumably the TV show) is gutting, and isn’t very far outside the realm of nighttime soaps based entirely in fiction. The podcast was at least careful, through extensive interviews and sound clips, to remind listeners that Dirty John was borne of the real world, not something that could comfortably air alongside Vanderpump Rules or Real Housewives. Connie Britton brings strength and humanity to her performance, but even that’s not enough to compensate for this dramatic mishandling.