The term ‘guilty pleasure’ is used with casual abandon these days, but it’s difficult to come up with a more perfect description of Dirty John. The guilt at the heart of its pleasure is manifold – this is a very recent true story, which centres on emotional abuse, domestic violence, and severe coercive control – yet it presents itself as a glossy, campy drama. True to its roots on Bravo, broadcasters of the Real Housewives franchise among others, the horror is buried deep under a surface of sparkling superficiality, of luxurious apartments bathed in the bright light of the ever-present blistering sunshine of Orange County.
Perhaps better direction – and script – could have gone some way to addressing that contrast, turning this into a kind of Blue Velvet narrative, a study of the rottenness at the core of these seemingly perfect lives. But instead what we have is a soapy, cliche-ridden – yet highly addictive – series, in the form of a Lifetime true story dramatisation.
The show itself was spawned from a very popular podcast of the same name, co-created by the Los Angeles Times, and presented by LA Times journalist Christopher Goffard. The podcast saw Debra Newell telling her story in the hope that it would shine a light on the issue of abusive relationships, and help other people who found themselves in a similar – and all too common, yet perhaps not quite so extreme – situation.
In the TV series, Connie Britton takes on the part of Debra, a prosperous interior designer living in Newport Beach, who, while unlucky in love, holds onto a sweet optimism, ever-hopeful that she can meet a man to share her life with. Joining a dating app, she soon meets John Meehan. Charming, attractive, apparently successful, and, perhaps most importantly, interested in her, he seems to tick all the boxes. As Debra studiously ignores her daughters’ misgivings, and a few initial clues about his true character, Meehan rapidly ingratiates himself into her life, and the whirlwind romance leads to a hasty wedding in Vegas. Once her has that ring on her finger, though, his mask slips and Debra finds herself trapped in a marriage with a man she realises she barely knows.
Structurally, the series is all over the place. Some episodes seem overlong and somewhat rambling, losing narrative drive and taking detours to strands that are frustratingly underdeveloped. By the third episode of the eight-part series, we take a dive into John’s backstory. His childhood and relationship with his father goes some way to explaining his pathology, and the deceptions of his first marriage provide a template for all that ensues. But his previous relationships with other women don’t have the impact they should because of the chopped-up nature of the storytelling. (In the companion Netflix documentary, we get to hear more from the previous partners whose lives he seemed hellbent on destroying.)
There is, too, a glimpse of Debra’s formative experience of a violent man – years previously, her sister was murdered by her own husband. As Debra’s mum, Jean Smart does what she can with what little she is given, yet her character’s almost instant forgiveness for the man who killed her daughter, told in flashback, is so expeditious it raises more questions than it answers – especially as she is quick to welcome Meehan into the family and is blind to his faults. It’s the kind of badly written naivety that almost provokes a kind of victim-blaming from the viewer. These women, we are led to believe, should have known better.
Debra’s daughters are more clued-up, though nonetheless fairly one-note. Veronica (Juno Temple) and Terra (Julia Garner) are integral to the story, yet their characters don’t develop much. The older daughter, Veronica, is presented as an acerbic Valley girl brat, her prized possession a handbag collection, which she keeps in a safe – and Temple plays her with gusto. The only person who had Meehan’s card marked from day one, her instant suspicions of him are shrugged off by her mother as jealousy and over-protectiveness. It’s towards her that Meehan can be his authentic, terrifying self, safe in the knowledge that no one will believe her. Julia Garner as Terra is the opposite, very much her mother’s daughter – a sweet young woman who radiates innocence, initially unable to comprehend just what her mother is facing, and whose apparent vulnerability and softness can be easily exploited in the same way her mother’s is.
Towards the end of the series, Newell’s powerlessness is highlighted with the introduction of various law enforcement agencies. The point is made, quite effectively, that for Newell, and for women like her, there is no escape – and, indeed, that the most dangerous part of an abusive relationship is when you try to leave. Newell can move house, change the way she looks, but her tormentor will never let her go.
True crime fans often find themselves stuck between the rock of sensationalism and the hard place of realism, and Dirty John’s problem is rooted, at least in part, in the dichotomy of telling such a sensitive and emotive true story of extreme spousal abuse, and the ‘entertainment value’ of watching it all unfold. There is much to take pleasure in. Connie Britton is terrific, as usual, and Bana turns the charm on and off in seconds, effortlessly morphing from Prince Charming to a monster. Yet taken as a whole, the tonal issues and lack of nuance in Dirty John leave you feeling like you need a good wash.
Dirty John is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.