Dirty John is incredibly frustrating, but quality actresses make an unbelievable survival story seem all too realistic on screen.
This week's pipeline from true crime to entertainment culminated with the finale of Bravo's Dirty John, which aired Sunday.
While the miniseries is not the first podcast to be adapted to television (HBO's 2 Dope Queens and Amazon's Lore and Homecoming are notable examples that predated it), the show marked the first true crime-turned-podcast-turned-TV-drama. Based off the #1 podcast of the same name, the eight-episode first season features Connie Britton giving a painfully believable portrayal of real-life mother Debra Newell, a highbrow interior designer and four-time divorcee in her late 50s. While she thinks she's met the perfect man online, Dr. John Meehan (Eric Bana) soon reveals himself to be a conman and unrepentant asshole with a penchant for mood swings, drug binges, and entreaties for forgiveness—which Debra grants, again and again.
Created by Alexandra Cunningham and directed by Jeffrey Reiner, the show excels in its depiction of sheltered Californian socialites. Debra is portrayed as a blind optimist who resists the reality of John's physical and emotional threats to her family, despite glaring red flags such as threats to shoot her daughter in the head and his escalating possessiveness over her—and her finances. Additionally, Debra endlessly coddles her two adult daughters, Veronica and Terra, entitled millennials played by Juno Temple and Julia Garner, respectively. Both girls are very privileged, very blonde, and very distrusting of the new man in their mother's life. Most apparent in all three women's performances is that Britton, Temple, and Garner even capture the child-like vocal fry of the real-life Newell women, whose voices feature in the Dirty John podcast.
Temple, in particular, excels as the brash and abrasive older daughter whose genuine concern is muddled with her elitist offense that a lower class outsider has insinuated himself in her family's inner world of designer bags and luxury penthouses. In contrast, Garner's performance as the younger daughter is kept intentionally low key and peculiarly infantile.
However, for the finale, the show doesn't hold back in re-enacting John Meehan's knife-wielding attack and attempted abduction of Terra Newell, the family member whom we're led to believe is the weakest and most vulnerable. Here, the show's greatest gamble is hinging the entire climax on the subtleties of Terra's personality, which suddenly manifests as a self-assertive and independent survivor—who stabs her attacker 13 times in the parking lot outside her apartment, rather than be dragged into the trunk of his car. The transformation is almost unbelievable—except that part actually happened. In 2016, the real John Meehan died of his injuries in the parking lot where he attacked her. The real Newell girls even suspected that John would target Terra, believing her to be weak. In the show, Garner's nuanced performance is what makes an unbelievable survival story seem believable on TV in a triumph of fight-or-flight instinct.
As for the real Debra Newell, she wanted her story told as a cautionary tale of the perils of both online dating and blind devotion. She commented on the series, "It's a story to tell others to make them aware of what could happen to them. You almost have to remove yourself a little bit." In her personal life, Debra still calls herself "a naturally happy person," but it took the tools of time, therapy, and the removed sense of media to see her story clearly. She said, "[Therapy] had so much to do with being able to be healthy again. I had a lot of guilt at one point. I had to learn [the mechanics of] what had happened to me." But she's a fan of Connie Britton's portrayal. Debra praises, "She got my voice and my mannerisms down perfectly. I was in a dangerous situation, and there wasn't a lot of opportunity for Connie to show the lighter side of me — I'm not always that nice or serious!"
Debra and Terra NewellToday Show
Yet, the show isn't exactly sympathetic towards Debra. To be clear, Dirty John is incredibly frustrating. But that's largely due to the incensing nature of the late Meeham's crimes and manipulations. His history of deception, impersonation, and conning every woman in his life (including his own family members) is perhaps the heaviest focus of the series. Debra, the character, is less important; her previous marriages aren't explored, while her naivety often is, and her family's Southern Californian ethos gives off plenty of Mean Girl vibes to provide comic relief. Above all, her initial refusal to doubt John is frank and infuriating, but it's primer for the show's midpoint climax; Debra's conflict foreshadows her decision to take John back even after her family presents proof of his elaborate lies, which include wearing stolen scrubs every day to allege he's a doctor and waxing morose about traumatic deployments in Iraq despite never serving in the military.
Dirty John is a concrete depiction of how unexpectedly, eerily enthralling it is to be under someone's "coercive control." One of the reasons the podcast garnered over 33 million listeners in the first place is because of how relatable Debra's experience is. Because of course Debra didn't think of herself as a vulnerable target. "Remember," she said in an interview after this week's finale, "it's Hollywood. First of all, I don't feel desperate. I think that it's very natural to want to have a companion and to be in love." She reflected, "It really helped relieve me, to some degree, knowing that it is such a common thing, unfortunately. But I now know what happened to me and that it could happen to anyone."
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