TV Reviews

"Dirty John" Is Too Relatable

Dirty John is incredibly frustrating, but quality actresses make an unbelievable survival story seem all too realistic on screen.

US Weekly

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.

Spoilers ahead

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."

Sling TV

Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.

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REVIEW | The view from "Wonder Wheel" isn't so grand at New York Film Festival

FILM | Woody Allen's latest brings up old concerns from his past with a star-filled cast in a vividly colored nostalgic romance

Irony can work in mysterious ways.

Woody Allen recently stated that there would be a "witch hunt" following the numerous allegations concerning Harvey Weinstein sexually harassing women in the entertainment industry, comments that were then followed by a cancelling of the film's red carpet at the 55th New York Film Festival after the head of Amazon Studios, Roy Price, has now resigned following similar allegations. Of course, this also brought into question Allen's own troubled past with women and relationships. None of this should affect watching the film, but indeed, it does.

Wonder Wheel tells the tale of Ginny (Kate Winslet), a clam shack waitress working on the Coney Island boardwalk during the 1950s who falls disenchanted with her entire existence. Her husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), has a severe temper and a drinking problem and her son (newcomer Jack Gore) is a pyromaniac. She finds an escape in Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake), a much younger lifeguard on the beach whom Ginny quickly develops a relationship with that then turns into an all-out affair. The aspiring actress finds a renewed sense of being, but only until Humpty's daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), reincarnates in their lives while on the run from her mobster husband and catches the eye of Mickey. The shake up threatens everything Ginny has finally found, but is it some sort of retribution for her past indiscretions?

As you might have noticed in the description, Wonder Wheel's cast is shiny and starlit, with Winslet doing a fantastic job in her role to further display her wide range of ability as an actor. Temple is equally fit in her casting. The strangest choice by far is Timberlake. In his recent films, Allen has taken a slight step out of the spotlight and chosen younger actors to play the awkward, over-think part. Jesse Eisenberg in last year's Cafe Society felt like a natural choice, but Timberlake as a philosophical graduate theatre student is less suiting (and not just because Timberlake is a far better musician than he is thespian).

It's a bit of a wonder — no pun intended — that the cast should be noteworthy at all given the circular, predictable nature of the script. Each character is given somewhat of a fatal flaw (that being literal in Carolina's case) that one would assume they eventually work to overcome. No such attempt is made by anyone...ever. Also much like Allen's more recent works, none of the characters find any happiness. That's not to say it's required in a story, but growth usually is in something the least bit dynamic.

Controversy has also erupted over the seeming similarities the film has to Allen's life, particularly an older adult seeking out a relationship with a younger one. Sparks flew back when Allen began a relationship with and later married the adopted daughter of his longtime partner, Mia Farrow. Is this a way for Allen to repent for the wrong choices he made, by making his character suffer heartbreak and loss? If it is, then it should have a been man, and it should have been made clear why poor Ginny has so little in her life if all she did was cheat on an ex-husband. No one is happy in Wonder Wheel, but some of them could be, if Allen had given them a little more space and a bit more roundness.

The best thing one can say about Wonder Wheel is the same sort of sentiment that was attributed to women in the 1950s period in which the film is set: it's real pretty to look at, but there isn't a heck load of substance. That likely was not true for majority of the women it was used about at the time. However, it holds steady for this film. If you want to see bright colors and feel a sense of sadness about a time period you never lived in anyway, consider purchasing a ticket. Otherwise, there are much better options to screen from the rest of the New York Film Festival.

Wonder Wheel will be released in theaters December 1, 2017.

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