If Bravo intends to expand from dominating the reality TV landscape — if having all of the tentacles of the Real Housewives gorgon, plus Vanderpump Rules and Below Deck isn’t dominating, I don’t know what would be — into scripted series, its 8-part miniseries Dirty John should have the likes of FX, TNT, and AMC looking over their shoulders in short order.
Based on a popular Serial-esque true-crime podcast, Dirty John tells the story of career grifter John Meehan, here played to oily perfection by Eric Bana, through the eyes of his last mark: an interior designer named Debra Newell (Connie Britton), who despite great professional success has been unlucky in love, with two grown daughters (Juno Temple and Julia Garner) and three ex-husbands on her record.
In shockingly short order, after meeting John on a dating site and despite the disapproval of her daughters, Debra hands John the keys to her whole opulent life. Soon enough, egged on by oldest daughter Veronica (a note-perfect rendering of a spoiled SoCal millennial by Temple), Debra begins to catch on that John’s past is more checkered than he let on, and a game of cat and mouse begins.
Following the structure of the podcast, the series interweaves Debra’s dawning horror with more details on John’s first marriage, his childhood, and his time in prison, shown in flashback and featuring solid drop-in performances by Joelle Carter (Justified) as John’s sister Denise, and
Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire, Fargo) as his low-rent hustler dad.
There is no danger that you will sympathize with John, though, because even though Bana does an excellent job of making his slides from affable and charming to controlling and creepy believable, the guy has few, if any, visible redeeming qualities beneath the surface, other than looking like Eric Bana and making a mean breakfast smoothie.
Those two qualities are more than enough for Debra, at least for a while, and the biggest frustration with Dirty John is the same one that her daughters felt as these events were happening in real life: how does this guy have such a hold over such a seemingly sensible, intelligent woman? Debra has some huge blind spots, and Dirty John does the legwork of shedding light on those issues through flashbacks to Jean Smart (Jean Smart!) as Debra’s mother, handling a similar situation with Debra’s sister and brother-in-law in a way that suggests a tendency to overforgive men may have run in the family.
This is a great, quick 8-hour bingewatch, with a straightforward plot made more engaging by the flashback structure, and by the excellent performances across the board. Juno Temple is particularly specific in her portrayal of skeptical, openly hostile Veronica, and Jean Smart’s different approaches to the same character twenty years ago and in the near-present day are fascinating.
But it’s Bana and Britton’s show, moving from easy chemistry to wedded bliss to sneaking suspicion to outright war. I want Bana’s reaction to the first mention of a “post-nup” to be my go-to work email GIF, and Britton somehow manages to sell Debra’s bewilderment at her own helplessness in the face of even a chance at love.
All 8 episodes of Dirty John are available on demand on Bravo.