Dirty John review: Evil Eric Bana stalks women in Netflix’s latest true crime show
Director - Jeffrey Reiner
Cast - Connie Britton, Eric Bana, Juno Temple, Julia Garner
Rating - 3/5
The most annoying thing about Dirty John, the hit true crime podcast, was its central character - Debra Newell. She’s obscenely rich, oddly naive, and almost childlike in her decision-making. None of that helps when you, the viewer, is trying to empathise with her, but can’t because most of the trouble she finds herself in is her own fault.
It’s unfortunate then that the same cloying qualities have been transferred to Dirty John, the TV show adaptation, acquired for worldwide distribution by Netflix.
What makes it worse is that Debra - at least towards the end of her horrible ordeal - appears to come to some sort of realisation about the stupidity of her actions. “I know it might make me look bad,” she tells Los Angeles Times reporter Christopher Goffard, whose soothing tones in the podcast tempered the most unbelievable aspects of Debra’s story.
But Goffard’s voice of reason is missing from the show, which finds itself trying to dramatise some of the more subdued elements of the story with almost soap opera level sappiness.
Watch the Dirty John trailer here
Dirty John, the show, is a worthy but altogether unremarkably addition to the ‘trouble in paradise’ subgenre of TV thrillers that has become so popular these days. It’s nowhere near as perceptive (or entertaining) as HBO’s Big Little Lies, nor is it as thrilling as Broadchurch.
But considering the incredible true story it’s playing with, and its knockout finale, it should have been.
Debra (played by Connie Britton), who had been married and divorced four times already, met John Meehan (Eric Bana making a comeback) on a blind date and was immediately taken by his raw charm and gruff likability. He made her feel special and unlike the other guys she’d gone out with, listened to her attentively. The first date turned into a second, and then a third, and before Debra knew it, she was head over heels - much too quickly for her two daughters’ liking.
Their suspicions were well founded. Through some DIY resourcefulness and professional sleuthing, Debra’s daughters, Veronica and Terra discover that John Meehan isn’t at all who he says he is. He has a history of being in and out of the slammer, of stalking women and violating restraining orders, and he’s being lying about being a doctor. The warmth he shows towards Debra is sharply contrasted by the iciness he has for her daughters and their family. Slowly and systematically, he turns Debra against them, having convinced her that they’re far too reliant on her and her wealth.
And Debra falls for it. In less than two months of having known each other, they run off and get married. Without a prenup. Despite being warned.
All this happens within the first couple of episodes - there are eight in total - which makes it very difficult, as reasonable people, to understand Debra’s motivations. She seems to be leading a fulfilling and rewarding life, running a successful business and fostering strong relationships with her family. So why did she feel the need to run off with a stranger? Was her desperation for companionship that dire?
Of course, being a fact-based story there’s little that can be done to change the essence of the characters - certainly, Debra is relatively self-aware in the show, and even uses her questionable reputation to her favour in later episodes. Creator Alexandra Cunningham had more tools at her disposal than what Goffard had in the podcast; It’s another thing that the visuals are plain, and the dialogue clunky. There was a better opportunity to get under the skin of both John and Debra here, which is wasted in favour of a rather by-the-numbers TV drama, so old-school in its storytelling that it still inserts checkpoints for commercial breaks.
But it’s difficult to resist the core of what the story is about, especially since the performances - especially Bana’s - are so compelling. John is at once weak and controlling, and in Debra he has found the perfect prey. It is a matter of great sadness that she isn’t the first to have fallen for his tricks.