You know what can happen when you follow your heart, not your head. Or when something seems too good to be true, yet you just can’t walk away. There’s an eerie lesson that speaks to just that in Bravo’s new true-crime drama Dirty John (Sundays beginning Nov. 25, 10/9c). The cautionary tale is adapted from the addictive Los Angeles Times podcast by journalist Christopher Goffard. The podcast, which is an investigative journalism piece, was all the rage when it debuted to immediate success last fall with more than 10 million downloads in just six weeks.
Bravo’s eight-episode psychological thriller, Dirty John, has all the ingredients of a can’t-miss TV series, including big stars — Eric Bana, Connie Britton, Jean Smart and Julia Garner (Ozark’s Ruth Langmore) — romance, secrets, seduction and betrayal.
Bana stars as John Meehan, a.k.a. Dirty John, a con man who abused and manipulated women for the better part of four decades. In late 2014, he preyed on Debra Newell (played by Britton), who he had met on a dating site for singles over 50, and from there their twisted relationship began.
Having spent the better part of his career on the big screen, Bana’s roles have varied through the years, ranging from a brutal murderer in The Forgiven and a ferocious but funny criminal in Chopper to the endearingly romantic Henry in The Time Traveler’s Wife, a complex Mossad agent in Munich and a Trojan prince in the epic Troy. Bana now turns to TV and dives into the complex and intriguing mind of John Meehan.
“I realized early on that this was someone whose character traits I loathe,” Bana tells us. “The one thing I’ve learned from this subject matter in the short time that I’ve been exposed to it, which is I guess sort of six or eight months now, is that it’s never really a fair fight. On the one side you’ve got someone who is basically making a side career out of their deception, and they’re incredibly well-versed and experienced, usually coming up against someone who maybe is coming across a person of that type for the first time. I think the series will be quite challenging for a lot of people, and I think it will create a lot of really interesting dialogue, because all of us like to think that we could never fall victim to someone, that our instincts are very strong and so forth, but it’s also worth bearing in mind that the person who is going after the victim is extremely experienced at what they’re doing, and it’s quite often not a fair match.”
Britton, who we last saw regularly as an emergency dispatcher on 9-1-1 and for five seasons as Rayna Jaymes on Nashville, had the opportunity to meet with the real Debra Newell and gushes about what a kindhearted, positive person she is.
“I’ll just call her up out of the blue and be like, ‘Hey, can you tell me about your experience with this?’ or whatever, and she’s been so incredibly generous and forthcoming and really honest and just very, very sweet and lovely,” Britton shares. “I mean she really is just incredibly warm and sees the good in people. That’s one of the first things she’ll tell you, she sees the good in everyone.”
But, unfortunately, those same endearing characteristics can also make you vulnerable to a con. It’s easy to see how Debra, a mother of four grown children who was 59 when she met John, fell head over heels in love with him. Debra ran a flourishing interior design firm and, despite being married and divorced four times, was looking for a man to share her success with. John was handsome and charming, doted on her every need and claimed he was an anesthesiologist who just spent a year with Doctors Without Borders.
“I don’t think it’s possible to not feel for how she fell into John’s lap. I don’t think there is any way of being overly judgmental about how that occurred,” Bana adds. “I think for most people, the judgment begins in terms of at what point did she realize something was not right, and why didn’t she leave. That seems to be the thing that people struggle with the most, and I think that’s the real interesting conversation. And that’s obviously a really complicated one to answer as well.”
“I actually was more unnerved by how easy it is to be conned,” Britton says. “And then the flip side of it is, when I was listening to Debra, how she described her experience of him and the choices that she made, I could recognize her priorities as a woman. Her priorities are to take care of others and to be committed to the man that she’s married and that she really wants to feel love in her life and that she sees the best in everyone. All of those things I think are very, very strong pulls for women. I can see how you would be pulled in by those things. I just found it to be a really disturbing story and a good caution. As women, we need to value ourselves more, and even though we feel a sense of, ‘Oh, I can take care of everyone, and I can make everything better,’ we need to know that first and foremost we need to take care of ourselves.”