One of the main reasons Dirty John is so engrossing — apart from the cast, which I'll get to in a minute — is that we've all heard some version of this story.
By that I don't mean the Los Angeles Times podcast on which this Bravo series is based — a lauded podcast that tells the true story of how affluent, four-time divorcee Debra Newell (played in the TV series by Connie Britton) met a guy online who turned out to be a dangerous creep. The story we have all heard some iteration of is far less dramatic and, I hope, less deadly: someone met somebody on a site or an app and things went wrong. Maybe the guy turned out to be shorter, balder and fatter than his pictures let on, or maybe the woman started talking about marriage, babies and meeting her parents on the second night. That kind of thing.
But Dirty John is the extreme example: a modern-day, real-life horror story, relatable and intoxicating because it hits so close to home, and incites such primal feelings for everybody in or adjacent to the dating pool. Though people who've listened to the Dirty John podcast may gripe that Bravo's series doesn't do it any favors (disclaimer: I only read the story), Bravo's take is nonetheless gripping and addictive because, duh, Connie Britton, and because it's a melodramatic, Lifetime-esque yarn that could happen to anyone, with juicy, satisfying turns made for yelling at the screen. If the now-tamed but once-salacious site Don't Date Him Girl! from the early 2000s, which allowed women to warn others about cads and monsters in the midst, came to life, this is what it would look like. And that's just fine.
We watched all three episodes given to us in advance of Sunday's premiere, and the action starts right away as Debra teeters around her interior design firm, privileged and well-heeled but clearly lonely and ready to meet Mr. Right, again, common sense be damned. Connie Britton sells Debra's warmth and reckless vulnerability well, convincing the audience that the borderline desperation she shows in bringing John Meehan (Eric Bana) into her life so quickly after meeting him is rooted in... something deep, even if it's not exactly clear what. But it doesn't matter. Dirty John doesn't appear to be trying to deliver any highbrow societal commentary, even if the underlying theme about the ways the judicial system and law enforcement fails to protect women is salient. It's nonetheless engrossing, thanks to a measured unfurling of increasing terror, and its cast, including Bana, whose gravitas complements Britton's compassionate portrayal of a woman making unthinkably bad choices.
The characters people will love most though, are Debra's daughters — especially Veronica, played by a fantastically bitchy Juno Temple. Veronica is not only skeptical of John from the very beginning, but she's openly horrible to him, delivering the type of shade and snappy one-liners that would make iconic mean girls like Regina George or Madison Montgomery from American Horror Story proud. She and Terra (Julia Garner) are stylized (and in Veronica's case renamed from the original Jacquelyn) in ways that depart from the source material — one of a few ways the Bravo series will detour from what actually happened, which I won't spoil here. Honestly though, the details of the original aren't even necessary to know in order to enjoy this version of Dirty John exactly as it is. All you need to know is that it's the mostly true story of 'girl meets boy and she comes to regret it very much.'
By the third episode, all the red flags and warnings Debra failed to see, even after her own family's warnings, explode in her face, and the real danger she's now in feels intense and tactile, again thanks largely to Britton's remarkably non-soapy depiction of a woman being a fool for love. Dirty John won't be lauded for its nuance and depth of layered emotion; it is not, however, entirely vapid and shouldn't be dismissed for being slightly campy either. It's on Bravo, after all, the network best known for the Real Housewives franchise, where the fare can be as thoughtful as it is intellectually tawdry at the same time. Dirty John might be middlebrow, but it's filling.