One of the biggest challenges for Dirty John, the dramatized version of a true story about a California businesswoman caught in a bad romance that ended in homicide, was nailing the tone. To call a show or movie "Lifetime-y" has become a thinly veiled insult — an insinuation that the material rings of cheap melodrama, sentimentality, or overwrought emotion. And though Dirty John's tale of a woman escaping a Prince Charming who turned out to be a violent con man is a terrifying one with wider societal implications, there are moments in the series — particularly when Debra Newell, played by Connie Britton, is cowering or frozen with fear — that get dangerously close to seeming, well, Lifetime-y. Nonetheless, melodrama is a danger that Britton, also an executive producer on the series, recognized from the start and took great care to avoid.
"First and foremost," Britton told TV Guide via phone, sounding every bit as warm and please be my friend-inducing as a Connie Britton fan would expect, "when dealing with a story that actually happened, playing a woman who is alive and well and I had many conversations with, that helps ground it. What was so important to me is that I did absolutely not want the depiction to be written off as melodramatic and cliche. Because as soon as people write it off like that they couldn't take in the messages or find the truth."
One essential truth that rang throughout Dirty John's eight episodes was how several systems failed Debra — and women overall. By the time Debra met John, played by Eric Bana, John had already harassed, stalked, and abused several other women, served time and even tried to have several ex-girlfriends and his ex-wife murdered. Had Debra's daughter not stabbed him in self-defense when he tried to kidnap her, he might've killed her and/or Debra, but what the series makes clear is that John should've never been able to meet, seduce, and con Debra in the first place. "The way the story ended up was a fluke," she said. "This young woman was able to fight back but [this series] begs the question, 'Why aren't women more protected? The legal system and judicial system had Debra up against so many walls. My hope is that we bring these questions out in the open."
Of course, activating viewers' rightful outrage with the system became more complicated as Debra continued to stand by her man as John became more creepy, more disrespectful, and then outright scary. In portraying a woman who not only married a man she knew only for a few weeks but also stood by him after learning he was a liar with a shady past, Britton had to maintain viewer empathies in spite of her character's questionable choices.
"Many people I talked to said, 'How was she so stupid?' But that's discounting the ability of a con artist and manipulator to do real damage," Britton said. "Abuse and harassment have been going on for generations behind closed doors, with women who are incredibly accomplished and successful. It's something we don't want to look at."
This dynamic set up what Britton thought was her most challenging scene in the series: when Debra decides to take John back after he's been hospitalized due to the addiction he's hidden from her, and after she's discovered a trove of documents that confirmed he's a seasoned criminal. This didn't happen in real life, and it's a risky choice on the part of the storytellers as it stretches viewers' patience with Debra.
"That's the point most of the audience is like, 'What is she doing?'" Britton said. But once the decision was made, her work was to keep Debra likable in spite of choices almost designed to turn sympathizers against her. To Britton's credit, Debra may have been hard to understand or frustrating at times, but she never veered into melodramatic histrionics.
"I've been fortunate to play empowered women," she said, bringing to mind Tami Taylor of Friday Night Lightsor Rayna James of Nashville. "In this case, this is a woman who's very powerful in a lot of ways but found herself in a deeply disempowered situation. To me, there are so many values that have been passed down from generation to generation, woman to woman that really impacted the choices Debra made. I wanted to explore the humanity of that, and also the womanhood of that. That was something really important to me."
Dirty John aired on Bravo; check your cable provider for on-demand availability. It's also available for purchase on Amazon.