Anyone who’s ever dated knows the moment early in a relationship when something doesn’t go quite right, and you get the nagging feeling that this person is not for you.
Sometimes it happens on the first date. Maybe he talks too much about his ex or balks at the restaurant prices. Maybe she’s 45 minutes late and doesn’t apologize. Or perhaps it’s nothing that overt—just a gut feeling that something is off and it’s better to get out now. Most of us do just that. Trust our instincts. Cut our losses. Listen to that warning voice inside our head. But sometimes women, in particular, don’t.
Based on the Los Angeles Times’ true-crime podcast, Dirty John, follows the romance of Debra Newell (Connie Britton) and John Meehan (Eric Bana). Successful and wealthy, Debra, an interior designer with her own business, sells her clients what she has coined “approachable dreams.” Debra may think her dream of finding “someone who is a good person” is an approachable one, but she’s easily duped. She seemingly has it all, but what she wants is someone to share it with. That’s a relatable problem—until we quickly learn that Debra has already been married four times. Clearly, Debra has trouble making smart romantic choices.
Enter John, an anesthesiologist who charms his way into Debra’s world. On the surface, he’s a “good person” who served in Iraq with Doctors Without Borders. When their first date ends badly, Debra gives him another chance. (You may find yourself screaming “No!” at the television) John is the type of guy who makes you think his awful behavior may be your fault. Soon, Debra’s siding with him over the wishes of her two daughters, Terra (Julia Garner) and Veronica (Juno Temple), who, from the jump, know something is up with this guy. “Mom, there’s something wrong with him. Do you not see that?” Veronica pleads.
Dirty John works one multiple levels. First of all, it succeeds as a straight-up thriller. Bana plays John, to us (but not to Debra) an unhinged sociopath, perfectly. The guy who seems great(ish) on the outside, but who occasionally flashes the simmering rage that’s underneath. There’s a montage early on that shows him making a smoothie for Debra every morning that somehow manages to make fruit seem menacing. The series is suspenseful in that good, old-fashioned horror-movie kind of way.
The series also works as a character study. What made Debra this way? Why does she always need to have a man in her life? She clearly loves her children, so why would she so easily side with John, a veritable stranger, over her own daughters? Why did she so easily believe all of John’s lies and deceits? “I have decided I’m not going to let them dictate the terms of this relationship. Not this time,” she tells her son.
The eight-episode series is boosted by strong performances all around. Britton (and, let’s be honest, her hair) make every show she’s in better, whether it’s Friday Night Lights, Nashville, SMILF, or (yes) 9-1-1. Debra is a frustrating character because she makes many consecutive bad choices, but somehow she remains sympathetic. Garner, who also has a knack for picking great TV series, brings a vulnerability based on years of her mother’s erratic love life. And Temple is a true breakout as the daughter who loves fashion and purses and living off her mother’s wealth, but is also smart enough to know how to get the information she needs and loving enough to put everything aside once she realizes how much trouble her mother is in. Veronica also brings some comic relief to the series: When a private detective (Judy Reyes) tells Debra she should get some clothes that blend in more, Ronnie says, “Her clothes do blend in in Orange County. It’s yours that stand out.”
Jean Smart ages up to play Debra’s mom, Arlane. Bravo made only three episodes available for review, but there are hints that Arlane may have contributed to her daughter’s constant need for male attention. When Debra’s nephew, Toby, has concerns about John, Debra runs to her mother, who assures her that “John is a good man.” “I love him because he loves you,” Arlane tells her daughter.
Much like Debra and John’s actual relationship, Dirty John is rapidly paced and clicks along at an almost breathtaking speed. The third episode flashes back to John’s previous life in Ohio with his first wife (Sprague Graden) and the origin of his nickname, Dirty John. Mixing John’s past with his current life, the episode brings the horror of Debra’s situation to a head.
John may be dirty, but the series is an addictive guilty pleasure.
Dirty John premieres Sunday, Nov. 25 at 10 p.m. on Bravo.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .