Web of deceit: ‘Dirty John’ shows how relationships can go bad

November 25, 2018

LOS ANGELES – How does a woman who was married four times fall for a man who’s a chronic liar?

That’s the question that hangs over “Dirty John,” an eight-part miniseries based on a successful Los Angeles Times podcast.

Smitten with a man who says he’s a doctor, Debra Newell gets swept up into a relationship that her daughters say is lethal.

“If somebody wants to do this to you and they’re focused on you ... they’re going to get you the way John got Debra,” says writer Alexandra Cunningham. “Debra was a hopeful and generous and kind person looking for somebody to recognize that in her ... and John took that.”

The podcast, created by reporter Chris Goffard, capitalized on the real-life story’s twists and turns. When producers realized what kind of attention it was getting, they thought it would be perfect for a television series. Even better, the original Times article had “hundreds and thousands of pages of research,” according to Cunningham, that helped flesh the television edition.

Among the changes: Cunningham gets to show John Meehan through several points of view.

While Connie Britton, who plays Newell, had the opportunity to ask the real person behind her character plenty of questions, Eric Bana, who plays Meehan, did not.

“To really have a better understanding of what her experience was ... is so important,” Britton says. “Ultimately, we’re telling the story of how a con man can be so effective. It’s important to make Debra relatable so we can all see ourselves in her and not just say, ‘Oh, well, that’s because she’s this or that’s because she’s that.’”

Bana read all of the material available on Meehan and still found him mysterious. “There’s a lot of stuff about him that I don’t really want to know,” he says. “When you’re dealing with something that’s based in reality, you can either choose to do something that’s 100 percent traceable to the exact facts of how they were or you can try and come up with something that has a sense of that person that might be more interesting.”

Listeners warmed to the podcast, Bana says, because Meehan was so unusual. “Studying how sociopaths behave and think was as important to me as it was to focus on specific events that occurred in his life.”

Cunningham says “Dirty John” could be a wake-up call for many. “To tell a story about why women don’t listen to their intuition and why they can’t throw off their conditioning is very relevant.”

The miniseries, she adds, will attempt to sweep audience members off their feet the way John swept Debra off hers.

Britton says it’s not difficult to find people who have had similar relationships. “It’s coercive control, which is a really viable thing that happens, particularly to women,” she says.

Adds Bana: “We think we’re so much better than we are. We think we’d be about to rise above this. Something happens when you’re in the company of someone and we just get a whole lot softer and we just get a whole lot more malleable.”

Bana doesn’t doubt that John fell for Debra but wonders when the acting began and the dangerous elements of his character started to emerge. “I really like the idea that John may not even know himself. There’s a lot of scope to explore in terms of sociopath behavior.”

While both Bana and Britton have played people who exist, they say there’s a little more license with those who aren’t well known.

“But it’s kind of harder because then you’re having to come up with something that’s going to be interesting or compelling where it might not have been,” Bana says.

Although the podcast made a big splash when it first aired, Executive Producer Richard Suckle says all podcasts aren’t easily adaptable. “What this one has that most – if not all the others – don’t have is an amazing ending,” he explains. “When I first listened to it, the way Chris decided to tell it was a complete misdirect. And it was a great misdirect. This one stands out for a lot of reasons but that’s one of the real big ones. It’s got a great, great ending.”

“Dirty John” begins Sunday on Bravo.

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