‘Dirty John’ on Netflix: No, not a doc about filthy toilets
Based on a grim and gripping true story - and a podcast
As an aficionado of The OC, the greatest of early-2000s teen dramas, I have a weakness for a certain kind of televisual shot. Grand aerial swoop, luscious enclave below, snappy pop soundtrack across it all. The OC’s establishing shots are classics of the genre, filmed in California’s Newport Beach. Yachts drift past Balboa Island’s wooden pier; its ferris wheel glows with colour.
I remembered all this when Dirty John, a true-crime offering on Netflix, opened with an identical sequence, filmed in the very same place. The world is gorgeous and sunny, and full of rich people, and even if bad things happen to them, it’ll be beautiful to watch. It was then, less than three minutes in, that I realised that something about this show was wrong.
Dirty John is a drama, a light fictionalisation of the life of Debra Newell and her family, who between 2014 and 2016 were besieged by a conman named John Meehan. Meehan, played here by Eric Bana, inveigled his way into the affections of Debra (Connie Britton), posing as a military veteran, an anaesthesiologist and a devout Christian too. Under his influence, she drifted away from her family, and lavished money upon her new man. They were secretly married after just eight weeks.
Debra was a successful interior designer. This is Orange Country, so she was accordingly very rich. Enamoured with Meehan, she found a $6,500-a-month house on the boardwalk on Balboa Island; he claimed he had tax issues, so she paid it all herself, up front. (The show raises the tab to $7,000 a month. It’s quicker to speak, and the gap is loose change.) Debra’s daughters Jacquelyn and Terra hated Meehan, but she was too in love to listen. Eventually she found out about his lies, his history of stalking and threatening women, and fought to extricate herself. He did not go quietly.
Dirty John has roots in the crime podcast boom that began in 2014 with Serial. That trend was still going strong in 2017 – after all, there are 14,000 to 17,000 murders a year in the US, and many of them are interesting – when Christopher Goffard of the Los Angeles Times wove the Meehan story into the first Dirty John, a beautifully written six-part essay and accompanying four-hour podcast series.
Goffard’s podcast featured the voices of the Newell women themselves, but for this Dirty John, the producers have tarted the story up by having it acted out. It simplifies reality whenever reality is too weird to bear. For example, as depicted in one episode, a mystery woman appeared in Debra’s Balboa Island house, and was sharply escorted out by Meehan, but it’s unclear who she was to this day.
The show explains her presence: a drug-addict mistress of Meehan’s, used to give him an excuse to install indoor CCTV.
Off screen, Debra’s reasons for taking Meehan back are equally tricky to parse, the way emotions often are. “He was love-bombing me, studying me,” she said to Forbes. “And then he’d gaslight me.” The show tidies this up: Debra finds out that Meehan’s a drug addict himself, so she decides to help him get clean.
The show ends when the Meehans’ ordeal does, too, which precludes the crucial thing for these women: the aftermath. In reality, they’ve rebuilt their lives in starkly different ways. Jacquelyn spoke to Goffard, telling him she initially “didn’t like the way [Meehan’s] eyes roamed around the place, among their velvet chairs and jewellery and fine art”.
But she refused to be photographed by the LA Times, and didn’t co-operate with the producers of Dirty John, who changed her character’s name to Veronica. (Jacquelyn did, at least, turn up at the premiere, telling the actress who played her, Juno Temple, that her safe, filled with designer bags, “was bigger in real life”.)
Terra, on the other hand, was involved with the show. She acted as a consultant for the final confrontation with Meehan, saying that she “wanted to make sure it was accurately portrayed”. She’s an Instagram sensation, promoting fashion and beauty products on the back of the show’s success: “use code dirtyjohn20 for 20 per cent off”.
But she also advocates support for sufferers of PTSD, as does Debra, who still works as an interior designer, but in Las Vegas. As a survivor, she imagined that Dirty John would be a work of public good: “I had thought that it was more important to get this out to women – what can happen to them.”
Debra’s first thoughts on Eric Bana, who plays Meehan, were “I think he’s very hot”. Dressed in the blue scrubs that Meehan habitually wore, so that he could pretend to go to work in a hospital – in reality, he’d long ago lost his career for stealing prescription drugs – Bana looks like an extra from Gray’s Anatomy.
The real Meehan, by contrast, was bulky, slightly bloated from steroid use, and more physically imposing than Bana has been since 2000’s Chopper. His sheer stature kept even Debra’s nephew Shad Vickers, a former American footballer who weighed 89kg, from confronting him toe-to-toe.
Connie Britton, playing Debra, is superb. She brings to life all the contradictions that animated the real woman, inviting your sympathy while never letting you feel quite sure what she’s feeling or thinking, or why. Her world was made to seem other than it was, so you’re with her in her confusion.
But the rest of the cast either don’t have the range, or aren’t given the role. Temple is wasted as Veronica, a rich little bitch who had the bad man clocked all along. Plots require things to change, and these cardboard people can only go one way: of course Meehan is bad, of course Ronnie was right.
Dirty John, a Bravo production, has been graced with a little-watched documentary sibling called Dirty John: The Dirty Truth. The title is ungainly, but apt. As its interviews with Debra and Terra remind you, truth is a dirtier thing than a TV drama can ever show, and Dirty John is a televisual airbrush. The script forms a kind of veneer: it sits above the true story on which it’s based, too glossy and too bright, turning its fractious, complicated people into nice little (or bad little) caricatures.
As an eight-part drama, however, Dirty John runs very smoothly indeed. It begins with a pre-credits scene that cues up the mystery – who’s the body in the hospital bed? – and unfolds from there, with sharp dialogue and production values as rich as the Californian setting. There are neat flashbacks to explore the Meehan backstory, which Goffer’s podcast and essays were able to narrate. Meehan had, as Goffer puts it, “seduced, swindled and terrorised multiple women, many of whom he had met on dating sites while posing as a doctor”.
Debra Newell was the last of many. Her ordeal ended in June 2018 when Meehan, cut off from her and desperate for revenge, rented a car and went down to Newport Beach to exact revenge on Terra. He had, as Goffer tells it, “his passport, a vial of injectable testosterone, and what police called a ‘kidnap kit’”.
The final episode of Dirty John follows the facts. Ambushing Terra in a car park, Meehan draws a knife, slashes her on the arm, pushes her to the floor. Terra (Julia Garner, playing a thinly written role as best she can) thrashes about below him, while her faithful dog Cash bites at his leg.
The slow motion is ecstatic; the sunlight hides the bad man’s face in shadow. She kicks out, and knocks the knife from Meehan’s hand – then she reaches out and grabs it, and plunges it into his face. He collapses, twitching to death. As Terra rises, the shaky-cam mirrors her racing heart. In other words, the scene is perfectly shot. You could almost believe it was real.
– © The Daily Telegraph