“Dirty John,” Bravo’s new limited series adapted from the podcast of the same name, does the unthinkable: It makes you not care about Connie Britton. Seriously. Other middling programs, privileged with the actor’s sharp sense of humor and warm ferocity, have tried to make audiences forget their deep-seeded attachment to the former Mrs. Coach from “Friday Night Lights” (most notably the painful Fox drama “911,” which Britton smartly abandoned after one season). But none have succeeded — none, until “Dirty John.”
Starring Britton as a wealthy designer looking for love in all the wrong places, the eight-part anthology series is inspired by the true and tragic events well-chronicled by Los Angeles Times reporter Christopher Goffard, first in print and later in his popular podcast, but the first three hours of this scripted iteration are cold and one-sided. As much mystery looms around the eponymous John, played by a steely-eyed Eric Bana, as there is distance bordering on apathy given to Britton’s Debra Newell. Viewers might be suckered into wanting to know exactly who this guy is, but the vanilla, passive depiction of his primary victim dulls any empathy for her struggle to the point where your only motivation to continue is to see how dark this story might get.
For those unfamiliar with the story — and you may be the only ones to find enjoyment from this less resonant take — “Dirty John” starts with Debra’s struggles to meet men. Despite her striking good looks (as noted by multiple characters), successful profession, and luxe L.A. pad, Debra succumbs to the desperate act of online dating (implied as such by at least one character). Writer Alexandra Cunningham (Hulu’s “Chance” and NBC’s “Aquarius,” both better thrillers) doesn’t bother asking why Debra has a hard time with her personal life — for instance, wealthy women can be intimidating to insecure (read: shitty) men — and only later do we find out she’s been married four times prior; a troubling discovery only because the revelation is trotted out to show Debra has poor taste in men instead of filling in her backstory and inviting the audience to know her a little better.
Even after the first hour, it’s clear Debra is merely a vessel to introduce us to the vastly more interesting John Meehan, a seemingly nice, studiously attentive, and fashion illiterate anesthesiologist — a doctor! jackpot! — who raises odd, if not disqualifying, red flags early in their courtship. He leaves in a huff when Debra refuses to sleep with him after date No. 1. He doesn’t really apologize for mistakes so much as he pushes past them. He wears cargo shorts and pants far too often (as if they’re ever OK outside of jungle expeditions).
But Debra doesn’t care. She’s fallen for John, and they’re living together within months and married not long after. It’s hard to fault Cunningham for rushing through the early relationship, given she doesn’t hide John’s illicit intentions very long, but the couple’s lack of chemistry makes their whirlwind romance less forgiving for Debra. The audience gets why John is moving so fast — he’s up to no good, even if it’s unclear exactly how bad things will get — but viewers need to see why Debra would fall so hard for this guy. Even if he’s faking falling in love, she’s not, and when their connection doesn’t feel real, she looks like even more of a fool.
Adding to Debra’s disconnected rich lady vibes are her spoiled yet savvy children, played by two actors so perfectly cast as sisters it’s hard to believe they’re not signed up for a series all their own already. Juno Temple plays Veronica, Debra’s oldest daughter who still lives at home and complains about which six-figure car she gets to drive to her friend’s beachside mansion. Temple plays up the Laguna Beach vibes to delightful extremes, channeling a bleached blonde airhead who’s stubborn enough to pursue her inherent dislike of poor people until she discovers John’s actual problems. Matching her high-pitched whine octave-for-octave is Julia Garner, the “Ozark” breakout who strolls into “Dirty John” as the younger, more responsible Terra. She’s hesitant to hate John as much as Veronica, but the two wisely team up and deliver the buddy detective drama “True Detective” Season 3 aspires to be.
OK, the Temple/Garner duo isn’t that fully realized — they don’t share nearly enough screen time — but the miniature delights offered by each enlivened turn are what’s sorely missing from the rest of “Dirty John.” Decidedly not ambitious “prestige” television, the first three episodes make perfectly clear this isn’t a nuanced series, or one interested in exploring abuse or manipulation in serious fashion. It’s trying to be a juicy nighttime soap that uses the “true story” tag to drive viewers’ mouths further and further agape. When John sheds his pristine image as the perfect husband, it’s exciting in that sickly way that consistently sparks our curiosity about sociopaths. Bana’s opaque presentation of John only really pays off when he gets to show John’s true colors, but you do eventually see why he makes the choices he does — John’s unassuming nature is far scarier when its facade is stripped away.
But that still leaves poor, put-upon Debra. Despite Britton’s best efforts to bring her character from the dizzying highs of LOVE to the shocked senseless lows of betrayal, there’s not much going on with Debra. Perhaps in later episodes she’ll get a chance to establish some dimensionality, but that the third episode favors John’s development indicates the show’s overall priorities: Explore the killer’s point of view and keep the victim scared senseless. Seen in its worst light, “Dirty John” is designed to scare women; to make them feel unsafe in their relationships and unsound in their decision-making. At best, it’s unconcerned with how they feel, favoring what drives the bad man to do bad things. Not even Britton’s 911 operator would’ve tolerated such diminution, and that’s saying something.
“Dirty John” premieres Sunday, November 25 at 10 p.m. ET on Bravo.