In the Watch This Next column, Man of Many takes a look back at a great TV show or film that may have slipped under your radar. Given the near-limitless entertainment options in the Netflix era, it’s easy to overlook amazing content in favour of the latest hit. For every Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad or Stranger Things, there’s another thing equally worthy of attention and we make the case for why you should watch it and where you can find it.
“You’re in way over your head on this one. Make it happen and I walk away. If not, I will be your nightmare.” – John Meehan.
Dirty John is the almost unbelievable true story of a man without empathy – and the kind of harm someone like that can inflict on the people who open their lives to them. Starring home-grown Eric Bana as John, Connie Britton as Debra Newell, Julie Garner (Ozark) as Terra Newell and Juno Temple as the exceedingly sassy, Veronica Newell, Dirty John will make you quake, question how well you really know anybody and potentially change how you view online dating, forever.
Reader beware: some spoilers are ahead.
The Newells: Finding Love as a Single Parent isn’t Always Easy
The show introduces us to Debra Newell and her two daughters straight away. Immediately you can tell that the two children have lived well their entire lives, thanks to their mothers flourishing interior design business. Despite her professional successes, Debra has had a complicated history with men, and that is putting it mildly. Tragically, her sister Vicky was murdered by her jealous husband. Adding to this, Debra herself has been married four times before, which would take its toll on anyone, and when the show starts, we are treated to a string of bad, but also pretty hilarious, dates. Naturally, her kids are sick of the carousel of relationships and pseudo-father figures and are thus suspicious of any man who might darken their mother’s decadent doorstep.
So when John shows up, in a grey polo, cargo shorts and dad sneakers, Veronica, and even her mother are unimpressed. But, in spite of his daggy appearance, John comes across as a total charmer over dinner. It’s only when he’s invited back to Debra’s that he acts strangely, lying face down on the bed awkwardly like a child after she’s asked him to instead sit in the lounge area. After repeated insistence, John gets up in a huff and leaves without saying a word. If only that were the end of it.
John manages to slink his way back into Deb’s good graces and after a few smoothies and some lovin’, John becomes a permanent fixture in the Newell household and the nightmare begins.
John Meehan: Less Dirty, More Filthy
When the show kicks off, we the viewer are limited only to Debra Newell’s perspective of John. This is an extremely effective way of introducing him, as for those who haven’t heard the podcast, you are left in a state of uncertainty. In the first few episodes, you might find yourself asking “Is he ok? Oh that was pretty fucked, but maybe he’ll change?” and that’s because we want the best for Debra. She’s had a rough trot with blokes and well, he’s just such a handsome rooster, isn’t he? ‘Dirty John’ really does a great job of testing your bullshit-detector, and with Bana’s stellar performance during John’s scenes of redemption (albeit false), you’ll find yourself giving John a second chance too. But this is a mistake.
In a nutshell, John is a total fucking bastard. His rap sheet includes, but is certainly not limited to theft, intimidation, fraud, abuse, drug use, and domestic violence. He is, in this portrayal at least, a complete and utter monster, a leech and most worryingly, dangerous.
John does boast massive and unyielding flaws. He’s jealous, menacing, and hell-bent on making a living without having to make a living. And he’s good at that last part. As the episodes roll-on, we are given glimpses into his childhood. His dad, a wannabe gangster, teaches John from an early age how to beat the system; jumping in front of moving cars, stealing – even making him eat glass in a restaurant in order to accuse the owner of having found it in the food.
This, unfortunately, makes John very good at what he does. As the relationship between John and Debra becomes more and more sour, we are given more insight into what John is doing when we can’t see him. Feeding his opioid addiction, intimidating Debra’s kids and catfishing unsuspecting women, to name a few.
In essence, John is a hurricane of assholery. But, and I say this with total respect to the real-life Newalls; it makes for bloody good tv.
Blaming the Victim
Dirty John does an effective job of telling the story without making its victims appear oblivious or feeding the ‘blame the victim’ culture that is all too prevalent in today’s society. We instead are offered a balanced viewpoint, and at the end of the show, we feel more empathy than sympathy towards Debra.
This is thanks to Connie Britton, who does an exceptional job of portraying a woman who’s wary and scrupulous, but also fatigued. Her character Debra is intelligent and insightful but she has had a gutful of the ‘games’ and just wants a good fella who can take care of her emotional (and physical needs). So when the handsome, charming, and occasionally a bit ‘off’ John arrives on the scene, it’s easy to understand why she’s all too willing to look the other way on some things.
But the show opens up a broader topic than the cycle of abuse. John is attractive. Throughout, this is mentioned. ‘Dirty John’ as a show puts forward an accurate commentary on our society’s tendency to idolise and forgive attractive or talented people, even if they are abusive or horrible. Take ‘John Meeks’ the “hot felon”. The guy stole cars and hurt people, and yet now he is engaged to a billionaire’s daughter and boasts 1.7 million followers. Or consider Chris Brown – he assaulted Rihanna and has since had multiple hit singles.
It’s no wonder that the damaged Debra tried to overlook his numerous ‘flaws’. It’s what western society had been teaching her all along. Combined with her mother’s ‘ever-forgiving’ nature – she is a fan of John you see – Debra never stood a chance.
Fast-food Entertainment with an Important Message
The ultimate message the audience is left with is that this stuff really happens. Be careful what you tell your children about forgiveness – it should not be blind but instead scrupulous. Don’t take people at face value and always look for early warning signs when you feel like things in your relationship aren’t what they should be.
Dirty John is a more than competent Netflix show, which is made pretty great thanks to Bana’s performance and the incredible (yet awful) true events that drive the series. With a strong supporting cast and perfectly adequate cinematography and soundtrack, Dirty John isn’t always easy to watch but you’ll enjoy it nonetheless.