I was taken aback when I heard, this spring, that Connie Britton had been cast as Debra Newell in “Dirty John,” Bravo’s adaptation of the noirish podcast from Wondery and the L.A. Times, from 2017, about a woman whose quest for love after fifty ends in terror and a death. Britton, a warm and generous actor, makes you want to befriend—or be—almost every character she plays. Her Tami Taylor, on “Friday Night Lights,” was essential to the show’s tender believability, and her marriage was one that people aspired to; her magnetic Rayna Jaymes, in the soapy, all-over-the-place “Nashville,” got many of us hooked. Understanding televisual adaptations to be generally schlockier than their sources, I cringed to imagine what would result from a Britton-centered adaptation of “Dirty John,” a pulpy true story with a tabloid aesthetic. I feared for Britton, somehow, wanting to protect her from the role, much as we want to protect Debra Newell from Dirty John. But the series, which is now four episodes in, surprised me—in some ways, it’s an improvement on the podcast, and Britton’s performance is central to why.
“Dirty John,” in all forms, is a horrifying story, and a true feat of reporting by its creator, Christopher Goffard, who looked into a local newspaper item about a killing and uncovered, via shoe-leather investigative reporting, a backstory that reads like a crime novel. The plot: a successful interior designer in Newport Beach, married and divorced four times and looking for love, meets a thoughtful, handsome anesthesiologist on an over-fifty dating site. He’s more appealing than her other matches, telling stories about serving in Iraq in Doctors Without Borders, showing heroism and empathy, claiming to own multiple high-end real-estate properties. She falls for him, ignores several warning signs that he’s not what he seems—his lack of evidence of those houses, his shabby medical scrubs—and quickly marries him, only to discover that he’s a dangerous con man, not a doctor. Things spin out ever more wildly from there. Many podcast listeners were struck by Newell’s credulous behavior; by her daughters’ outrageously Californian accents and uptalk; by the value that Debra and her mother placed on marriage and men, sometimes to the detriment of personal safety. And the podcast’s aesthetic choices made the experience all the stranger.
“Dirty John,” the podcast, was a pioneering hybrid form: a first serialized audio effort by a seasoned newspaper reporter and accompanied by a lavishly designed print series in the L.A. Times, in which we could see black-and-white photographs of Debra, her relatives, John, and Orange County, accompanied by maroon all-caps pull quotes like “I DON’T LIKE HIM. THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT HIM.” and “WHAT IF HE HURTS HER?” Goffard was sensitive to protecting Debra and to portraying her with care. Yet it also seemed that the podcast wanted to scare us. Goffard’s podcast narration could be lurid (“black-hearted Lothario”; “treacly bonbon with a core of arsenic”), and interviewees described John as “evil.” In-house ads for the show’s sponsors were startlingly tasteless. Last year, it had breathless ads for a home serial-killer game; now, it has nervous, unctuous ads for home-security systems. The show seems to want to stoke our fears and then capitalize on them.
The Bravo series does not give that impression. It’s a fairly standard TV drama—not top-shelf HBO-style fare, but not Lifetime either, which is what I expected. (Innocent woman seeks love on Internet, pays for it harshly, and so could you.) As directed by Jeffrey Reiner (“The Affair,” “Friday Night Lights”), it doesn’t lean on scary music, a dramatic title sequence, or excessive demonstrations of feminine vulnerability and emotion. It also doesn’t have narration: we just watch the story’s crazy pieces line up and fit together. The adaptation trusts in the inherent drama of its story—there is plenty—and doesn’t strive to gin it up. When, in a flashback sequence, Debra’s sister is murdered by her husband, we see him raise the gun, but the scene ends before we see or hear him shoot it. When Debra learns that John is a dangerous con man, she leaves their condo and hides out in a furnished rental apartment; her fear is dramatized by a short scene in which she walks down the building’s hallway to get ice, hears the bang of a neighbor’s door, and startles, a subtle note of anxiety that we recognize immediately. And when Debra returns to talk to John, after leaving him, her appearance in his room is presented so unceremoniously that it enhances our sense of disbelief.
But the element that stands out the most, in this reasonably tasteful series, is Britton’s performance. She plays Debra thoughtfully, making us empathize with her, and also credibly portrays her naïveté, her willing blindness to potential danger. Debra wants to believe in love, and to believe that John loved her—even after she learns he’s a con man. This is Debra’s near-fatal flaw, and also where Britton excels. Early on, when Debra’s daughters meet John and quickly dislike him, we watch Britton convey a sense of trying to please everybody, to conceal just enough to keep the peace, and also to get what she wants—a balancing act that requires graceful self-deceit. Her performance, like Nicole Kidman’s in “Big Little Lies,” gives us insight into the mental calculations that navigating domestic violence requires, and the complicated connections among love, desire, and abuse. Trust is always in peril—between Debra and John, of course, but also between Debra and her family members. Rather than listening to Gofford or Newell describe her thought process, as we do in the podcast, we see it play out in Connie Britton’s face, hear it in the soft tones of her voice. Britton’s performance has shades I haven’t seen before, because her other characters didn’t require them. Tami Taylor and Rayna James were savvy but vulnerable superwomen, who managed their families and careers with intimacy and aplomb; they didn’t do much that upset you. In playing Debra, Britton finds a brilliant balance of characteristics, centered on the complexity of her relationship with love. We watch Debra make wrong-footed choices while sympathizing with her. She always seems to be doing the best she can.
I’m also fascinated by the performance of Juno Temple, as Debra’s daughter Veronica (based on Debra’s daughter Jacquelyn, in life and the podcast). Early on in the podcast, Jacquelyn’s harsh personality rattles us a bit. She says that she immediately saw that John was a “loser” and that he looked “homeless”; she lives in luxury with her mother, keeps a safe filled with expensive bags, and shows flashes of self-importance and hostility, some based in protectiveness, some just snobbish. Temple plays her this way on the show, too—and, of course, her wariness turns out to be the correct impulse. (There’s a gloriously near-campy short Christmas scene in which, as we listen to Andy Williams singing about chestnuts roasting on an open fire, she marches up to John’s car and puts a tracker on it.) But when it becomes clear that her mother is in true danger, Temple’s Veronica softens, stops judging and fighting, and just cares for her, with love. If the other details of this story are unfamiliar to us, we might recognize that.
Interestingly, the two characters whose psyches are the hardest to understand—John (Eric Bana), a sociopath, and Debra’s mother (Jean Smart), eager to see the best in her daughters’ dangerous but devoted husbands—may be better served by the podcast. Bana and Smart give skilled, nuanced performances, but, as we watch them engage in increasingly baffling behavior, there’s only so much they can do to help us understand; we might welcome a narrator to explain what the hell is going on. I’m curious to see what happens in the final episode, when the plot reaches a fever pitch: a surprise hero, the term “zombie kill,” and a vanquishing. If it manages to avoid melodrama, it will be a high point in the history of the American miniseries.