Warning: Spoilers for “Dirty John” below!
In the opening moments of Bravo’s “Dirty John,” an immaculately dressed Connie Britton is walking down a white hallway. “I believe in dreams,” she says in a voiceover, her angel hair bouncing as she moves, its perfect waves unmarred. It takes a second to realize just how white the hallways is ― hospital white. Suddenly, the image of Britton gives way to a flash of blood dripping down a sidewalk. From minute one, viewers know that the story that’s about to unfold won’t end without violence.
The saga of the dangerous con artist and grifter John Meehan (Eric Bana) and the havoc he wreaks on the life of interior designer Debra Newell (Britton) and her family is a true one. And if you’re one of the millions of people who listened to the “Dirty John” podcast, released in October 2017 by the Los Angeles Times and Wondery, you know how that bloodshed plays out. Just over a year later, the gripping true-crime tale has come to life on the small screen, with the involvement of LA Times reporter Christopher Goffard and the Newells themselves ― including Debra and her youngest daughter Terra.
According to showrunner Alexandra Cunningham, their participation was essential to the final product, which premiered on Nov. 25 on Bravo. Terra Newell, who (spoiler alert!) is heavily involved in the climactic, bloody confrontation teased in both the first moments of the podcast and the television series, even worked with the show’s stunt coordinator to make the televised version of a very real traumatic moment as accurate as possible.
“Our stunt coordinator could not have been more impressed by her,” Cunningham said. “He emerged from that meeting and was like, ‘I know so many Special Forces guys and Navy Seals guys and other guys who are trained to use knife work and defend themselves and be aggressive for a living, and they spend days and weeks and months and years preparing for a moment like that. And then it happens and they die. All Terra did was plan in her head what would happen if there was a zombie apocalypse, and she survived.’”
“Dirty John” is the latest in a string of podcasts adapted for TV, including “Homecoming,” “Lore” and the recently canceled “Alex, Inc.” (based on Gimlet Media’s “StartUp”). Goffard initially had some concerns about the adaptation of his journalistic work, and particularly about how the scripted series would portray the podcast’s titular Dirty John. “Back when various studios were vying to do it, I worried they’d feel the need to soften or sanitize Meehan and make him ‘relatable,’” Goffard said.
But the Bravo team did not disappoint him. Goffard was relieved to find that they, in fact, “leaned into the darkness of the material, and, in my opinion, the inexplicability of the titular psychopath.”
Cunningham said she was cognizant of the tightrope walk that building Meehan’s character required; the task of fleshing out his biography without turning him into an object of audiences’ sympathy was a difficult one. Cunningham wanted to ― and did ― give Bana some real character-building meat to chew on, but she ultimately decided that she “care[d] more about the experience of all the people that he tried to destroy.”
In a conversation ahead of the show’s premiere, HuffPost spoke with Cunningham about why the original “Dirty John” deserved a televised adaptation in the Me Too era, how Terra helped shape the Bravo version of the podcast’s violent twist, and what the Newells hoped would come out of putting their private pain in the public sphere once again.
I was an avid listener of the “Dirty John” podcast and read all of the printed LA Times reporting. I noticed that the first three episodes of the show seem to hew very closely to the structure of the podcast. Can you talk about that choice?
One of the things that I liked about the way Chris Goffard chose to spool out the story was, even though you could very easily adapt it into a traditional ― I don’t want to insult the Lifetime Network, because they do a lot of things that I enjoy ― but you could turn it into the shorthand Lifetime movie version. Which, in our writers’ room, we call “the woman in peril” story. Even though this is a “woman in peril” story, we wanted to try not to play [the tropes] out in the way you’ve seen them so many times.
One of the things I loved about “Dirty John” was ― and it has to do with how quickly events progressed between Debra Newell and John Meehan in real life ― is that if you frontload all the things you’re expecting to take a lot longer, than you can jump over the “When is she gonna find out [that John is dangerous]? When is she gonna find out what everyone else knows?” and get to the real business of “What is she gonna do with what she knows?” That was the thing that I loved, which was sort of a combination of how things went down in real life and how Chris chose to tell the story.
Even though this is a “woman in peril” story, we wanted to try not to play [the tropes] out in the way you’ve seen them so many times.
Alexandra Cunningham, “Dirty John” showrunner
We wanted to cast the magical spell whirlwind of love that Debra was in with John, and with great actors like Connie [Britton] and Eric [Bana], you can be drawn into that. It removes that judgmental distance that you have when you’re just listening to the facts of the story. Then we just get to the events really quickly and jump over the “woman in peril” of it all.
Are there any stories that you feel like you were able to flesh out in the TV series that were explored less in the podcast?
When I was pitching Eric to come on board, I said that one thing I wanted to do ― although I never wanted to tell the audience to have sympathy for John; I care more about the experience of all the people that he tried to destroy ― I wanted to be in John’s point of view in the way that the podcast could not be.
You see in Episode 3 that we tell the story of the only woman other [than Debra who] John ever chose to marry. And she’s an incredibly intelligent, successful, articulate woman who has nothing in common with Debra, other than being an intelligent, articulate, successful woman. The way they were brought up is totally different. Their milieu is totally different. The things they find interesting are totally different. And John devastated both of them. A large part of the storytelling going forward is the effect that John had on so many people who made the mistake of caring about him.
I don’t know whether John would have chosen to talk to Chris if he was in prison instead of gone. But, of course, he can’t do that. So, that was a real opportunity for both me and Eric. Eric obviously was fascinated by the “Dirty John” podcast, but coming at it from inside John, that was definitely a thing that we both wanted to explore.
Do you feel like the story takes on a new weight in the context of the Me Too movement? We’ve just been having this lengthy conversation as a nation about sexual assault and the way gendered power dynamics play out in relationships.
Chris couldn’t have done a better job with this material. Obviously, the success of the podcast on its own is a tribute to that. But Chris isn’t a woman, and I felt like what I could bring to the story were a lot of questions that I have asked myself for a long time. Why don’t women listen to their intuition? We’re animals, and [our intuition] is there to keep us safe, and yet so many times over the course of my life and probably your life, we’ve crushed a nagging feeling we’re having because we’re afraid that a man that we’ve never met, who we’re never gonna see again, is going think we’re a bitch.
I don’t think men think about that at all. The reason that happens to us is societal conditioning and the conditioning of our families. And “Dirty John” is a story of at least three generations of women, and the decisions of the women before affecting the decisions of women now. The decisions that Debra’s mother made ― which I won’t talk about in detail in case it’s a spoiler alert to anyone who might be reading this ― both consciously and subconsciously affected all the decisions that Debra made in this story. I don’t know in the moment how conscious her daughters were of that, but they probably are now.
Debra wanted to tell this story to try to help other women, even though she knew it wasn’t gonna make her look good. Now she knows that it hasn’t made her look good to a lot of people who have chosen to say really terrible things about her on the internet, but she’s still out there telling this story because she wants to help people. So all of those things together made it important to me to give the show a scripted life.
Could you speak a bit more about the involvement the Newells had in the show? I did notice that Debra’s nephew’s name and also her older daughter’s name were changed in the show, whereas Debra’s and Terra’s names are in there.
Right from the jump, the studio had gotten Debra’s and Terra’s life rights. At that point, we did not have the life rights of Debra’s other daughter or her nephew. Because they participated in the podcast, their stories could be told, but we also wanted them to be involved in the story, and they were hesitant. Ultimately, they spent a lot of time talking to our non-writing executive producer, Richard [Suckle], who brought them on board officially and legally with their life rights.
At that point, I had already changed Debra’s nephew’s name to be respectful. I let it be known that I would do whatever Debra’s other daughter wanted me to do, and she did want us to change her first name. It was all about being respectful to their experience.
So [the Newells] were being kept in the loop, [and] Richard was constantly keeping them aware of decisions that were being made. They were brought in to watch the pilot a while ago. And Debra came to the premiere this week wearing the dress that Connie wears in the “Cancer Guild” scene.
How involved was Terra, Debra’s youngest daughter, who becomes a key figure in the climax of the John Meehan story?
Terra was an amazing resource for us in putting together and shooting the final confrontation. (I’m trying not to go into details, because spoilers.) Terra actually said to us that her therapist has said that it’s good for her to talk about the experience as much as possible. So she sat down with our director and she talked about the events of that day in great detail, much more so than on the podcast. Then she worked with our stunt coordinator to help him really put together a more accurate picture for Eric and Julia Garner [who plays Terra in the show] of what happened on that day.
Our stunt coordinator could not have been more impressed by her. He emerged from that meeting and was like, “I know so many Special Forces guys and Navy Seals guys and other guys who are trained to use knife work and defend themselves and be aggressive for a living and they spend days and weeks and months and years preparing for a moment like that, and then it happens and they die. All Terra did was plan in her head what would happen if there was a zombie apocalypse, and she survived.”
I still can’t get over it. I was just watching the cut of the final episode yesterday again, and the size discrepancy between Eric and Julie is really what the size discrepancy was between John Meehan and Terra. He was a very tall, broad-shouldered, big guy, and she’s a tiny little blonde woman. John completely underestimated the situation he was getting into. Thank God that he did, but it is still crazy to me that the other night, that she was [at our show’s premiere] in a beautiful updo and a red gown with [her dog] Cash on a leash. Sometimes the universe just makes things work out the right way.
Wow, absolutely. Is there anything that you hope viewers, especially those who have already listened to the podcast and read all of the reporting, get out of the show version?
People can still emerge from the show, if that’s how they really want to feel, thinking that Debra was stupid and selfish. But I hope that they at least give her a little more benefit of the doubt. The thing that I really do wish, and I know this is what Debra herself wishes, or she wouldn’t have embarked on the journey of speaking to Chris Goffard in the first place, is that at least one woman ― or one person, frankly, because coercive control is not unique to the male-female dynamic ― that one person watching the show who is in a coercively controlled relationship, or is talking to someone on the internet that’s giving them a bad feeling in their stomach, or who feels that they’re being taken advantage of by someone who’s close to them, takes action and gets themselves to a safer place. One person represents the world. I know that that’s what the Newells would like, and I know that’s what I would like.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.