EW asked Dirty John creator/showrunner Alexandra Cunningham to share her thoughts on the limited series, which is based on the chilling true story of Debra Newell (Connie Britton), a successful businesswoman who fell in love with a violent con man named John Meehan (Eric Bana). Read on to find out why Cunningham does not believe Debra is stupid, and don’t miss the premiere episode tonight at 10 p.m. ET on Bravo.
This time last year, I was about to take a vacation. I had been working nonstop for the past two years on a show that had just ended, which I had gone straight into from the show I had worked on before that, which I had come to straight from another show, which…being consistently employed is a high-class problem I could not be more grateful for. But I was about to take a vacation — in the sense that I was maybe about to not work for a minute — when my agent called and asked me if I had ever heard of Dirty John.
I had definitely heard of Dirty John. I had been captivated by the original series of articles in the Los Angeles Times a few months earlier while I was under the gun on a rewrite (when I get all my serious extracurricular reading done) — and then when the material reappeared transmogrified into a podcast, I was all about it all over again. And now, according to my agents who represent the L.A. Times, it was available for a scripted show. Was I interested? If so, I would have to decide quickly. A few days later, I met with my fellow executive producers from the L.A. Times and Atlas Entertainment, who were lovely and who only had one question for me: Did I intend to address in the show the fact that many readers and listeners had reacted to the story of what John Meehan did to Debra Newell by calling Debra stupid?
If you were one of those readers and/or listeners, I’m not calling you out. You don’t need me to tell you that you’re entitled to your opinion, and you don’t need me to tell you that I don’t need to tell you that. But I don’t share it. If I did, I wouldn’t have thought there was any reason to try to take material that had already been successful in more than one medium and script it as a TV show. But there is a reason. And like I said to those guys, it’s this: Debra Newell’s a self-made multi-millionaire who struck out alone into business for herself at a time in her life when she had very small children to support. Because she knew that very specific kind of terror, she made a point of hiring single mothers whenever she could. She’s a generous and hopeful soul, a guileless and open book, who wants to believe in romance and the best of other people. Until one of those people took all the qualities she valued most about herself and weaponized them against her. And I’m not guileless or generous or hopeful, but I know that could happen to me. Because it has.
Dirty John creator/showrunner Alexandra Cunningham
Because I ignore my intuition, too. I’m getting better at listening to it the older I get, but my track record’s still pretty crappy overall. Like Gavin de Becker warned us all not to do in his book The Gift of Fear, I base a lot of my predictions on potential — He’s done this before. It got good reviews. That worked the last time. They seem cool — and end up with disaster. Which, according to de Becker, is “because the focus on potential carries our imagination to how things might be or could be — and away from how they are now.”
Whatever, maybe you say. Yes, John Meehan was handsome and charming and funny and had abs and arms of death and an answer for everything — but I wouldn’t have been taken in by any of that, maybe you say. Yes, he could become completely indispensable, and make someone feel like they were really being seen for maybe the first time ever, and expand to fill the exact shape of their pain and loneliness, but Debra Newell only saw what she wanted to see. I would have seen the truth. To which I can only say…I want that for you, so I hope you’re right.
What else can I tell you about Dirty John? Connie Britton loves matcha, wears rose-gold metallic Birkenstocks (maybe even in the show, when her feet aren’t on camera), and has the truest emotional instincts of any actress I’ve ever worked with. Eric Bana is a poodle owner, should write a book on parenting, and made us all laugh every day on set. Julia Garner knits like a pro, loves Moonstruck as much as I do, and always hugs you hello and goodbye. Jean Smart only needs one take, although as far as I’m concerned she can have as many and whatever else she wants. And in the movie of my life (in my mind), I want Juno Temple to play me. The five of them together elevate the show past the wildest dreams I ever had or could have had when I was writing it.
Anyway…this is a moment in time where some people could maybe use a relatable and relevant but also distracting and juicy escape from their worries for a little while. Everything else I’ve said aside, this show is for those people. If even one of them while watching it realizes the danger of a situation they’re in and gets free, I’ll consider it successful. And I know Debra Newell will, too.
Dirty John airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on Bravo.