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Bravo has spent a lot of time promoting the bejeesus out of “Dirty John,” its true-crime drama starring Connie Britton, Eric Bana, Juno Temple and Julia Garner.
The eight-episode series won’t premiere until Nov. 25, but here’s the scoop: all that promotional effort — dropping a first-look photo back in August, then a trailer and several episodes (to TV writers) — should reward Bravo with solid viewership: “Dirty John” offers compelling turns from Britton, Bana et al. And, if anything, it will give the network’s viewers, fed a steady diet of various “Real Housewives” iterations, a much-needed break from that tiresome franchise.
“Dirty John” is based on LA Times reporter Christopher Goffard’s podcast, which premiered in October 2017 and garnered over 10 million downloads in its first six weeks in telling the story of real-life con man John Meehan (Bana) and his relationship with well-to-do LA interior designer Debra Newell (Britton).
But you needn’t have listened to the podcast (I didn’t) to quickly get the essence of “Dirty John.” Viewers learn in the series opener that Debra’s been married (and divorced) four times — and has just about given up on meeting anyone — until a date with Meehan. He’s the too-perfect guy: a divorced, handsome anesthesiologist with perfect hair and teeth who was wounded in Iraq while embedded as a doctor with the military. An early awkward moment with John sets off some early alarm bells in Debra, but he sweet-talks his way back into her good graces, and eight weeks later they’re married in a cheesy Las Vegas chapel, keeping the secret from Debra’s family.
But John isn’t fooling anyone; almost Debra’s entire family thinks he’s hinky, particularly her two intuitive daughters, Veronica (Temple) and Terra (Garner, so good in “Ozark”), who suspect the worst and start to channel their best Nancy Drew. The blunt Veronica thinks John is a creep, a sentiment shared by her sister. Debra, though, won’t brook any criticism of Husband #5, even after coughing up $90,00 to buy him his “dream” waterfront condo.
The “Dirty John” opener does a nice job establishing the premise, slowly, and fleshing out the main characters (including 67-year-old Jean Smart as Debra’s mother, wearing a white wig and granny glasses). By the time you get to the end of Episode 2, John’s psycho bona fides are firmly established as his lies start to unravel — though there’s still much more to come. At times you might feel there’s a Lifetime-ish “woman in jeopardy” feel to the series, but the fact that it’s based on a true story pretty much negates that. The pacing works well, as does the initial connection between Debra and John. Britton (“Spin City,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Nashville”) delivers the goods and conveys a broad range of emotions, both toward John and her family, as Debra starts to realize her “perfect man” is just a bad guy.
Big-screen star Bana (“Black Hawk Down,” “Hulk”) makes his American television debut here and plays the smarm card to the hilt. It’s nicely done suspense.