'Dirty John' Showrunner: This Is Not a Woman-in-Peril Story

Alexandra Cunningham discusses how much she took from the podcast in adapting the true crime story for television, and why she didn't talk to subject Debra Newell until the premiere.
Nicole Wilder/Bravo
Eric Bana and Connie Britton in 'Dirty John'

[This article contains spoilers from the premiere of Bravo's Dirty John, as well as a large portion of the podcast on which it's based.]

When Alexandra Cunningham was tasked with adapting the Los Angeles Times article series and true crime podcast Dirty John, about a Southern California designer who was conned by a man named John Meehan, aka "Dirty John," she knew she wanted to avoid the "Woman in Peril" trope.

So although this was a story about an ex-convict who swept Debra Newell off her feet while pretending to be a doctor and isolating her from her family members, who were suspicious of his intentions, that's not the only thing it was.

"We really didn't want to tell that traditional narrative of the innocent woman and the bad man, because that's only one element of this story," she told The Hollywood Reporter after the premiere, which ends with Newell (Connie Britton) and Meehan (Eric Bana) tying the knot in Las Vegas.

"In real life it was a whirlwind, and the podcast, which is the greatest thing ever, is this incredible work of investigative journalism that really just tells you the story as it happened and doesn't include any of the emotion and the being swept off your feet and the romance and all the elements that needed to be possible for this to have even worked on Debra in the first place," Cunningham explained. 

"We wanted to bring everyone into this experience with Debra and the fun and the craziness and the Prince Charming of it all. So some of her subsequent decisions, you still may not agree with them, but at least you've been on that part of the ride with her so you can see just how amazing that was for her at a time when she had given up on even a fraction of something like that happening to her in her life — to just have this man show up and treat her like a queen and make her feel special and seen and like she mattered more than anyone."

By packing so much romance into one episode, she added, "the aftermath can begin that much sooner."

The showrunner spoke to THR about how much she leaned on the podcast's pacing and structure, why she didn't speak to the real-life Newell until the night of the show's premiere, and whether she worried about exploiting the family's tragedy for entertainment.

Did you ever consider pacing the series the same as the podcast?

There's six episodes of the podcast. We have eight episodes. By the end of the first episode of the podcast, they're married. It wasn't as if I was revolutionizing the storytelling from the podcast. I was following that track to a certain extent. In real life, it did happen that quickly. I really would be getting granular if I'm not getting them to moving in together and getting married, when in reality it's only covering two months of love and romance and sexual bliss that, to a certain extent, was probably pretty repetitive. It was just a wonderful dream that she was in that she didn't want to wake up from.

I did stop at the same point the podcast stops in the pilot, but it was a more emotional journey for us. There's so many other stories that we want to include that happen close to getting married, so we also needed that surface area. We needed to reserve what was coming up to tell those stories.

So how will the remaining episodes play out?

The first three episodes are definitely heading for what I think is the emotional core of the decision-making that is made by this woman, which is the story of Debra's mother, Arlane, and the murder of Debra's sister by her husband, and how Debra's mother chose to deal with that, and what forgiveness means to this family, and what the idea that Arlane forgiving her daughter's murderer and testifying on his behalf in court did consciously and subconsciously to Debra and her decision-making process when it came to John.

The third episode, we're doing some parallel storytelling to show the only other woman that John has ever married besides Debra. She's an intelligent, successful woman in her own right while being totally different from Debra, and she found herself trapped and with children in the same way, and devastated in the same way. We're trying to show you that this is far from the first time that John has done this to someone and someone who is smart and aware.

I don't want to try to explain why John was the way he was, because first of all, I don't know, and second of all, I don't care. I really only care about the effect his choices had on the people that he tried to destroy. But I do want to talk about why he might have chosen the particular way in which he lived his life, choosing to grift and con, and how maybe that was planted in his mind by his father being so proud of possibly being related to famous mafioso figures, and the idea that John is superior to other people because he's smarter than they are and took more advantage of them.

We wanted to tell those stories, and we also wanted to tell the stories of so many people who became aware of what John was doing — cops and lawyers and judges and hospital administration — and then tried to stop him, and the fact that our systems aren't set up to defend themselves against somebody who knows how to game them.

It is an epic swath that John cut among all the people he ever met, and if the story didn't ultimately end the way it does, he would still be doing it. I mean, Chris Goffard, the podcaster, is still getting calls from women who discovered the podcast and realized that they interacted with John either romantically, seriously or casually, and they're so thrilled to find out that he's dead, because they didn't know.

We're trying to paint as complete a picture as we can of this man, because every day the Internet exists, it becomes clearer that he's just one guy out there doing this. So we're trying to paint that picture and also show it to you through the lens of a woman of a certain age who is a mother, who is an innocent, who believes the best in people — and that's a quality that we don't seem to admire in society anymore — and what happened to her?

Connie spoke to Debra when she began to shape her character, but you did not. Why was that?

Connie spent a lot of time talking to Debra, either in person or remotely, and they really hit it off. Both Connie and I really empathize with Debra's journey and what she's trying to do now, putting this story out there — especially [after] the podcast and the success of it, knowing what she knows about what millions of people have said about her online, not necessarily positive. And she keeps putting it out there because her ultimate goal is that if even one woman watches this show for fun, yet realizes, "I'm being forcibly controlled by my boyfriend or my husband or my boss. I'm in a dangerous situation with someone that is not telling me the truth. I'm talking to someone online, and they're not who they say they are," that that's worth it to Debra, even if people are going to say certain terrible things about her on the Internet. I just have endless admiration for that, and I know Connie does, too.

So why did you choose not to talk to Debra before writing the series?

I wanted to make sure that anybody else involved in the production who wanted to meet the people involved was able to do that, which, of course, they were. And everyone was very open. Debra and Terra obviously, but then also Tonia, who is John's first wife; her children with John; Debra's nephew, Shad, whose name is Toby in the show; Detective Luken. We had access to the Ohio detective who put John in prison the first time. Matt Murphy, the Orange County ADA. I wanted everybody to be able to talk to whoever they wanted to talk to, but when it came to the family, I just felt like it was probably a better choice for me to maintain a certain distance in [this] case.

I never would have agreed to do this show if I didn't already know that I was going to be as respectful as it was possible to be of their journey and what they've been through and their trauma. One of the reasons I wanted to tell the story was to honor that. But I also felt like, just purely from a person who has to run a writers' room and has to make decisions sometimes about when a story is working and when it has forward momentum, and when it's bogging down and it's too detailed or it's not detailed enough, that I was going to need to maintain a certain distance to keep that freedom that I might need to make choices that would deviate from what really happened.

Ultimately, we really didn't do very much of that, but I didn't know that in advance. I wanted them included in everything, which our non-writing executive producer, Richard Suckle, made sure that they were. At every step of the way, they could call and say, "Are you talking about this? We don't want you to. Are you using the name of this? Can you change it?" You know, just keeping them in the loop constantly. It was better for me to not have those conversations where there are promises made either specifically or implicitly that things won't be said or things will be said.

Did you ever worry that you were exploiting their story?

This was a situation in which we had a family who, in the specific case of Terra, she actually said to us that her therapist has told her that it's good for her to talk about it as much as possible, and to re-experience it through talking about it. So she definitely collaborated with us, specifically on the ending of the story, the physicality of the ending of the story. She was incredibly open to all of us.

And if there had ever been anything that we had asked that they didn't want to talk about, or that had not already been in the podcast that they wouldn't want to be out there, we of course would have honored all of that. I [was very careful] about making sure that I wasn't just going out on tangents for my own purposes. Everything that I did has an organic beginning, whether it's the articles and the podcast or in the actual documentation of the experience: the restraining orders that were filed, the police reports, data mining of John's movements outside of all this. I never went, "You know what would be fun and crazy?," and just made up a thing because I thought it would be especially gory, or especially whatever. I did not do that, and I hope I never will.

The show was picked up for two seasons. Will the second follow any of the same characters as the first, or is it an entirely new true crime case?

It’s not a continuation of the season one characters or case. It will be inspired by an entirely new real case, and the Dirty John of it will be female.

Dirty John airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Bravo.