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Most people think they wouldn’t fall for a con artist, like Connie Britton’s character, Debra, in the forthcoming first season of Bravo’s true-crime anthology Dirty John. But showrunner Alexandra Cunningham wants them to know they absolutely could.
The series is based on the reporting and podcast from the L.A. Times’ Chris Goffard about a con man named “Dirty” John Meehan (Eric Bana) and the woman who fell for him, Debra Newell. An interior designer and single mother of two daughters (played by Julia Garner and Juno Temple), Debra gets caught up in the secrets, deception, denial and shocking ramifications that emerge for her and her children.
On the show’s first day of filming on the Universal lot, Cunningham, Britton, Bana and executive producers Richard Suckle and Jeffrey Reiner spoke with reporters about the upcoming series for a panel that closed out the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour. When asked about how the series is relevant for 2018 (or 2019, whenever it ends up airing), Cunningham had a hard time pinpointing why it wouldn’t be relevant.
“Obviously in the #MeToo movement, to tell a story about why women don’t listen to their intuition and why they can’t throw off their conditioning is very relevant,” she said. “A story about people meeting people on the internet and being conned when we’re obviously living in a moment where even internet trolling is showing us that everybody wants to matter — and so somebody who goes on the internet specifically to find people who are trying to feel seen and be special and prey on that, that’s not going to stop happening. It’s going to keep happening as it’s happening now. And also the search for love and wanting to reinvent yourself through the eyes of someone else. There are so many ways in which this show is relevant to my life, to Connie’s life, to the life that we’re all trying to live on the internet, pretend that we’re living in a world where we have real instagrams and fake instagrams.”
The first task the show has, said Cunningham, is to sweep the audience off their feet. “The podcast is a fantastic work of investigative journalism and what we’re trying to do is cast the spell that John cast on Debra,” she said. By understanding how charming John was, they’ll understand how she got caught up in his manipulation. When people say they don’t understand how she was conned, “I think that’s a defense mechanism by people when they say that about Debra because they don’t think it could happen to them — but it could.”
Plus, with Britton playing the role, executive producer Reiner said that the audience will understand Debra even better. He’s worked with Britton a lot — and knows just how smart she is in real life and what she is bringing to each choice her character makes. “When Debra is making these decisions they’re coming from a woman who’s playing her who is very intelligent,” he said. “I think it really gives this character a lot of three-dimensionality and you understand these chess moves.”
For her part, Britton says that in speaking to both Newell herself — who has been an invaluable resource for the actress — and from friends who have been in relationships with people they later deemed sociopaths, she’s been able to understand Newell’s mind-set even more.
“I do get it, now that I’ve been able to talk to her about it and I know what her history is and I know what her confines are as a woman in the culture and as a religious woman in the culture,” Britton says. “And those ideas of herself in combination with what he’s doing — this man is not only capable of identifying all of her ins, all the ways in, but also coming up with a different answer for everything. No matter what she says, he has an answer that makes sense.”
Bana has been able to study sociopaths and the way they operate, and has also noticed just from his life experiences how easy it is to let your defenses down when you’re with someone. He also has figured out just how effortless it can be to sink into that mind-set.
“It’s a really dangerous way to think. When you inhabit this space you can feel the ease of manipulation,” he said.
The series will work within the framework of the podcast, but the producers said it will go deeper into different characters’ backstories in a way the articles and podcast weren’t able to.
Said executive producer Suckle, “our instincts are that when you can go down certain rabbit holes… we should go there because there’s a lot of things that people don’t know about and we’re going to explore a lot of them.”
Since Cunningham had access to all of Goffard’s reporting, “any road I wanted to go down there was probably 500 pages of stuff to read related to that,” she said. “It’s within that that we’re going to play around.”
Dirty John‘s first season will be a closed-ended story based on the L.A. Times story, and Suckle said the second season is being discussed. (Bravo picked up two seasons straight to series.)
“There’s a number of stories we can tell we’re just trying to figure out which one will be the right one,” he said. It just needs to be “as good or equal/on par with Dirty John.”
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