The woman is attractive, intelligent, and wealthy. Debra has been married four times, but she’s still mining dating services, hoping to find the love of her life. Her children are grown, her interior design business in Orange County is thriving, and she’s ready. After many lousy dates with self-absorbed losers, Debra finally meets the man, John, and their love affair takes off.
He is handsome, articulate, and, saints alive, a doctor. He wears his scrubs like a badge of honor, and he pays close attention to Debra, asking questions about her life and flooding her with compliments. Oh, and he served with Doctors Without Borders in Iraq.
John is, as they say, too good to be true. And there are red flags everywhere, even on the first date, when he arrives for dinner in shorts, then pouts like a baby at the end of the night because Debra won’t sleep with him. His love of his scrubs isn’t just about status; he’s a slob who wears sweatpants to Thanksgiving dinner with Debra’s family. There’s no evidence that he has a home or a car, as he cajoles Debra into renting them a waterfront apartment, and Debra’s two adult daughters immediately dislike him. One of them, Veronica, is creeped out when, after he sees her opening her closet safe, John asks her, threateningly, “What do you have in the safe, kiddo?”
Yup, he’s a con man, a criminal, and a predator. He is “Dirty John,” the name of Bravo’s new eight-episode limited series, which is based on a popular true-crime podcast-slash-newspaper-series by LA Times reporter Christopher Goffard. It’s pretty clear to most of the people in Debra’s life, and it’s certainly clear to the viewer, that John — played by Eric Bana — is a nightmare waiting to happen. But within nine weeks, Debra and John are secretly married in Las Vegas — without a pre-nup, natch. You can make this stuff up — Lifetime does it all the time — but this story is based on fact.
The big question for me is why does Debra — played by Connie Britton — believe anything this obvious fraud says. What is it about her that, despite plenty of experience, despite the warnings of her daughters and a devoted nephew, despite the mysteriousness surrounding John’s past, makes her jump into a commitment with him? Is she the queen of denial? Is she self-destructive — and willing to endanger her family, too? Are her instincts, and her respect for her children, strangely dulled? We meet Debra’s mother, played by Jean Smart, who has clearly bought into the sexist myth that every woman needs a man to take care of her. Is Debra simply her mother’s daughter, desperate for a man, any man?
I’ve seen three episodes of the series, and there has been no true exploration yet into Debra’s psychological motivations. And that’s really too bad. With eight episodes, the drama, developed from the podcast by Alexandra Cunningham (“Desperate Housewives”), has the space and time to go deeper than the typical two-hour button-pushers. It could be a more thoughtful take on the grim immediacy of the podcast’s interviews, phone recordings, and 911 calls. It could do what Ryan Murphy has done with his real-life stories for FX, including “American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace” — give the characters complexity and context. But so far, nothing. Bravo’s “Dirty John” is little more than a fancy Lifetime movie, where beautiful trusting women are always getting victimized by deceitful, violent men.
There is some pleasure in watching the inevitable unfold, particularly since the cast is solid. Britton is, as usual, a sympathetic lead, even if her character is written to be shallow. And, as her daughters, Juno Temple and Julia Garner are formidable. Temple brings dry humor, and Garner, from “Ozark” and “The Americans,” brings plenty of vulnerability. Bana does a good job of making John’s mood swings believable, but, as with Debra, John is written as a flat bad guy whose deeper drives are inscrutable. He’s evil and desperation personified, and not much more.
“Dirty John,” which premieres Sunday at 10 (although the premiere is already available at BravoTV.com and on YouTube), is going to be an anthology series, with other seasonlong true-crime stories. Perhaps the next one will offer more wisdom and insight about the mind of the psychopath as well as the hearts of those who see only what they want to see.
Starring: Connie Britton, Eric Bana, Juno Temple, Julia Garner, Jean Smart, Kevin Zegers, Keiko Agena
On: Bravo, Sunday at 10 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.