Online dating can be… complicated, but it only takes one or twenty thousand horror stories to make you rethink dating at all and maybe just adopting a bunch of cats, lighting a bunch of candles, and calling it a day. Such is what Debra Newell, played by Connie Britton, is doing at the beginning of Bravo's new series, Dirty John. She meets a man named John Meehan, played by Eric Bana, and quickly falls in love. What follows is a twisted, uncomfortable story that is at times, hard to believe. It's hard to believe that Dirty John is based on a true story, but alas, it is.
Bravo’s Dirty John is based off the very successful Los Angeles Times podcast of the same name. In an interview with Rolling Stone, veteran reporter Christopher Goffard said how, after years and years of writing and reporting, he was desperately seeking a new story. “At a certain point, [it feels] like you’ve written every conceivable permutation of every type of story and it becomes hard to get excited,” he said. But then he learned about John Meehan. “I’ve been a reporter for 20 years,” Goffard told the magazine. “But there’s something about this guy, John Meehan, that chills me, that gets under my skin in a way that nobody else has.”
Goffard learned of Meehan when he found out that Newport Beach police were investigating a possible homicide in town — an upscale town in which murders rarely, if ever happen. It was, as he said, “a natural candidate for [the Los Angeles Times] first really ambitious podcast.” So yeah, the podcast that inspired the Bravo television show comes from actually happened.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Meehan and Newell met on an online dating site in 2014. He told her that he was an anesthesiologist, she, a successful interior designer with her own business, bought it. The two hit it off. Within weeks, they were living together. Within months, they were married — an elopement in Las Vegas. And Newell’s daughters, Terra and Jacquelyn, were immediately suspicious of this man who claimed to just have gotten back from Iraq, where he was allegedly working with Doctors Without Borders. They were right, but their mom didn't see it.
There were threats from Meehan against anyone who got between him and Newell. Weird behaviors. Lies Newell caught Meehan in. Eventually, sleuthing by Newell’s daughters and nephew, Shad, brought on an ugly truth — Meehan was not at all who he said he was. A con man with a long history of torturing other women, Meehan had recently gotten out of prison, as reported by the Los Angeles Times. Newell left him, but the two reunited, only for Newell to leave again.
The crux of the story is when Meehan attacked Terra, stalking and lunging at her in her apartment complex with a knife. Terra was able to get the knife away and stabbed Meehan 13 times, the final shot through his left eye, citing The Walking Dead as inspiration. He died at the hospital eight days later, according to the Los Angeles Times, and the Newells were finally free from “Dirty” John.
If you were thinking that this is an absolutely unbelievable story, you’d be right. That’s why Britton, according to The Hollywood Reporter, signed up to play Debra Newell. “I didn’t have to be convinced at all, because I was really pulled in by the story,” she said at Vulture Fest in Los Angeles. “And I was intrigued it had already been pulled into the zeitgeist … I just jumped right in.”
Because Meehan passed away before the podcast and the show, Bana had to do his own work to make up Meehan’s psyche — which he found enjoyable in terms of being an actor. “It gave me freedom,” Bana told the crowded at Vulture Fest. “Sometimes you feel the urge or you want to get in contact [with the real person]. Sometimes it can be very freeing not taking that path. For me, it wouldn’t have been practical anyway. I took the attitude that I was going to find John myself. I was more interested in his behavior than him.”
Dirty John’s source material is definitely shocking, but it will be interesting to see how Bravo uses it for dramatic effect. In this case, the truth is definitely stranger than fiction.