It goes a little something like this: Your friend excitedly brings over her new boyfriend, sure you guys will hit it off. He's polite enough, but there's something... not quite right. You can't put your finger on it, and he certainly didn't do anything terrible worth mentioning to your friend — so you ignore the feeling. It's only weeks later, when your friend calls you sobbing over some diabolically jerkish behavior, when you think: "Wow. Maybe my gut was right all along."
Now, imagine this scenario, but your friend's boyfriend isn't just a cheating jerk: He's a diabolical con artist with a violent streak, and he targeted your pal specifically for her cash. That's the basic premise of Bravo's Dirty John. Based on The Los Angeles Times' series of articles and podcast of the same name by Christopher Goffard, the first season of the anthology series tells the story of successful interior designer Debra Newell (Connie Britton), who falls head-over-heels for "doctor" John Meehan (Eric Bana) before learning the violent, nearly unbelievable truth about him.
Showrunner Alexandra Cunningham — whose past credits include Chance, Aquarius, and Desperate Housewives — sat down with Refinery29 at the Dirty John premiere in Los Angeles to discuss why women should trust their gut, how Dirty John will differ from the podcast, and why, under the right set of circumstances, we could all be conned like Debra Newell was.
Refinery29: What attracted you to the project?
Alexandra Cunningham: "First I read the articles [on The Los Angeles Times’ website]. I already had pictures of everyone in my head, and I thought ‘Whoever does this TV show should cast Connie Britton, because she and Debra Newell look so similar.’ It was offered to me, and it felt like a really exciting opportunity to do something fun and exciting and escapist, but also something really relevant to being a woman and a mom in the moment that we’re in, in time. It checked all the boxes of something I wanted to write."
How is your version of Dirty John different from the Los Angeles Times' podcast?
"[My plan when I got the job was to] weave all the timelines [explored in the podcast] together, hit all the main story points that the podcast does and keep the spine and infrastructure that everybody loved intact. It was my job to put flesh on the bones of things, and tell full-fledged stories that are maybe just referred to by some of the characters in the podcast. I had access to all of the research done by Chris [Goffard, who wrote the story and podcast], and had Chris in the writer’s room with me as well. I would say, ‘Well this character said this, what more can you tell me about this?’ There were questions that I had when I listened to the podcast, like ‘Where does John go all day?’ Well, now [in the show], I’m going to show you where he went."
Did you take any liberties with the story?
"The only liberties we really took was to compress the timeline, to keep the story really active and escalating… I really feel like, anything we did, was only in aid of that, and to help people understand certain decisions were being made, from an emotional perspective. The women [who speak on] the podcast do explain why certain decisions were made, but don’t always go into the greatest detail. I think some people who listened to it were looking for bigger explanations. I was one of them, but not for the same reasons [as listeners]. I think the story is incredibly relatable and could happen to anyone under the right circumstances, but I wanted to make sure the audience couldn’t have distance from the story anymore — I wanted to draw them in [emotionally]. [What happened in Dirty John] could happen to you, and the people who this happened to are not stupid: They just wanted to believe the best in people, and it went horribly wrong."
How did the cast help you tell this story?
"You’re tuned into the emotional experience your actors [like Connie Britton and Eric Bana] are having. It really helps you understand how this self-made, successful woman with everything going for her, still had this need to… be seen by someone romantically. When you’re inside an experience you don’t judge it in the way that a work of investigative journalism would. The scripted show reveals that emotional whirlwind Debra was caught up in."
Do you have a favorite scene that you wrote for the series?
"It’s really hard to choose. There are a lot of scenes I love because they are blackly funny. There’s a scene in the fourth episode between Connie and Jean Smart, who plays Debra’s mother, that is so heart-wrenching. Every time I watch it, I feel like I didn’t watch it, it’s just happening to these two people."
How does Dirty John fit into the #MeToo landscape?
"This story isn’t the way we typically think of domestic abuse. Instead it’s more about coercive control, which can be more insidious and more difficult to [detect]. It’s not bruises [on your body], it’s bruises on your mind and spirit. People are good at concealing those [wounds], and they are more embarrassed about them sometimes. There are a lot of people who have been coercively controlled, and that does relate to #MeToo, to me: You can be controlled by your boss, not just your husband or boyfriend.
"One of the fascinating things about the story is that it really is a tale of three generations of women: The grandmother, the mother, and daughters. I’m always really interested in why women don’t always listen to their intuition. We’re animals, and it’s there to protect us. We’ve been culturally trained not to listen to it. I think it’s getting better and better with each generation, and we can put a lot of hope on the young girls who are coming up now… but this is entrenched [in our society]. It is a big reason why this story happened in the first place. It’s this conditioning [to ignore our gut feelings] that we can’t get rid of. I don’t think men have conversations, like, ‘Oh why didn’t I listen to my intuition?’ I don’t think men consider [not going with their intuition] when they make decisions [in the way women often do.]"
Dirty John premieres on Bravo November 25.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.