Dirty John

TV review by
Jenny Nixon, Common Sense Media
Dirty John TV Poster Image
True crime podcast turned drama is creepy to the max.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.

Positive Messages

Always vet your romantic interests -- and trust your gut.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Despite their mom's love-struck insistence that everything is fine, Debra's daughters keep trying to get to the bottom of who this "John" really is.

Violence

John, while working as a nurse, tortures post-surgical hospital patients by withholding painkillers from them, as he pockets the drugs for himself. Stalking and other intimidation tactics are used against Debra and her kids when she breaks off their relationship. One of the daughters is harassed and threatened with a knife, bloody knife wounds and a death result from the altercation.

Sex

Some makeout scenes, characters are clothed.

Language

Mild swearing (damn, hell), not too frequent.

Consumerism

Debra has money, she and her daughters don't mind showing it off via expensive wardrobes, designer purses, and fancy cars -- she drives a Maserati.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

John is an addict who uses his nursing job as a means to steal painkillers. Characters drink wine, cocktails.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Dirty John is a true crime series based on the Los Angeles Times investigation and podcast of the same name. The case involves a woman who ends up dating and married to a man who turns out to be a career criminal and drug addict, who terrorizes the family when she ends the relationship. Adults drink cocktails and wine, there are a few make-out scenes (everyone stays clothed). Occasional profanity includes "damn" and "hell." The main areas of concern for parents here are the overarching themes of intimidation, stalking and violence, as well as an altercation with a knife that leads to a character's death.

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What's the story?

DIRTY JOHN follows the plight of Debra Newell (Connie Britton) -- mother, quadruple divorceé and successful interior designer -- as she dips her toes back into the world of online dating in her fifties. After one dud meetup after another, she hits romantic paydirt when she links up with John Meehan (Eric Bana), a handsome doctor with a knack for saying all the right things. Though he can be awkward at times and not everything about his backstory checks out, the love-struck Newell is nonetheless quickly enraptured by her new beau, who becomes her husband after only two short months. None of this sits right with Debra's suspicious adult daughters Veronica (Juno Temple) and Terra (Julia Garner), who anxiously dig through their new stepdad's past, an investigation that ends up having deadly consequences.

Is it any good?

The story's transition from true crime podcast to TV series is mainly a smooth one, even if the adaptation does trade a bit of the original story's suspense for a fluffier, Real Housewives-type vibe. The cast is Dirty John's greatest strength, with Bana perfectly capturing the dead-eyed, hot-and-cold "charm" of a career criminal and master manipulator. Britton is his ideal mark as affluent, oblivious Debra, a romantic at heart who is all too willing to overlook the multiple warning signs that are instantly obvious to viewers at home.

The story may have all the trappings of a Lifetime-style "stalker of the week" flick, but the series itself doesn't ever tip that deeply into camp, perhaps due in part to it being a true story that started as a piece of investigative journalism. The closest it comes to feeling like one of those guilty pleasures is in watching Debra's headstrong daughters, all blonde hair and vocal fry, who -- at least in Veronica's case -- seem equally angry at her mom for shifting her focus off her and onto a new man, and for being so frustratingly heedless of John's very real sketchy side. A nuanced portrayal of abusive men and relationships this isn't, but the principals involved make it worth giving a shot.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why women sometimes feel trapped in relationships that turn violent. What methods does John use to isolate and manipulate Debra? What makes her daughters able to see through his act, something Debra couldn't initially do? 

  • Do you know anyone who's been stalked in real life or online? What steps can people take to protect themselves from obsessive suitors?

  • What role does technology play in the plotof Dirty John? How might certain aspects of dating apps and social media make it easier for people to con one another about their true identities?

TV details

For kids who love mystery TV

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