There are really two beginnings to the first episode of Dirty John. In the first, Connie Britton is walking down a hospital hallway toward a police officer while we see flashes of something bloody and awful that has happened. Anyone who listened to the LA Times podcast that this show is based on (myself included) knows exactly what this event is, but it lets us know that sometime in the near future tragedy will visit Connie. Seeing her pace down that antiseptic hallway with a crown of curls that can only be described as a chorus of angels showering in pots of gold, it’s impossible to imagine that something bad is going to happen to someone whose hair looks so damn good.
The second beginning takes us back to the beginning of the story rather than the end. This opening is B-roll of beachfront houses, sexy surfers, and the various charms of life in Orange County. It should be immediately familiar with anyone who watches Bravo’s Real Housewives of Orange County because we see similar montages just about every episode. The content of this show about a grifter and how he ruins one woman’s life should also be familiar to fans of RHOC since, well, one of the women’s boyfriends spent several seasons faking cancer and pretty much ruined her life. Damn, Orange County seems a lot more dangerous than all of that B-roll makes it out to be.
We then meet Connie’s character Debra, a woman who is lucky in her business as an interior designer—though everything she selects is straight out of a Pottery Barn catalog—but unlucky in love. As with anyone who has tried online dating, she goes out on a string of horrible setups with total duds and is ready to give up when she finally meets someone with some promise. His name is John and he seems like a real gentleman because he actually offers to pick her up for a date.
When the doorbell rings, Eric Bana is standing there dressed in a pair of cargo pants and a ratty T-shirt. I don’t care what he is wearing because Eric Bana could be wearing a jumpsuit made out of poisonous jellyfish and I would still try to get all over that. Debrah’s daughter Veronica (Juno Temple) isn’t nearly as impressed. She’s immediately cold to him and starts treating him like he’s someone else’s baby who just spit up all over her good blouse.
Her mother has quite the opposite reaction on their date. They get along swimmingly and she tells him all about her design philosophy, which she calls “approachable dreams,” which could also be the name of Britney Spears bedding line at Target. It echoes something Debra says at the beginning of the show: “I believe in dreams. Dreams you can live in…If you design the most beautiful life, nothing ugly can get in.” Oh, the dramatic irony is almost too much to stand.
Back at the house, John acts really weird when Debra asks him to leave rather than spending the night, but he quickly makes up for it and they go on a second date, much to Veronica’s consternation. It seems to be fraying the already tenuous relationship between Debra and Ronnie, as her mom calls her. In a group therapy session, Ronnie talks about how he’s creepy and probably only using her mom for her money. She also brings up how he sees her opening her Tiffany’s blue pocket book safe (seven million exclamation marks) and says, “What’s in the safe, kiddo?” She doesn’t bring up the fact that she swats a bowl of fruit onto the floor in a fit of pique after she discovers he spent the night.
The thing I love the most about this show so far is that all of the characters are kind of awful. The plotting and the acting are a little bit “movie of the week,” but, egads, are these people interesting. Ronnie is the living worst, the kind of toxic privileged girl who would throw her pumpkin spice latte in your face if you look at her wrong. At one point she says to her sister, “I don’t deal with people, people deal with me.” With that kind of attitude and her good looks I’m surprised she wasn’t recruited to be a villain on The Bachelor. Her contempt for John, which may be well earned, also comes across in the brattiest ways.
Her mother is no better, though. When John takes her to a fancy bay-front house and says, “I wish I could buy this for you except for my child support payments and tax problems,” she says she can get the house for them. As the camera pulls away, it says “FIVE WEEKS” at the bottom of the screen as if to say, “These people are totally insane!” The bad part is that when she explains how she wants to move out and give Ronnie the lease on the apartment they share, she makes it sound like she’s doing it to benefit Ronnie when what she really wants is to live with John without having a big fight with her daughter.
Debra always sort of wimps out and avoids a confrontation. When her other daughter Terra (Julia Garner) confronts her about John living in her house, which her mother denies, it turns into a shouting match where John essentially threatens to smack Terra. Rather than ask John to step out of the conversation or have her daughter’s back, Debra lets Terra leave so that she can go spend the rest of the Thanksgiving holiday with her sister at the other apartment mom is paying for.
Terra seems to be the best of the bunch. Though she’s strangely obsessed with the zombie apocalypse, she seems sweet and caring with only a small streak of the brattiness that her sister displays so brazenly.
But the show is not called Dirty Debra or Dirty Terra (though it probably should be called Dirty America’s Treasure Jean Smart Plays a Grandmother) it is called Dirty John, so we know that he is the one who is bad news. We see some of the early signs, like when he overreacts when Debra asks him to leave, but the worst for me is when he shows up to a fancy cancer benefit wearing his scrubs from the hospital. He claims to be an anesthesiologist, but he’s really just a nurse who doles out pain meds. How is he going to show up looking like a “pile of laundry” as he says and we’re not going to see one reaction of just how much everyone is rolling their eyes at the two of them?
John is engaging in the classic grifter moves of ingratiating himself to Debra and distancing her from everyone she cares about so that he can have total control over her. He even exploits all of her insecurities about how she messed up her kids and how she doesn’t deserve love. The saddest line of the night is when she says that she has been married four times and that she feels like she used up all of her chances. I just wanted to give her a big hug and make it all better. John, on the other hand, uses it to strengthen his grasp on her.
So far, he’s been nothing but nice to Debra and only awful to her family members, and we see what a wonderful trip they have together to Vegas. (And again, this is Eric Bana, so you try saying no to him.) That’s how he tricks her into finally getting a quickie marriage in Sin City while no one is looking. The episode ends with a big, white “EIGHT WEEKS” at the bottom of the screen. We already know how this ends, and it’s not going to be good. I can’t wait to get there. (Sorry, Debra and company.)