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Series / Dirty John

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Dirty John is a live-action true crime drama Anthology series. It premiered on Bravo in November of 2018, before being aired internationally by Netflix in January of 2019.

The first season is based on the story of conman John Meehan, (played by Eric Bana), a charismatic man who uses deceit and manipulation to seduce Debra Newell (Connie Britton), and the consequences it has for her family.

A second season based on the story of murderer Betty Broderick featuring Amanda Peet as Broderick and Christian Slater as her husband Dan premiered on June 2, 2020.

This show provides examples of:

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    The series as a whole 
  • Artistic License: Before the credits for each episode, we get a disclaimer noting that while the series is based on true events, liberties have been taken in the portrayal. A list of specifics for the first season can be found here, and the second season can be found here. Notably in the second season, the names of the Broderick children have all been changed.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Being based on true crime stories, anyone familiar with the accounts will know what happens when watching each season.

    Season 1: Dirty John
Promotional poster for Season 1

  • Abusive Parents: John is treated like his father's accomplice, and is used to further his manipulative schemes, requiring him to go to such lengths as to eat glass in a restaurant and get hit by cars in order to get payouts.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Debra's older daughter was named Jacqueline in real life. Here, she is named Veronica.
  • Ax-Crazy: It becomes gradually clear that, beneath his charming persona, John is dangerously volatile and sadistic and becomes outright murderous as time goes on.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Terra is a very sweet-natured, loving person who cares deeply about her family and wants to see them happy and believes the best about people. She's also the one who finally puts John down for good by stabbing him multiple times and jamming a knife through his eye.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: John is very hard not to like and comes across as a really charming, laid-back and overall nice person. Beneath it however lies a deeply unstable and cruel man with seemingly no moral lines he won't cross.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The first season ends with John dead and the family thus (for the time being) free of his manipulation, but still irrevocably shaken by it all.
  • Blatant Lies: Pretty much everything that comes out of John's mouth is a lie: his military career, his past relationships, his current job, his family life, and the explanations for why he has restraining orders and court cases against him. Egregiously, John tells Debra that Tonia cheated on him and is trying to ruin his life because of it, but we already know from flashbacks that he was the one with the affair.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: John is highly intelligent and capable, able to flawlessly execute multiple scams at once, win over just about anyone and even find legitimate work as a highly paid medical professional, but prefers to simply coast through life and get by manipulating others.
  • The Charmer: John is extremely charismatic and difficult not to like. It's what allows him to win over everyone he hurts and even convince Debra to take him back after she learns about his past.
  • Chekhov's Gun: When Veronica is teased about her habit of keeping her expensive purses in a safe, she argues that they're worth a lot of money and can be resold for their retail price if kept in good condition. Later on, she sells an extremely expensive, limited-edition purse for several thousand dollars so that she can fund a private investigator.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: John. Despite his sister loyally taking care of him once he gets out of prison, he betrays her almost immediately. He also once deliberately caused a car accident with another woman, sued her, and then sued his own lawyers for malfeasance. It's noted in the longform that it's not even the first time he regularly sued his own legal team.
  • Chronic Villainy: John is simply not able to resist his evil nature, no matter how many opportunities for legitimate success he has. He gets into law school and then later finds legitimate work as an anaesthesia nurse, earning very good money and having a wife, home and kids, but ruining it all with his addictions, scheming and abusive nature.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy:
    • One of John's early red flags is angrily demanding to know who Debra is texting, thinking she's cheating on him, when she's actually just texting her nephew.
    • Mirroring Debra's relationship with John, a flashback indicates that Debra's sister was alarmed by her abusive husband forbidding her to wear a bikini at the beach for fear of someone stealing her away from him.
  • Crime of Self-Defense: Averted, as happened in real life. Debra's younger daughter Terra inflicts injuries on John, that ultimately prove fatal, when he assaults her, but no charges end up getting pressed because she was acting in self-defense.
  • Cut Lex Luthor a Check: Averted. John is able to get legitimate work as an anesthesia specialist, earning very good money, enough to afford a nice home and start a family, but his issues with addiction and his abusive behavior end up ruining it.
  • Dented Iron: While John is physically capable and in very good shape for his age, his addictions have taken a serious toll on him and it's even been noted in real life that he would have easily overpowered and killed Terra for it not for his slowed reflexes and weakened state from his drug use and recent illness. A subsequent autopsy even reveals that his years of drug abuse rendered his organs completely unusable for transplants.
  • Domestic Abuse: John is abusive in all his relationships, emotionally and later physically, and is quick to posit himself as the real victim when he needs to.
  • Easily Forgiven: Holy hell, John, somewhat bordering on Too Dumb to Live for Debra at times (though she does have a Freudian Excuse). Despite his antagonistic relationship with the rest of her family, she can always find an excuse for him because she's desperate to find love and not get divorced again. And after everything he put her through, she takes him back after he gives her some frankly cringeworthy excuses to explain away all the dirt dug up on him (such as keeping restraining orders with his address around the house because they actually, supposedly, apply to other John Meehans). Her family ends up so frustrated by her taking him back that they begin to refuse to see her.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Averted. It's made repeatedly clear throughout the series that no one else truly matters to John, not even his own children (his daughter Emily revealed in real life that she last spoke to him she was thirteen and came to see him as just a stranger, not being especially broken up about his death), and he will abandon or betray anyone if he has to. When overcome with guilt about killing him and feeling she took him away from his kids and sister, John's sister Denise reassures Terra that John had blood relatives but no real family and that was entirely his own doing and Denise doesn't mourn John at all or hold any anger towards Terra for what she did, only being happy that she is okay.
  • Evil Is Petty: When John makes you his "project," expect him to go to every length to get back at you. Whether it's mocking the memory of your murdered parent, sending lewd photos to your workplace or family, or leaving a slew of negative reviews on your company page in order to get you fired, he will stop at nothing to get back at you.
  • Eye Scream: As in real life, Terra fatally wounds John by stabbing him through the eye, causing him irreversible brain damage.
  • Faux Affably Evil: John is immensely charming and wins over just about everyone easily but has a cruel streak a mile wide underneath and can never quite hide that there's something seriously off about him. Even after others have found out the truth about him, he is still able to keep their trust.
  • Fourth-Date Marriage: Debra agrees to marry John after knowing him for only a few weeks, as the episode captions highlight.
  • Foreshadowing: In a flashback, John's father tells him to take revenge on someone who has wronged him by going after their family. To get back at Debra, he goes after her children.
  • Freudian Excuse:
    • Decades before the events of the series, Debra's sister was shot and killed when trying to leave her abusive husband. Their mother forgave the killer for her death and pled for leniency on the stand during his trial, which Debra translates into her own forgiveness of John after his past is revealed. (In the original longform, she had a darker reason as well: she had watched her sister get killed when trying to escape, and feared the same thing happening to her)
    • John's mother resented him during her divorce and his father guided him into a life of petty crime and manipulation, which helps explain his extremely warped and sociopathic adulthood.
  • Functional Addict: John see-saws between this and Addled Addict at different points in the series, but for the most part he's functional and manipulates others into believing he's not. His addiction does take a physical toll on him, though; in real life it's noted that he probably would have easily overpowered and killed the much-smaller Terra if not for his body's weakened state due to his drug use, and in the end, his organs are so damaged from his addiction that they're completely unusable for donations, a fact Veronica can't help but find bitterly funny.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Debra and Terra are both blondes with big hearts who easily forgive others because they want to see the best in them.
  • Heroes Love Dogs: Terra is almost always accompanied by Cash, her Australian Shepherd, who she adores. When John attacks Terra in the finale, he even leaps into action and bites at John's ankles to help her and is later with her in her hospital bed. Terra in real life even started an Instagram account for her numerous dogs, including Cash.
  • Historical Beauty Update: The real John wasn't ugly but was a fairly average looking guy and not anywhere near as good-looking as Eric Bana.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: John is stabbed to death by Terra with the same knife he tried to murder her with.
  • Innocently Insensitive: John jokes about shooting Veronica in the head thanks to his "military experience" in front of Toby, who becomes angry and uncomfortable because his mother was killed after his father shot her in the head. John insists he didn't mean it that way in the least — only to turn that on its head when Toby confronts him, and he coldly tells him that Toby should be glad his mother is dead so she won't have to see the "loser" he's become.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Veronica is blunt, overbearing, demanding... and right about pretty much everything.
  • Kick the Dog: Quite a few of John's actions, just as his insulting remarks about Toby's mother and Debra's sister and his campaign of harassment towards his ex-wife and later Veronica as well as his attempted murder of Terra, have no motive beyond sheer cruelty.
  • Killing in Self-Defense: Terra inflicts fatal wounds on John when she manages to get the knife he'd attacked her with.
  • Lighter and Softer: In the show, Debra's mother merely forgives her son-in-law for killing her daughter even though the murder crushes her (since she believed he truly loved her), which moves the court to give him a lighter sentence. In real life, her testimony included actively degrading Cindi and blaming her for having a hand in the marriage's failure, which shocked and disgusted some lawyers present.
  • Made of Iron: John takes multiple stab wounds to the torso from Terra and barely slows down.
  • Manchild:
    • John is actually frighteningly intelligent, but only ever uses his skills to manipulate and harm other people so that he can live an easy life; in real life, Debra's daughters are shocked to find out that he did little but sit around and play video games.
    • As a lighter example, Terra is in her twenties but often acts more like a teenager, tending to get low-paying jobs with apartments in bad areas. When she breaks up with her boyfriend, she runs to Debra for comfort and begs her to work from home so that she can spend all night taking care of her. She's still likable and sympathetic and portrayed simply as someone who just hasn't quite figured out adult life yet.
  • Manipulative Bastard: John is this to a T, having manipulated countless women before Debra, and escaped numerous arrests while pretending to be different people.
  • Multiple-Choice Past: Part of the technique John uses to seduce people. He's claimed to be a licensed anesthetist and an Iraq war veteran, among others.
  • Murder in the Family: Donna suspects that John killed their father by overdosing him on pain medication after she stepped out of the room (since they were told he might linger for weeks, delaying the insurance payout), but since he was cremated immediately with no autopsy, this is never proven.
  • Near-Villain Victory: John evades Veronica and catches Terra off-guard with the intent to kidnap and kill her, but by sheer luck and determination, she manages to defend herself and fatally wound him. It's even commented on by a background character how lucky Terra is to be alive.
  • Nice Girl: Debra's daughter Terra is very kind, sweet-natured and sensitive, being more trusting of John than Ronnie and even willing to give him a second chance after learning about his past. Even after killing John in self-defense, she is overcome with remorse and apologizes to his sister Denise with Denise even having to reassure her that she has nothing to apologize for.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Debra is swayed by John's claims of being a victim of various misunderstandings and Terra starts to believe that perhaps he was bad once but has turned his life around with Debra's support. This misplaced idealism nearly gets Terra killed.
  • Oh, Crap!: John when he drops the knife he tried to murder Terra with and she picks it up, stabbing him to death.
  • Once More, with Clarity: The penultimate episode is dedicated to revealing what John was actually doing all those times he was lying to Debra; for instance, he was late to her charity event because he was stuffing his face in a diner instead of being caught up by an emergency surgery, and the strange woman who breaks into their beach home early in the series was really bribed to be there by John.
  • Parental Abandonment: John had two daughters with his ex-wife Tonia but never mentions them nor is he implied to have made any effort to keep in touch with them or care about them (his daughter Emily said the last time she spoke to him was when she was thirteen although he would lie to Debra about being close with them and even use photos from Emily's social media profiles to maintain the illusion). Though given what a toxic, abusive presence John is, he was unintentionally doing them a favor. In a rather sweet twist, John's daughters Emily and Abby later became close friends with Terra in real life.
  • Phony Veteran: John claims to have served in Iraq as a combat medic and received injuries there. In reality, he got them from an accident he got into when he was using drugs.
  • Properly Paranoid: Veronica and Terra are not shy at all about expressing their mistrust of John and are later proven to be extremely justified in their assessment of him.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: John is clearly not very mature, preferring to coast through life by mooching off others even in his fifties and use his intellect for such schemes even when he has the skills and opportunity for legitimate success. The "psychopathic" part is gradually revealed as his behavior becomes more and more abusive to his partners and a cruel petty side to anyone who gets on his bad side, before becoming outright homicidal.
  • Rich in Dollars, Poor in Sense: Crossed with Love Makes You Stupid for Debra. She's a highly successful businesswoman with a ton of cash, but when it comes to love, it's noted that where others see red flags, she sees "a parade." Within a matter of weeks of knowing John, she's dropping tens of thousands of dollars on a getaway beach house on an exclusive island for the two of them.
  • Self-Made Orphan: Possibly. John's sister suspects he killed their father with an overdose of pain medication for the insurance money but since William was cremated shortly after and no autopsy was done, she is unable to prove it.
  • Serial Spouse: Debra has been divorced four times, which embarrasses her, and part of the reason she wants to make things work with John is that she doesn't want him to be her fifth divorce.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Veronica is cynical, confrontational and abrasive and Terra is idealistic, shy and sweet-natured.
  • Silver Fox: John and Debra are both in their fifties, with John's hair starting to go grey and Debra even having grandchildren through her son Trey, and still very good-looking.
  • Tall, Dark, and Handsome: John as is standard for someone played by Eric Bana. His good looks are another way he wins people over.
  • The Unfavorite: While John is the golden boy of the Meehan family, Donna is treated like dirt.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: John's ex-wife, Tonia, is a kind, caring woman who helps put him through med school after he fails to complete law school. He repays her by having a ten-month affair with another woman, threatening to kill her when he suspects she got his license revoked, and painting her as a cheating, abusive shrew to everyone after it's over.
  • What Does She See in Him?: Played with. While John looks great on paper — prestigious medical job, romantic, dedicated and handsome — Debra's daughters quickly discern that there has to be some reason he's still single with practically no life outside of Debra, especially when his bad side comes out to them with increasing frequency. Once John's past is dug up and Debra still takes him back, the question becomes even worse.
  • Would Hurt a Child: In the season one finale, John attempts to kill Debra's younger daughter Terra with a knife. He slashes her arm, but she ultimately gets the upper hand and stabs him repeatedly.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: John frequently leverages his scars (which he claims he got in a helicopter crash) as a way for women to admire and pity him, though it turns out the actual way he got them is far less impressive. And though he is legitimately ill midway through the series, he has no qualms about manipulating Debra to feel bad for him and return to him because of it. When she finally decides to divorce him, he starts limping with a cane to further the false claim that his physical health is deteriorating for pity points, when he's still perfectly healthy at least healthy enough to attack Terra with terrifying force.

    Season 2: Betty: The Betty Broderick Story
Promotional poster for Season 2

  • Big "WHAT?!": The telephone sequence after Betty shoots Dan and Linda.
  • Consummate Liar: Dan repeatedly commits perjury while on the stand during his divorce hearing, lying about his actions during and after his marriage to Betty.
  • Dance of Despair: Betty and one of her friends dance to a mixtape Betty made in her living room on the day of Dan's second wedding.
  • Doppelgänger: In the second season, Chris Mason's performance as young Dan Broderick has garnered attention for his striking resemblance and similar mannerisms to Christian Slater, who plays the older Dan Broderick.
  • Downer Ending: After a contentious trial, including her oldest daughter and all but one of her previous friends testifying against her, Betty is convicted of second-degree murder. She's shown in prison being haunted by the ghosts of Dan and Linda, imagining how her life could have been, and singing "The Twelfth of Never" on a phone call.
  • The '80s: Betty largely takes place during this decade, with the fashions, décor, and soundtrack to match.
  • Evil Is Petty: The divorce court judge admonishes Dan and Dan’s lawyer for “fines” on Betty’s support payments and wasting time on petty details such as answering machine message transcripts.
  • Flat Character: Linda Kolkena is presented as little more than “the other woman,” with no motivation or personality outside of being with Dan. However, she does touch the Villain Ball when she contemplates destroying Betty’s wedding china to one of Betty’s friends, and again when she steals Betty's diary from her home, then returns it by setting it in the front foyer.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The first scene of the season shows a high-school-age Betty in marksmanship class. Nearly three decades later, she is shown buying a gun, later shooting her ex-husband and his second wife to death.
    • Dan is largely silent during a dinner with lawyers as one details getting away with the “perfect” divorce.
    • Betty tells the court-appointed therapist in “Scream Therapy,” “I’m not going to be a single parent to four kids. He’ll die first.”
    • Linda proposes getting a home security system to deal with Betty's intrusions, which Dan dismisses.
    • Linda says "A lot of people have said she's joked about shooting us" in "The Shillelagh."
  • Gaslighting: Dan gaslights Betty throughout their marriage and during his affair with Linda. He blatantly lies to Betty about having an affair, his whereabouts when asked, and his intentions when he moves out without actually saying he’s moving out.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Discussed. When Betty asks Dan about an abortion following two rough pregnancies, he admonishes her, the concept being against his Catholic beliefs.
  • Greyand Grey Morality: While the show is firmly on Betty’s side, illustrating Dan as a villain, it also doesn’t excuse her intolerable behavior following the divorce. Dan’s secretary expresses horror at the profane answering machine messages she's made to transcribe and her son begs her to “stop saying bad words.”
  • Hidden Depths: Betty is shown to be more intelligent than most characters give her credit for, including asking if a legal library has a specific author and already knowing about a French dish when recommended at a high-end restaurant.
  • Hoistby His Own Petard: Betty chooses to represent herself in her divorce hearing, presuming the legal system is largely set against her. In the process, she loses custody of her children and is given visitation rights along with a fraction of the monetary compensation she asked for.
  • I Lied: After Dan serves Betty her first restraining order, he finally confesses his affair with Linda to her, having gaslit her for more than two years.
  • Jerkass: DAN. He is rarely shown in a positive light, especially when played by Christian Slater.
  • Malicious Slander: Betty learns from a friend during the bifurcated divorce of the rumor that the hearings were closed due to her being a child molester, a false allegation.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: In a press conference, a juror admits to convincing the rest of the jury to go for second-degree murder, thinking it would result in a lesser sentence. When an interviewer informs her otherwise, she has this reaction.
  • Parental Abandonment: When she calls them for support, Betty’s parents want nothing to do with Betty during her divorce hearings, not offering a single kind word to her.
  • Parental Neglect: Dan only shows interest in his children when it stands to hurt Betty. After Dan is given full custody, his youngest son gets lice and the school nurse mentions to Betty that the kids arrive at school in dirty clothes. For her part, Betty at one point drops off the four underage children, unsupervised, on Dan’s doorstep to go visit family out-of-state.
  • Precision F-Strike: Betty's lone f-bomb is censored when ranting on the phone with her son.
  • Sanity Slippage: As Betty becomes more unhinged, the background behind her uses a spin blur to focus entirely on her.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Two different lawyers, while sympathetic to her, quit representing Betty after they aren’t paid and Betty refuses to cooperate with the process.
  • Screw Your Ultimatum!: A villainous example. Betty demands Dan either fire Linda as his secretary when she suspects him of having an affair with her, or move out. He refuses, coldly telling Betty she would be the one to move out, because he owned everything.
  • The Shrink:
    • Betty asks Dan to attend marriage counseling at their church when she feels him getting emotionally distant. He does, under the supervision of a priest.
    • A court-appointed therapist is assigned to Betty following psychotic accusations by Dan. After Betty refuses cooperation, the therapist recommends denying custody of her children.
  • Slut-Shaming: After a boy calls for Betty at her parent’s home in the ‘60s, both of her parents ask if she is, then admonish her for presumably being, a slut.
  • Stepping Stone Spouse: Betty supports the family as Dan goes through both medical and law school. Shortly after Dan finally lands a lucrative position that will allow him to finally take care of the family without the financial stress Betty endured, he leaves Betty for his legal assistant.
  • Threat Backfire: When Betty demands Dan move out of the house if he doesn't "get rid of" Linda, he tells her she would be the one to move out. After he does move out, Dan goes on to sell their house without Betty's consent.