Dirty John began its life as a podcast and was translated to our screens as an anthology TV series by screenwriter and showrunner Alexandra Cunningham, a long time fan of the true crime genre. We spoke with her about the long journey getting this story made into a TV show.
The Anthology Television Format
The anthology format is a viable alternative to the standard series and serialized formats, “Because there was a certain amount of audience fatigue after investing in shows that got canceled.” This is frustrating to viewers who were still enjoying the show despite its cancellation. The beauty of anthology series is, “That you’re not going to get kicked off the ride before ends,” claimed Cunningham. Viewers can now commit to an entire season of television that they will hopefully find conclusive and satisfying whether it returns for an additional season or not.
There are also practical benefits to this format. Actors are no longer committed to multiple seasons of a television series, especially if it is successful. They are, however, free to return in subsequent seasons, either in a guest or main character role. This is especially important for actors not wanting to be typecast in one role. Anthologies also allow A-list actors to more likely to commit to these types of TV series and give them time to follow other creative pursuits. “You can get great actors to come and play with you for ten or twelve episodes who don’t want to commit to a seven-year contract,” said the showrunner.
The format unshackles the storytelling. Creators no longer need to plan five season arcs from the outset of the show. It just reincarnates itself. Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) and more recently, The Duplass Brothers (Room 104), Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story) are successful illustrations of the form.
The Series Arcs
Although anthology series are technically self-contained seasons united only by a title, Dirty John contains a loose thematic thread that spans multiple seasons. The first season was ostensibly a story about love gone wrong – love – deception – survival. “It was a story about manipulation and coercive control.” This formed the building blocks for the second season.
John Meehan (Eric Bana) was a character from the first season of Dirty John. It would seem befitting that the John character would remain a constant into the second season. Curiously, Alex Cunningham decided against it to unbalance the viewers and remind them, “It’s still from us. We’re interested in the same scenes, but exploring them at the next tick of the dial.” The underlying bedrock of love gone wrong will still be there, but examined from a different angle. “The idea of manipulation and coercive control has been our two-pronged attack to meld the seasons together,” she said.
Alexandra Cunningham also dives deep into how domestic abuse is perceived today. “In the eighties, a woman needed black and blue marks to be considered abused.” In the subsequent decades, a brighter light has been shone on what domestic abuse actually looks like. “It not just physical abuse, it’s financial and psychological control, withholding children and assets.” It’s isolating and demeaning. These aspects are prevalent in the second season, except that the perpetrator isn’t a conman, but a husband.
Psychological abuse takes many forms for Betty Broderick (Amanda Peet) in season two of Dirty John. The peril lies, “In both the perceptions of the main character as well as what actually happened. It’s about the narrative she constructs for herself.” This dynamic doesn’t suggest the danger is facing Betty isn’t real, but in how she works out what they mean and how she projects them outward. “The characters in the second season are more psychologically fragile.”
In the first season, the Newell women were very strong and they fought back against a veritable enemy. The threat was very clear. In the second season, the threat is not as clear. “It’s about what happens in a relationship when one person [Dan Broderick played by Christian Bale] stops caring about his wife Betty.” This is deeper than a married couple falling out of love over time. “It’s about what is owed to people who were once kind to us? If you are cruel to someone you are supposed to be kind to as a debt for past happiness, you have a real problem.”
This is further exacerbated when Betty, “Feels abandoned, isolated, and has developed a lethal concept of what fairness means.” This is the new ground broken in the second season. “The area is much grayer.”
Every character was wrong and right at the same time
Although Dirty John is mainly a drama, there are psychological thriller aspects to the show. Every character has their own moral high ground to justify their actions. However, they didn’t have the benefit of hindsight to appreciate the detrimental effects of their actions. “You don’t realize the effects your actions have on people who are not present,” continued Cunningham.
“We all know what happened in the story. We want to know why it happened? What will Betty do know? What will Dan do in response to what Betty did? Dan’s responses hit me in the stomach.” These burning questions propel the narrative.
Dirty John explores the nature of power and what happens when one person unfairly wields it over another person. What happens when the power holder refuses to take the win? For some reason, Dan Broderick, “Needed to teach Betty a lesson in how to behave,” even though he thwarted her at every level. Her rage is all she had.
Alex Cunningham first encountered this story in high school in 1989. It was very removed from my life. “It was like imagining the mother of one of my friends going crazy after prolonged abuse and killing the friend’s father.”
It was a time of increasing divorce in the wealthy, leafy suburbs. “What a crazy, ‘tabloidy’ story.” In the coming years, the showrunner read a book with a holistic examination of the Dan, Betty, and Linda Broderick [Dan’s second wife played by Rachel Keller] story which became the basis of the second season of Dirty John. The pivotal book was “The Twelfth Of Never” book by Bella Stumbo which inspired the showrunner.
Ten years ago, Alex Cunningham saw parallels of Betty Roderick with her own life. She was married, drove an SUV, and understood the work involved in keeping her marriage healthy. She vicariously feared the life and death stakes in neglecting to put in the work to maintain healthy relationships through Betty. “Betty’s story became more tragic when I realized it could happen to me now I’m inside it. I am both Betty and Dan.”
Alexandra Cunningham is reluctant to conveniently pigeon-hole Dan Broderick as a villain. She achieved this through flashbacks of the more idyllic relationship Dan and Betty thought they had. Betty was caught up in the 1950s suburban, white picket fence lifestyle. There wasn’t a clear turning point when Dan stopped caring for her. “Dan worked so hard and it turned him into a certain kind of person and he felt entitled to supreme power.” He developed a Machiavellian winner takes all mindset of what it took to be successful and convinced himself that Betty couldn’t achieve anything without him. “He wanted to be regarded as a self-made man, not someone who got there with the help of his wife.”
Betty reminded him that he couldn’t always be treated as the titan he had become. He didn’t want to share credit for any of his success. Despite his sacrifices and relentless work ethic, “Dan was tired and only wanted someone to worship, not question him.”
Developing Dirty John
Season 1 was born out of the eponymous podcast by Christopher Goffard. “It had a solid, structural framework in terms of the storytelling. There were things that you couldn’t do in scripted television because the stories were told differently,” said Cunningham. For instance, at the end of one episode of the podcast, Debra Newell was told to get a gun for protection, but she refused because her sister was killed with a gun. “You can’t do that when you’re following live actors on television and the story is spooling out in front of you and someone comes from left field, and just leaves.”
The second season bears little resemblance to the podcast. Cunningham sent her researcher to a courthouse in San Diego to research the Broderick murder. He came back with 6000 thousand pages of transcripts which become a reference document for the TV writers’ room. The writers also read Bella Stumbo’s book. Stumbo was an L.A. journalist who got access to the divorce court transcripts. Consequently, the TV writers’ room constructed characters who were authentic and based entirely on certain characters or composites.
The pilot episode of the second season contained an iconic scene of Betty Broderick driving into the family home. It set the scene for the season. She was talking about Dan in the present tense after she killed him. She uttered, “I was amazed it only took one bullet to kill Dan.” These two elements in the pilot episode will tell audiences what the season is about and how it might unfold. They’ll decide if they want to continue watching.
The final episode was about Betty’s trial. “It wasn’t so much that justice was served, but rather how she got there,” said Cunningham. At that point, Betty finally felt the world knew how she felt although she was going to prison. Everyone in the trial had their own perspective and opinions.