On Valentine’s Day, Netflix released the eight-episode series Dirty John. Based on a hit podcast, which itself was based on a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times, it dramatizes the true story of Debra Newell (Connie Britton), an interior designer in tony Newport Beach, Calif., who was swept off her feet by John Meehan (Eric Bana), a serial liar and later, much worse.
On Feb. 25, the singer R. Kelly was charged with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse, in part because the documentary series Surviving R. Kelly – which aired in January on Lifetime and is available here via Rogers on demand – ratcheted up the scrutiny on his alleged predatory behaviour.
Dirty John and Surviving R. Kelly are two of a host of current series and films that focus on predators: Why they fascinate, and how they get away with it. In the Netflix series You, baby-faced bookstore owner Joe (Penn Badgley) massively creeps on budding writer Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail). In the current HBO documentary Leaving Neverland, two men open up about the long-running relationship they had with Michael Jackson when they were boys. The second season of the smash hit Killing Eve, in which a contract killer (Jodie Comer) is obsessed with a British agent (Sandra Oh), arrives April 7.
Britton has a theory about why the liar/stalker storyline is so relevant now – and so popular, particularly among women. “In this #MeToo and #TimesUp culture, we’re really asking questions of ourselves,” she said in a recent phone interview. “We’re looking at ourselves differently than we have before. We’re examining ideas about who we’re supposed to be, and how we’re supposed to behave – ideas which have been handed down to us through generations of our families, our culture. Those ideas really came into play in the decisions Debra made. So many women don’t think about protecting themselves, because they’re too busy trying to get the thing they think they’re supposed to have.
“Predators like this have always existed,” Britton concludes. “But this current moment is making us think twice about things we’ve taken for granted.”
More examples: Star Trek: Discovery’s first season included a bombshell storyline about a male predator who travels through time and space to groom a female victim. (“There are so many women,” he says. “It’s good to be the captain.”) The doc series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, also on Netflix, re-examines the crimes of the notorious serial killer. The recent American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, which scooped up Emmy and Golden Globe Awards, details the true story of Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss), the serial murderer who revered and then shot the designer.
Even Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has a predator episode: Titus (Tituss Burgess) is sexually assaulted by a puppet named Mr. Frumpus. It’s played for laughs, until it isn’t – Ronan Farrow, the New Yorker journalist who helped take down the producer Harvey Weinstein, shows up for a cameo, and the dialogue addresses the real fears of survivors (“I don’t want to be defined by that one horrible day” and “I would come forward, but it’s career suicide.”)
Obviously, this storyline is popular because it’s titillating. But it’s also instructive. Instead of blaming victims or glorifying perpetrators, these series open our eyes: to how many helpers an alleged serial perpetrator such as Weinstein or Kelly needs in his orbit in order to commit crimes and get away with them. To how much we buy into empty promises from people we love, or invest celebrities we admire with good qualities, contrary evidence be damned. And to how easy it is for liars and sociopaths to take advantage of that.
Because of course it’s not just women who are conned. The entire world is reeling from lies and scams. Accusations of “fake news” tarnish legitimate reportage, while political enemies spread actual fake news to sway elections. Identities are created and stolen on the internet. “We have a conman-in-chief in the White House!” Britton says. “We have an entire country that was conned! That to me is what’s chilling.”
Observers are equal parts fascinated and appalled by how willing U.S. President Donald Trump’s base is to deny what their eyes are seeing. Last week, for example, Trump defended his labour secretary, Alexander Acosta, who declined to prosecute a billionaire accused of molesting underage girls, and his supporters didn’t flinch. Similarly, New England Patriots fans stood by team owner Robert Kraft after he was charged with soliciting prostitution as part of an investigation into human trafficking. A female Pats fan offered this explanation to a news camera: “I just don’t want to think any of this happened.”
The above series examine that capacity for denial. Debra escapes her Dirty John, only to return to him when he cons her again. In The Ted Bundy Tapes, we learn that, as the murder stories were breaking, a whole lot of women called the cops, concerned that the killer might be their own boyfriend. And yet, once Bundy was arrested and on trial, his courtroom was crowded with young female fans, some of whom passed him love notes.
As well, Surviving R. Kelly points out how fans stood by him long after the knowledge was widespread that he courted, groomed and allegedly enslaved underage girls. In one gobsmacking scene, as a handcuffed Kelly is being led into a police station – he was tried for child-pornography charges in 2008 – a reporter is heard asking, “What about the child porn?” at the same time women fans scream, “I love you!” Another reporter points out that sexual predation is rife in pop music, but it’s treated like a punchline, a romantic trope or “an inconvenience.” John Legend sums it up: “Rich and powerful men can get away with a lot of things.” The real-world consequences of denial are brought home by a male juror who helped acquit Kelly in 2008: He disregarded what the accusers said, he admits, shrugging, because “I didn’t like them.”
In Dirty John, when Debra’s mother tells her to stand by her man, or explains that her son-in-law hurt her daughter “because he loved her too much,” we wince – but we also think about the narratives we’ve internalized. When John’s first wife confronts him with his lies, and he doesn’t apologize or explain, we recoil from his amorality. Then we recoil again, thinking of how often we’re seeing that same behaviour in our public figures – the Virginia politicians who refuse to step down amid blackface scandals; the ex-CBS chief executive Les Moonves, who insists he’s entitled to his US$120-million exit package, even though he was fired amid allegations of sexual misconduct.
“I’m always interested in stories that are clearly touching a nerve with people,” Britton says. “What I try to do as a storyteller, is reflect us back to ourselves. I think I’ve done my job if the audience is able to recognize something in themselves through a character I’ve played or a story I’ve told.
“This era we’re in, there’s a real crisis of truth,” she continues. “So, particularly at this time, we need stories like Dirty John. We need to be able to look at ourselves in honest ways.”
Both the fictional and documentary series offer similar solutions to that crisis of truth: Only by owning up to our collective complicity, and then changing it, will predators and liars be stopped. In You, Beck wonders if she inadvertently encouraged her stalker: “Do you know how many selfies I’ve taken in the toilet? A lot,” she says. Kelly is finally brought down by the #MuteRKelly campaign, powerful people including Ava DuVernay, Kerry Washington and Questlove, who banded together to encourage concert promoters, music streaming services and radio stations to cut him off.
Last week, Emma Thompson did something similar: She withdrew from the animated feature Luck because she didn’t want to work with John Lasseter, the new head of the film’s production company, Skydance. Pixar fired Lasseter last June owing to allegations of past sexual misconduct. “I regret having to step away, because I love Alessandro,” she wrote in a letter published Feb. 26 in the Los Angeles Times, referring to Luck director Alessandro Carloni. “But I can only do what feels right during these difficult times of transition and collective consciousness-raising.”
Collective-consciousness-raising – that’s what these stalker series are. They lure us in by asking, “What would you do?” But they’re really asking, “What will you do now?"
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