Aidan Smith on TV: The return of true crime whodunit Dirty John

You will smell rabbit stew right at the beginning of the second season of Dirty John. When Betty Broderick floors the family saloon, you’ll think, “Bunny boiler”.
Dirty John Season 2 features 

Christian Slater and Amanda PeetDirty John Season 2 features 

Christian Slater and Amanda Peet
Dirty John Season 2 features Christian Slater and Amanda Peet

But even though she barrels the car straight at the front door of the man who’s wronged her, even though there are children in the house, even though she’s then bundled off by the cops in a straitjacket, this isn’t a Fatal Attraction-type melodrama.

Betty is a wife rather than the other woman. She’s the mother of those children who gave up her career to support her husband in his as he switched from medicine to law. She doesn’t understand why he’s breaking up with her.

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Another thing – unlike Glenn Close in that overcooked movie, Amanda Peet as Betty is playing a real person. Dirty John (Netflix) recreates true crimes, although of course truth can be stranger than fiction. Pans can still boil out of control.

Betty, in flashbacks to happier times with Dan (Christian Slater), never looks like she ruined a single meal. In soft focus – we’re in California in the 80s, so the hair is big, the jeans stonewashed and the drums on the soundtrack punchy – she’s the perfect wife, mom and hostess. “I was smart, pretty and fun. I was a good girl,” she reflects. So what goes wrong?

We don’t know right away but soon the drums are hammering louder and Betty’s mascara is running and the lip gloss dulling from all the crying. She tries to brave it out. There’s a terrific scene in a supermarket, epic in its awkwardness, where she bumps into girlfriends who regarded her as Superwoman, organising structured play for the kids with one hand and whipping up great cocktails with the other. Did they know she’d been in the booby-hatch (American for loony-bin)? “Oh, yes, I think we’d heard that.”

But Dan, as a lawyer who knows lawyers, holds all the aces. “I’m a woman being divorced in America, I have no rights, I’m an obstruction – a judge said so,” Betty wails.

There’s a gruesome moment in court, Betty not present, where Dan is all golf-club back-slappy and chortling with the same judge, just before the quick formality of the marriage being killed stone dead.

Dan’s smug smile at this moment will cause your macaroon bar to solidify but by the end of the first episode he’s been shot in his bed. Quizzed by detectives, Betty says: “Amazing it only took one bullet to kill Dan Broderick.” Who’s the Dirty John this time? Right now it looks like US divorce law, though this will probably change. Slater, by the way, is good but Peet is wonderful.

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In the sci-fi of my youth, as in many genres, it was always the white man confronting the aliens, either impossibly square-jawed Dan Dare in the Eagle or ridiculously weak-chinned Zachary Smith in the original telly version of Lost in Space. Lovecraft Country (Sky Atlantic), though, makes the monster-busters black.

What a start to the first episode – flying saucers hovering menacingly and what I take to be the Cthulhu, which on the page might resemble a bad attempt on Countdown but is in fact the name of the squid-like creature dreamed up in the weirded-out mind of the master of cosmic horror HP Lovecraft – an inspiration to Batman, Black Sabbath and South Park, an admirer of Hitler (“He’s a clown, but, God, I love the boy”) and a virulent racist.

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The thing is quickly sent packing by Korean War veteran Atticus Black (Jonathan Majors) only for this to have been a nightmare on a long bus journey – segregated because we’re in 50s America. From his home in Chicago, Atticus embarks on a road trip in the company of an uncle and an old school friend and fellow sci-fi nut (Jurnee Smollett-Bell from Friday Night Lights, one of the greatest shows you’ve probably never seen) with the hope of tracking down his missing father.

The horrors they encounter are worse than the imagined monsters as they’re racially taunted at a gas station, shunned in a restaurant, shot at by white supremacists and forced face down in the mud by sadistic highway patrolmen. Then the monsters turn real, eat half the cops and leave one without an arm – brilliant. Once I stopped wetting myself I laughed and cheered.

Tyson vs Jaws: Rumble on the Reef sounds like an Alan Partridge programme pitch but here it is, part of Discovery’s Shark Week, with Iron Mike all big and tough – “I’m captivated by the concept of death” – until he gets into the diving cage. He’s much braver without its protection but no shark is harmed, which is just as 
well for Tyson otherwise he’d be answering to my nine-year-old daughter (her ambition – to save every living creature).

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