If you’re going to dramatize something as lurid as the case of Jan Broberg, who was abducted multiple times by a family friend, then it’s necessary to put the bewildering events in context. How did Robert “B” Berchtold worm his way into the Broberg family? Why did parents Mary Ann and Bob allow him to sleep in Jan’s bed as part of a “therapy” meant to curb his obsession with her? How did Berchtold kidnap Jan and marry her in Mexico, only to walk away a free man — and then do it all over again two years later?
Peacock’s A Friend of the Family, which reenacts the story popularized in the Netflix documentary Abducted in Plain Sight, seems to believe it’s answered these questions. When the teaser was released, journalists were sent letters from creator Nick Antosca (Candy, The Act) and Jan Broberg herself, who serves as a producer on the limited series alongside her mother. “I hope people will come away from the series with a deeper understanding of the family and say: In that time, in that place, they were like me,” Antosca wrote. “They made terrible mistakes, but they loved their kids. And, a master manipulator took advantage of them.”
“This story will make you talk, shout, cry — and it will make you angry. Good,” Broberg added. “I hope that our story will start conversations — because secrets live in darkness and silence.”
These are powerful statements — and in consulting the family of the victims, Antosca’s series already has a leg up on other true crime projects, including Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story — but unfortunately, they’re hardly borne out by the drama’s nine-episode run. Despite the Brobergs’ involvement, A Friend of the Family is yet another show in which a charismatic villain monopolizes our attention, shifting focus away from those who deserve to have their stories heard.
The myriad problems largely stem from the mismatched energy between Jake Lacy, who plays B, and the rest of the cast, made up of Anna Paquin and Colin Hanks as Mary Ann and Bob Broberg, Lio Tipton as B’s wife Gail, and Mckenna Grace and Hendrix Yancey as Jan at various ages. Lacy draws on the charm and affable demeanor viewers saw in Girls and High Fidelity, but he makes slight adjustments that give his performance a dark edge. Given the complexities of the case and B’s persistent presence in the Brobergs’ lives, Lacy must toe the line between charm and outright manipulation, and he generally succeeds.
He’s helped by a script that makes B the most fleshed-out character, and the only one with a defined purpose, sinister though it may be. By comparison, Hanks and Paquin’s roles are flat. They’re either saddled with heaps of expository dialogue or written to be inactive: they wait to call the police about Jan’s first disappearance; they shrug their shoulders as B gets uncomfortably close with their daughter. The show never explores why they do so little.
Without strong characters to serve as a counterbalance, A Friend of the Family becomes “The Robert Berchtold Show,” a reality that’s disappointing, but not surprising. True crime dramas have long centered the perpetrator, and Antosca’s series suggests that changing this narrative will require more than just buy-in from the victims. Giving them space to share their experiences is a good place to start, but in order to really advance the genre, we must reevaluate how we tell these stories and ask whether the format in question will do justice to all involved. When it comes to the Jan Broberg case, this stranger-than-fiction tale may have best been left to the documentarians.
A Friend of the Family premieres October 6 on Peacock with three episodes. New episodes drop every Thursday.
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Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.