Primetimer editor-at-large Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. She founded the true crime site The Blotter, and is the host of its weekly podcast, The Blotter Presents. Her weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime on TV.
Oxygen seldom misses an opportunity to strike when a particular crime story is hot, so it's no surprise that Snapped — now in its 27th season (!) — is updating its 2019 episode on Betty Broderick tonight. Oxygen's sister network, USA, aired the finale of Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story last night, and in theory, viewers who didn't have the patience for an eight-hour docudrama about the notorious case (or didn't realize the limited series existed, thanks to other 2020 headlines) can opt for a more economical catch-up on one of the most notorious divorces in the annals of true crime. But should you bother? Of the three highest-profile TV offerings about the killing of Dan Broderick and his new wife, Linda Kolkena, by Dan's ex-wife Betty, is Snapped the best use of your time?
In a word: No. While it takes the least time, the episode feels longer than its 42 minutes, in part because — as is typical for a show of Snapped's ilk — it's using the same three or four photos over and over. Betty Broderick's descent into madness and ultimate vengeance on her ex and his new bride were covered in pitiless detail at the time, so it does seem like NBC News could have furnished more and better materials for a network in its ecosystem. The re-enactments are similarly perfunctory; while longtime true-crime consumers don't expect much in that department, wardrobe doesn't seem to know what the '60s look like, and the actor playing Betty isn't even blonde. But the real issue is the filler — again, not uncommon for a show like Snapped — but with a case this long in the making, and this polarizing, the show should spend less time recapping itself after commercials, and more time on the idea that Betty Broderick not only snapped, but snapped on behalf of a generation of first wives.
Snapped does set itself apart from Dirty John, and from the legendary 1992 miniseries A Woman Scorned starring Meredith Baxter, in one important way: it foregrounds Dan and Linda Broderick as the victims, which, of course, they were. Betty Broderick became, and remains, a bold-face name in the register of true-crime stories not because of what she did, but why — after a decade and a half of marriage, much of it spent in financial straits (and, not for nothing, pregnant and caring for small children) while Dan struggled through medical and law school, Betty got traded in for a younger model...and then gaslighted callously throughout the divorce proceedings, by a guy who knew how to game the system. It's Betty's motivation to murder Dan and Linda that preoccupies us thirty years later, but the other two versions of the narrative, siding with Betty and painting Dan as a smug manipulator who had it coming, downplay the fact that Betty killed two people, people who were loved.
Perhaps what we actually need is still a fourth limited series, a documentary that can take more time and care with the tale than Snapped is able to. Failing that, there's A Woman Scorned, which introduced many viewers of my generation not just to the story but to the (guilty) pleasure of the true-crime TV-movie genre. In the galaxy of mythic '80s and '90s miniserieses, The Deliberate Stranger, Small Sacrifices, and Meredith Baxter and her mom jeans losing it in A Woman Scorned made up the brightest stars. Baxter, best known at that time for playing mom Elyse Keaton on Family Ties, turns in a vanity-free performance as Betty, and while you feel sympathy for her situation, you... may also kind of see Dan's side when Betty's getting controlling and loud about Christmas decorations and semi-formal attire. At three-plus hours, A Woman Scorned isn't the most efficient rendering of the story, and in hindsight it looks a bit cheap, but it's actually held up pretty well for a '90s network production. It's also a great window into what passed for true crime back in the twentieth century. We didn't have podcasts, or Reddit. We had Ann Rule, and we had these all-star-cast telepics.
But for my money, Dirty John's second season is the best of the three. It's not perfect: it could have lost two of its eight episodes; it's relatively uninterested in Linda Kolkena Broderick except as an element of Betty's psychological torment; it elides a few facts of the case that it could have explored in interesting ways — like that the real Betty had a boyfriend of her own at the time of the murders, and that it's he who found Dan and Linda's bodies and called 911. But Dirty John's take comes the closest to the heart of our interest in the case, our sense that Dan created the monster who killed him. We know how the story ends, but Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story does create a certain tension (weirdly reminiscent of Edith Wharton's The House Of Mirth) as Betty misses dozens of off-ramps to her own safety and happiness because she insists that her ex-husband value her, her work, her investment in their family, and his refusal to acknowledge her and her emotional and literal labor drives her crazy. Amanda Peet and Christian Slater as Betty and Dan are pitch-perfect, and the project even underlines the striking resemblance between the real-life Betty and Linda by casting the could-be-sisters Tiera Skovbye (Riverdale) and Rachel Keller as young Betty and Linda respectively. As the season's full title suggests, this is Betty's story, and sympathy for her putative persecutors is in short supply. But as a position paper on the madness a lifetime under misogyny can create, it's an A-plus — and if you're only going to watch one of the three, I recommend making the time for Dirty John.
People are talking about Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story in our forums. Join the conversation.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.