The documentary to podcast to scripted series is now a familiar progression for those of us who can’t help but blast blue light into our eyes at night, plunging into one true crime rabbit hole or another instead of sleeping. It’s no longer enough to consume a real-life travesty just for the facts; we need to obsess over the really juicy ones from every angle, from the lurid to the topical to the philosophical.
The latest now-familiar story to make the final stop on the all-platforms content cycle — the A-list scripted limited series — is the story of Jan Broberg, who was kidnapped twice as a child by her neighbor Robert Berchtold, and is now chronicled in “A Friend of the Family.”
Skye Borgman’s Netflix documentary “Abducted In Plain Sight” first introduced this strange, maddening story to a mass audience, leaving viewers with outrage and righteous judgment, the elements most effective in launching a true crime into virality. How could Jan’s parents possibly allow Berchtold to abduct their eldest daughter not once but twice? Why didn’t they distance themselves or press charges after the first time? The documentary didn’t delve too deep into these questions in 90 concise minutes, but it was incredibly effective in making waves and bringing the subject matter to current times — how we may or may not be better prepared for predators like Berchtold than the Brobergs in the seventies.
The Peacock limited series “A Friend of the Family” makes it clear that it’s going to be different from certain other dramatized true crime series that you’d find from Ryan Murphy or even creator Nick Antosca’s own “Candy” on Hulu. The first shot is of the real Jan Broberg, who’s also a producer on the series, facing the camera to say, “I know it may seem unbelievable, but we lived in a different world back then.”
It’s clear early on that this series isn’t interested in playing up the Broberg family’s story for camp value or winks to the audience. The nine episodes allow us to better understand how the family fell under the spell of Bob “B” Berchtold (Jake Lacy) while also tracking the chain of terrible decisions by Bob (Colin Hanks) and Mary Ann Broberg (Anna Paquin) that let him become so enmeshed in their lives. The time and space that a series affords allows us to appreciate the full horror of how B groomed Jan (played by Hendrix Yancey at 12 years old and by McKenna Grace at 14) over the years, seducing her parents and filling her head with bizarre sci-fi conspiracy theories.
“A Friend Of The Family” lives and dies on Lacy’s performance, and he does an excellent job using the nice-guy gestures and expressions he’s known for in shows like “Girls” and “The Office” and twisting them into something mundane yet sinister — it should earn him another Emmy nomination. Paquin and Lio Tipton as Gail Berchtold deliver simmering performances as two of B’s adult victims, while Yancey and Grace prove themselves as stars on the rise as Jan.
The performances and sensitive, patient storytelling give you the feeling that you’re seeing the truest version of these events yet.
“A Friend of the Family” premieres on Peacock on Oct. 6 with the first four episodes, followed by new episodes weekly through Nov. 10.