It’s a measure of how much true crime is on TV that it’s all starting to blur into one amorphous, mildly ghoulish mass. Midway through episode one of A Friend of the Family (Peacock/Sky), I had a distracting sense of déjà vu. Eventually I realised that I’d seen this story before. Three years ago to be precise, on the estimable Netflix documentary Abducted in Plain Sight. Now it’s been dramatised for this nine-part series. Sure, it’s an eyebrow-raising case but do we really need to keep raking over it?
Anyway, on with the weirder-than-fiction show. For several years during the 1970s, Idaho furniture salesman Robert “B” Berchtold expertly manipulated his neighbours, the Brobergs, so he could sexually abuse and repeatedly kidnap their young daughter, Jan. It’s a harrowing tale of victims not just opening the door to evil but cooking it a slap-up steak dinner, then letting it babysit.
Berchtold’s obsession with Jan led to him grooming the entire Broberg family and seducing both parents, while stealthily drugging Jan and brainwashing her into believing they’d been given a world-saving secret mission by aliens. This happened to involve them marrying and procreating. Throughout the sorry saga, sociopathic Berchtold maintained a wholesome veneer of friendship, hence the drama’s title. “He’s practically a member of our family,” insist the Brobergs. “He loves our children like they’re his own.”
The series does a decent job of explaining how this belief-beggaring deception ever came to pass. It’s partly down to the naivety of the period, especially in devoutly religious suburban America. “Do you know what a paedophile is?” asks an FBI agent. “Is that a medical term?” mumbles Bob Broberg (Colin Hanks), Jan's father, nervously adjusting his specs.
Berchtold is played with chilling menace by Jake Lacy, last seen as the entitled honeymooner in The White Lotus. Lacy’s square-jawed, smirking bonhomie lends him a sinister edge, while his needy catchphrase is “Who do you love the most, other than your mum and dad?”, to which the Broberg children chorus: “You, Brother B!”.
Hanks and Anna Paquin humanise the gullible Brobergs, while young Hendrix Yancey is heartbreakingly vulnerable as Jan. This is slow-building domestic horror, with shadowy silhouettes lurking at bedroom windows. A sunny soundtrack of all-American pop-rock (The Monkees, The Mamas & the Papas, Glen Campbell) adds to the disquieting atmosphere.
As if to head off accusations of exploitation, the series opens with a straight-to-camera speech by the real Jan Broberg, now 60. She tells viewers that she wanted her experiences dramatised because "so many people think that something like this could never happen to them – especially at the hands of someone they know and trust. But it happened to my family. It happened to me”.
Yet this is far too niche to truly be a cautionary tale. The narrative incorporates time-hops, a frustrating structural device which plagues far too many series nowadays, while nine episodes feels unnecessarily bloated. Strong performances, a sensitive tone and high production values mean A Friend of the Family is solid drama. It still feels like a story that didn’t need retelling.