A Friend of the Family

Aseries like Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story raises familiar questions about the ethics of the true-crime genre, about whether it’s no more than rubbernecking entertainment. Peacock’s A Friend of the Family manages to head off many of those concerns from the start due to not just its laser focus on the victim of the crime and her family, but her direct involvement in the making of the series (Broberg serves, along with her mother, as a producer).

The real Jan Broberg is the first person we see, in a direct address to the camera prior to any of the scenes that dramatize her two kidnappings in the 1970s at the hands of Robert Berchtold (Jake Lacy), a neighbor and close family friend. She explains that the time period we’re about to see may feel like a different world, and if anything, she’s understating just how stark the contrast feels. Ensconced in a Mormon community in Idaho, the Broberg family lives in the kind of idyllic 20th-century suburbia that so much fiction still uses for ironic juxtaposition: a time of wood-sided station wagons, turquoise home decor, and doors left unlocked. At one point, an F.B.I. agent (Austin Stowell) even admits that he’s never before heard the term “pedophile.”

Affectionately known as “B,” Berchtold manages to ingratiate himself with the Brobergs as a second father figure of sorts via flattery and an acute awareness of how to exploit their insecurity and dissatisfaction for his own benefit. Berchtold’s initial kidnapping of Jan (initially portrayed by Hendrix Yancey and later by Mckenna Grace) is a strange story in and of itself, since it involves Berchtold concocting a tale about aliens in order to indoctrinate the impressionable young girl. But the events become more complex and profoundly bizarre, involving the oblivious complicity of Mr. and Mrs. Broberg (Colin Hanks and Anna Paquin), who both have separate sexual encounters with the man who kidnaps Jan.

The detailed sketching of this tangled web of deceit is what accounts for the expansive scope of A Friend of the Family. Where another Peacock adaptation, Dr. Death, spread itself thin in an attempt to psychoanalyze neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch, A Friend of the Family is the rare case of true-crime storytelling being justifiably expanded. (By comparison, Netflix’s 2017 documentary about the family, Abducted in Plain Sight, feels rather compressed.)

By being allowed to see the ways in which Jan’s parents react to Berchtold’s actions, we recognize how deeply a culture of repression informs their behavior. Mrs. Broberg, for one, is seduced by the thrills of a relationship outside a long-established marital routine, while Mr. Broberg is blinded by his own perceived inferiority as an archetypal male provider. In their desire to repress and move on, they have no small amount of concern for how they’ll be perceived by their neighbors and, by extension, the church that the Berchtold family also belongs to.

At times, the series can feel restrained to the point of confusion; details like Berchtold’s therapy treatments are only vaguely alluded to, and the court proceedings that follow Jan’s initial kidnapping feel a bit hasty. That same restraint, however, allows A Friend of the Family to sidestep some common true-crime pitfalls: Because Jan is drugged much of the time, the six episodes made available to press don’t dwell on the graphic details of her sexual abuse, instead focusing on the psychological aftermath.

Likewise, A Friend of the Family elects to show Berchtold primarily from the outside rather than pretending to some special insight about his actions. Lacy plays him as a charming and hypnotic figure but allows enough tiny, desperate cracks in that demeanor to refute the idea of some all-knowing villain with near-supernatural foresight. He’s less a Machiavellian figure than a man capable of adapting to whatever comes from the seeds of chaos that he’s sown.

It’s nearly impossible not to evoke the cliché of this story being “stranger than fiction,” because that’s exactly how A Friend of the Family plays. We wouldn’t believe it without the knowledge that it’s true. All the same, it manages to ground itself in a truth that’s much more terrifying for how mundane it is: These events have as much to do with their central bogeyman as they do with a broader culture of conservatism that fosters parental self-involvement and naïveté.

By acinetv