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Peacock’s A Friend of the Family Unpacks Harrowing True Story

I can vividly remember sitting in a premiere at the 2018 Oxford Film Festival of a new true crime documentary called “Forever ‘B’.” The energy in that room was insane as the story unfolding on the screen kept topping itself with new revelations. Kidnapping is always a terrifying thing to consider but there was more to this story—the tale of a true sociopath, someone who devastated an entire family one piece at a time. The documentary was retitled “Abducted in Plain Sight” when it dropped on Netflix and created waves, turning its talented director Skye Borgman into one of the prominent true crime doc creators of the current era. Borgman is a consulting producer on “A Friend of the Family,” the inevitable dramatization of what happened to the Broberg family in the ‘70s, premiering on Peacock on Thursday, October 6th. With sharp writing from the great showrunner Nick Antosca, sensitive direction from Eliza Hittman (“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”) and others, and a dedicated ensemble, this series rises above your average true crime drama. It sometimes stumbles a little bit by making Jan’s story take a back seat to the adult characters in early episodes, but everyone here navigates a tricky narrative, humanizing two parents who could easily have been ridiculed by a lesser production.

Jake Lacy has found an interesting register in his late thirties as, well, a charming asshole. That kind of character landed him his first Emmy nomination for “The White Lotus,” and I suspect he’ll get another one for playing Bob “B” Berchtold, a genuine monster who moved into the same neighborhood as the Broberg family in the ‘70s. The premiere sets up the first crucial encounter between the Berchtold family and the Brobergs, on a night when the outgoing clan decided to welcome their new neighbors with an indoor picnic. As everyone talked and joked, ‘B,’ taking that nickname to distinguish him from Bob Broberg (Colin Hanks), became obsessed with Jan Broberg (Hendrix Yancey early, Mckenna Grace later). It feels like he instantly became committed to tearing the Broberg family apart and shattering the lives of everyone around him.

Where does one even start with the Broberg story? How about the fact that Bob Berchtold, a close friend of the Brobergs, didn’t just kidnap Jan and take her to Mexico—he kidnapped her again two years later? How about his technique to brainwash Jan, convincing her that aliens had taken both of them and would destroy her loved ones if she didn’t consent? And just wait until you see how close Bob got to both Mary Ann (Anna Paquin) and Bob in the years before the kidnapping, manipulating their weaknesses in a way that made them easier to control.

There’s a reason that Jan introduces herself during the premiere and comments on how it was a different time. It’s her way of defending her parents, two people who arguably didn’t just let the wolf into the hen house but did it twice. Antosca, who has been a leader in this kind of material lately with Hulu’s “The Act” and “Candy,” is also delicate with Mary Ann and Bob, never resorting to mocking their naivete. These were good people who were confronted by evil they didn’t even understand. When Jan is kidnapped the first time, someone has to define the word pedophile for them, an officer who just learned it himself. People were more trusting in middle America in the 1970s because they didn’t believe that a friend could also be a monster.

Playing that kind of monster presents a big challenge for Lacy, and he rises to it. This is a very difficult role in that we will see Bob through modern eyes in a way the Brobergs couldn’t. So he can’t go too far in his malevolence or risk devolving into camp. It has to be a captivating performance so it's believable that the Brobergs were captivated by him but also can't be too likable either. Lacy nails it. Even the really tough-to-swallow material in episodes three and four that reveal just how much he got his hooks into Mary Ann and Bob comes off as more understandable than it could have with lesser actors or writers. Just think about how easily a story involving infidelity, aliens, and multiple kidnappings could have become lurid, campy, and exploitative. Antosca, his directors, and the cast walk a very fine tonal line, never turning their show into a depressing dirge but also not giving in to the potential to “Ryan Murphy” this thing up.

With so much focus on Bob, ‘B’, and Mary Ann—and Gail Berchtold (Lio Tipton) at times—Jan herself can get a little lost in the telling of this story. I’m also not sure I love the recasting to age up Jan given the story doesn’t take place over that long a period of time—the kidnappings were only two years apart. While I’ve seen less of her in what’s been sent for review, I would have preferred the talented Grace play it throughout, which is no criticism of the solid Yancey but just a belief that one actress would have given Jan a stronger throughline.  

Despite the success of “Abducted in Plain Sight,” Jan Broberg’s story is one that’s still not widely known among the general public, and it’s a story worth telling again, a reminder that trust has to be earned and friends can have ulterior motives. Antosca and his team approached this cautionary tale with the utmost respect for the people caught up in this absolute nightmare, and that approach has paid off with one of the best true crime dramas of the year.

Premieres on Peacock on October 6th. Five episodes screened for review.

 

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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