How 'Dirty John' Chose 'The Betty Broderick Story' for Season 2

Showrunner Alexandra Cunningham explains her long fascination with the case and why she chose a different structure for the second season of the anthology.
Isabella Vosmikova/USA Network
Amanda Peet in 'Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story'

[This story contains spoilers for the first two episodes of Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story.]

Dirty John showrunner Alexandra Cunningham first heard of Betty Broderick when she was in high school in Connecticut. Broderick's acrimonious divorce from her husband, Dan, and her subsequent killing of Dan and his second wife, Linda, made for sensationalized headlines in the late 1980s and early '90s.

Cunningham became a fan of a book about the case by Los Angeles Times reporter Bella Stumbo, Until the Twelfth of Never. "For me it's up there with In Cold Blood in terms of true crime where someone just goes really deep" on a case, Cunningham said. And as she got older, got married and had children of her own, "I realized I was relating to the story on a whole other level. … Suddenly I could relate to it from the inside instead of as this crazy, tabloid-y thing that happened to other people."

The ongoing fascination with the case and what led up to Broderick's decision to shoot her ex eventually led to The Betty Broderick Story becoming the second season of anthology series Dirty John, which premiered Tuesday on USA after a strong first season on Bravo. Amanda Peet and Christian Slater star as Betty and Dan Broderick.

Cunningham spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the current season's thematic ties to the first run, why Broderick's story is relevant now and how the structure of the story has changed from season to season.

How does Betty's story fit in with the themes of Dirty John?

We had a two-season pickup initially, but of course I knew that John Meehan dies [at the end of season one]. … "Love gone wrong" was the thread we identified that would connect seasons, and Betty had always been in my head since before I wanted to be a writer. It was an opportunity that I took.

There are elements of control in there also that weren't touched on when the case went down, because it just wasn't a concept that people discussed, and gaslighting was not a concept that was brought up a lot. It was brought up during Betty's trial by one of the psychological experts, who then had to really explain to the jury [what it is]. … Obviously we've advanced in our discussion of things like gaslighting and the need for mental health therapy and the role it plays in people's lives. A lot of those things have come some way in the last three decades.

The case was famous at the time, and spawned two CBS TV movies, but it has kind of faded from pop culture. What did you see in it that made it relevant today?

I watched those movies, I've read most of the books, I've listened to podcasts. I've probably taken in most of the material about Betty out there. I definitely understand the takes, but I do feel like most of them seem very focused on the what and not the why. I enjoyed [the TV movies] as much as anyone who watched Meredith Baxter at the time, but the second movie was called Her Final Fury, and it took place all in a courtroom. It was like, what is this title? (Laughs.) What are you trying to make people think happened, that she leapt over the table like Charles Manson and there was total chaos in the courtroom?

In a lot of the [material] that tried to touch on how the relationship broke down, they were sort of anecdotally showing and not telling, and it comes across as sort of disingenuous anecdotes told by Betty after the murders, so the narrator was tremendously unreliable at that point. If she's telling this on the stand, you don't know if any of this happened even in the way she's describing. We're trying to present multiple viewpoints this season, we're trying to well-round the characters as best we can, given that at the end of the day the story we're telling is what Betty thinks happened. Nothing I've watched or listened to tries to get at it from that perspective, which is probably important to me because it's mine. What would happen to me if I discovered the life I thought I'd been living for years was in fact a sham, that I had been being lied to that entire time? I have a lot of anger in my life. I control it, [but] what would happen if one time I decided not to control it? Would that feel too good to stop? All of those questions … on a certain level, I do think it's relevant.

Season one played as kind of a suspense thriller, but here, by the end of the first hour viewers know that Betty shot Dan. What drove the decision to structure the season that way?

I made a choice from the beginning that I wanted people to know what was at stake in this particular discussion of a relationship, to know what the endgame is for these two people and then explore how that could have happened and why, as opposed to the what. I kept thinking about what the prosecutor at the trial kept saying — which is a valid point for an assistant district attorney — "I don't want you to think about why this happened. I only want you think about what she did." The motives were sort of reduced to hatred, jealousy and evil. … But hatred and jealousy don't come out of a vacuum.

I'm not trying to tell a story to justify what Betty did, but I also don't see the value in dismissing the entire narrative she created in her head that led her to kill. I don't know why we wouldn't try to excavate that and question it, because if we don't, there's no hope to learn anything from it. And it was the narrative that she constructed for herself about how she was treated and how she reacted and what happened to her, and that is why she killed. Putting the murders up front was a way of saying this is where it ends — how can someone who has so many things going for them, even in the breakdown of a relationship … how did this one woman create a narrative that took her to this place?

Season one had a clear antagonist in John, but do you see a clear villain here? The cards are played pretty evenly in these first couple episodes.

I hope so.

Dan comes off as very self-centered and cold, and Betty is the one who pulled the trigger, but it seems like you're more interested in just telling the whole story than in taking sides.

These are two people who got into a kind of cycle of attrition, where Dan wanted to move on and Betty could not accept that. He was clearly a super intelligent, very hard-working, talented man who I think everyone would say was without peer when it came to interpreting the psychology of juries. But then when it comes to this woman he knows so well, all of this finesse kind of disappears. Being brought up at the time both of them were and being the people they had been raised to be, Dan was used to getting a certain kind of result from his  hard work and his determination, and he clearly was very frustrated and enraged with Betty that she wouldn't accept this new reality and behave with dignity and move on. He chose to try to punish her into doing that. So this is where the cycle begins — he would punish her for her behavior, and then she would feel powerless and react with rage because that was the only power she had, and then he would punish her for that.

In the writers room we talked a lot about what it means to not take the win, what it means to have all the power on your side. You're the breadwinner, you have a new relationship, you have custody of the children, you're not just familiar with the legal system but an agent of the legal system. And yet there's no moment in which you take a step back and go, "I think I might be handling this wrong." It just keeps escalating.

What then do you need from your two leads to tell a story like this?

The whole thing is kind of a roller-coaster of emotion. I think it's possible to feel angry at and sympathetic toward Betty at the same time, and also toward Dan. The thing that was most important to me … was to find great collaborators who when they're dealing with emotional material, don't flinch from it. They want to dig in. Amanda and Christian, although I didn't know this, they had known each other socially, so they were comfortable with each other. That gave them the trust and the emotional space to treat each other badly in scene work, and adjust and protect each other. … They had that trust with each other and with me, and they clearly have talent many people were aware of long before this. But also they have the ability to bring the humanity and embody these people as people and not just archetypes. They wanted to make the case for the person they were playing, and I think they both did that.

Did you do much embellishing of the real story, or does it hew fairly close to the facts?

There's no embellishment. There are composite characters, both out of respect for real people and for the storytelling. There's chronology compression, some combining of characters and changing of names. But especially in the true crime space, one of the reasons I'm interested in the story in the first place is because I'm attracted by the actual events and the details of the story and I want to try and excavate why decisions were made and actions were taken.

Last season there were some notes initially that it seemed strange John Meehan wouldn't make an effort to cultivate Debra Newell's daughters. That seems really weird and not a thing a smart con man would do. And I was like, but he did alienate her daughters almost immediately, and he made that choice almost instinctively and went with right away, and it worked. I'm not a con man, I don't have those instincts, so perhaps we should think about why he made that decision. …

This season there are a lot of decisions that Betty makes that are confounding, and not just if you think about [her situation as] a person whose mental health is disintegrating and who is isolated and is being avoided by people who might help her because misfortune is contagious. She's a smart woman, and in another universe she might have been encouraged to do something with the child psychology degree she'd gotten in three years. Instead she's spiraling out in her own head [and thinking], "I don't exist anymore." I just wanted to really get inside that. So that's a long-winded way of saying when I'm dealing with a true story, it's because I know I'm going to get in there and tell it as close to how it actually happened as possible.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.