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Making way-too-long, way-too-late indirect scripted adaptations of shoddily made Netflix true crime documentaries wouldn’t seem like a winning business plan. But six months after informally turning Tiger King into the almost unwatchably hammy Joe vs. Carole, Peacock has given the limited series treatment to 2019’s Abducted in Plain Sight.
Abducted in Plain Sight — one of those Netflix releases that come without any promotion, are all anybody discusses for three days and then are never mentioned again — was simultaneously tedious and tawdry. At only 91 minutes, it was either infuriatingly repetitive or repetitively infuriating, and the idea that Peacock’s A Friend of the Family was going to tell Jan Broberg’s harrowingly bizarre story in nine hours caused me immediate trepidation.
Based on six episodes sent to critics, A Friend of the Family is simultaneously doomed by that structural choice and close to a best-case scenario. With director Eliza Hittman setting an admirably restrained initial tone (she directs the first and third episodes), the show is drawn out far past the limits of my interest, and its insights plateau early, but at least it’s sensitively told and its small ensemble is mostly superb.
The series was created by Nick Antosca and bears some resemblance to his Hulu minis The Act and Candy, relying on duration and bad hairpieces to find a subtle heart in stories that otherwise could tend toward the sensationalistic. I thought it worked completely on The Act, rarely on Candy and comes down somewhere in the middle in A Friend of the Family.
Set in Idaho in the 1970s, A Friend of the Family focuses on the Brobergs — florist Bob (Colin Hanks, a rare weak link lost under a bald cap), housewife Mary Ann (Anna Paquin) and their brood of smiling children, including preteen aspiring actress Jan (Hendrix Yancey for four episodes and then McKenna Grace). The Brobergs seem like the perfect Mormon clan, and they attract the attention of new arrivals Robert (Jake Lacy) and Gail (Lio Tipton) Berchtold — also Mormon — and their own smiling kids. The two families become close. Extremely close. Disturbingly close.
It’s hard to know who would ever watch A Friend of the Family without seeing Abducted in Plain Sight or reading Jan’s memoir Stolen Innocence first, so it may or may not be spoiler-y to reveal that Robert’s real obsession is with Jan; his multi-year grooming process — with the help of aliens named Zeta and Zethra — comes to implicate the entire Broberg family; and he abducts Jan twice. The whole thing baffles both the legal system and the religious community.
Brother B, as he asks to be called, is a charismatic sociopath and the easy villain, but more than a few viewers of the documentary were nearly as outraged by Bob and Mary Ann, parents whose obliviousness and permissiveness was, from the outside, impossible to countenance. Consider this to be the story from the inside. Jan and Mary Ann Broberg are producers here, with Jan introducing the first episode from a soundstage with a reminder that however unbelievable the plot may be, it all really happened. Though Abducted director Skye Borgman is a consulting producer on the Peacock series, Jan’s preamble might as well be, “OK, so now here’s the version where you can actually empathize with us.” It situates A Friend of the Family as an “authorized” victim’s story, an important consideration in the always problematic true-crime space.
Still, nine hours of self-justification is a lot, and that’s where A Friend of the Family spends most of its time. The Brobergs became mired in this situation because B was a conman in addition to being a predator — the role takes perfect advantage of Lacy’s innate duality, wherein he’s best cast as either the most decent or most demented person in any room — and because, as Jan’s intro also tells us, it was a different time.
Hittman, who last directed 2020’s potent Never Rarely Sometimes Always, emphasizes small gestures and reactions, with the camera seemingly capturing every sidelong glance or grazed touch. Little exchanges take on intimate weight, resulting in a series about ongoing sex crime that would not, in terms of what you actually see on-camera, be too risqué to air on broadcast TV. It’s a smart tactic to keep the show from ever feeling exploitative. But if everything that came across as blatant, horrifying and unavoidably grotesque in the documentary is here merely unsettling, and cloaked in a superficial haze of ’70s nostalgia, it’s easy to go from “How the heck could they have been so dumb?” to “How could they possibly have known?” And when two of the figures being most clearly manipulated are producers on your series, it reads as self-serving instead of revelatory.
A Friend of the Family is playing around with a contrast between the incomprehensible behaviors at the center of the story — FBI agents don’t even know the term “pedophile” yet — and the sheltered space in which the action is happening. Working with cinematographers Celina Cardenas and Hilda Mercado, directors play up every ’70s trope, as if the Brobergs and Berchtolds live less in the actual ’70s and more in a Brady Bunch/Partridge Family/Waltons version — one in which Vietnam and Watergate never happened, where no darkness ever intruded.
With production designer John Kretschmer and costume designer Rebecca Gregg leading the way, it’s a world of wood-paneled station wagons, lurid bellbottoms and radios playing wall-to-wall cornball hits from the likes of Captain & Tennille. It’s a petri dish cultivating a viral load of normalcy, so exaggerated and all-consuming that you can see how a Bob Berchtold (or a John Wayne Gacy or a Jeffrey Dahmer, if you’re working on a true-crime trend piece) could hide unchecked. It’s very similar to the way that Antosca treated the more contemporary settings in The Act and Candy. Nearly 40 years post-Blue Velvet, it’s hard to imagine being so proud of the discovery that behind every suburban patina lurks darkness and rot, no matter how proficiently presented.
There’s very little that A Friend of the Family is saying by the sixth episode that it hadn’t already thoroughly covered by the second hour. It’s the cast that may keep you engaged. Hittman is masterful with young actors — see Sidney Flanagan and Talia Ryder in Never Rarely Sometimes Always — and Yancey is astonishingly authentic, showing us how Jan flourishes under B’s kindnesses and struggles with his lies in heartbreaking ways. Grace is a good deal more studied as a performer, which is perfect for the moment Jan’s growing understanding of her situation is beginning to tear her apart.
Paquin is like a porcelain doll contained in and by Pocatello, Idaho, and she briefly comes to life when B takes her out of that box only to crumple in ways that are, indeed, more sympathetic than anything the documentary suggests. Paquin spells out Mary Ann’s motivations and does it well, but I was much more intrigued by Tipton, who crafts a heartbreaking and complicated character almost out of nothing. Tipton isn’t intuitive casting — they are an America’s Next Top Model finalist playing a character repeatedly implied to be a wallflower — and I don’t know if the writers really understand Gail, but the actor brings a layer of tragedy to the role. Gail’s bright, expressive eyes are frequently dulled, like she’s being forced to make her peace with a marriage to a monster over and over.
And over and over. And over and over. Until it’s all over-rationalized and over-excused.
I didn’t think I had an interest in a longer version of the Abducted in Plain Sight narrative. I was somewhat wrong. Thanks to Hittman’s light touch and the performances by Yancey, Lacy, Paquin and Tipton, A Friend of the Family has eerie, provocative menace. But it still doesn’t have six hours’ worth, much less nine. I appreciated what I appreciated, but I nevertheless have no desire to see the tale through to the end.
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