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In the fourth episode of USA’s Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story, Jeff Perry plays a psychologist who — never seen before or after in the limited series — testifies about the definition and relevance of “gaslighting” in the murders of Dan (Christian Slater) and new wife Linda (Rachel Keller) at the hands of Dan’s ex-wife Betty (Amanda Peet).
Later in the episode, generally framed by the psychologist’s rudimentary babbling, Betty arrives at her ex-husband’s house, points to a dessert on the table and notes that somebody made Dan’s favorite, a Boston cream pie. The cake that Betty, described throughout the episode as the victim of intense manipulation, observes is not a Boston cream pie. It’s some cake buried under white butter frosting. It’s impossible for me to imagine that on a packed TV set, nobody from the actors to prop masters would have said, “Ummm … no?”
AIR DATE Jun 02, 2020
Is the Boston cream pie thing irredeemably sloppy or brilliantly subversive, an example of using even the smallest details of production design to amplify the gaslighting message? This is a thought I had several times watching the new “season” of Dirty John (we’ll ignore how genuinely icky it is that the studio decided to turn a specific story of stalking and murder into an anthology brand), which tells a familiar and sensationalistic tale in so messy a fashion that it may be purposeful — though I don’t know if it’s good, however strong Peet’s performance is in the lead role.
For those who weren’t alive or cognizant in the late 1980s, when Betty Broderick’s case was the subject of media fervor and an Emmy-nominated TV movie starring Meredith Baxter, this is one of those “They looked like the perfect couple, but …” cautionary tales. Betty stood by and supported Daniel though medical school and then law school. After decades of love and patience and support, Daniel became one of the most powerful malpractice attorneys in San Diego and the Brodericks, including their four children, lived a life of extravagant vacations, fancy cars and expensive outfits.
As the conventional wisdom goes, this is when Daniel began an affair with his assistant Linda; lied about the affair to Betty; used a misogynistic legal system to take custody of the kids; and pushed Betty past the breaking point. Betty ended up coming to their house and shooting both Daniel and Linda.
The first season of Dirty John — the season actually based on the L.A. Times articles and podcast relating to the “Dirty John” case — bored me because it slavishly followed a fairly recently reported incident and wasn’t able to add much to the conversation other than a few very good acting turns. With the second season, showrunner Alexandra Cunningham has something more ambitious in mind, taking advantage of 30 years of distance to give Betty Broderick’s case a necessary reframing.
We have a greater understanding of (or at least a wider vernacular for speculating about) Betty’s circumstances, less tolerance for the legal loopholes Daniel used against her, and a deeper sympathy when it comes to the sort of “woman scorned” tropes that Betty was pigeon-holed into. Even what you thought of as a Boston cream pie might not actually be a Boston cream pie.
Here’s where your response to Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story becomes one of personal generosity. Are the earliest episodes, which trace the nascent Broderick relationship and its out-of-control downward spiral, run through a chronologically perplexing blender to show that causality in a doomed marriage isn’t always clear? Or is the nonlinear storytelling mostly an acknowledgment that there isn’t close to eight episodes worth of story here, and if you told it all in order it would either be dull or frustratingly repetitive? Probably a little of each.
Watching in a binge, I was able to tolerate the sleight of hand meant to distract from how little was “happening” in these early episodes — unless you’re really into minutiae of divorce law like “Epstein credits.” I even admired how the flashbacks, featuring an excellent Chris Mason doing a fine Christian Slater impression, give Daniel the illusion of a character arc in which, unfortunately, Slater doesn’t really get to play much part. He smirks with the variation of meanings that only Slater’s smirks can provide, but you’re ultimately left with a limited range of interpretation for the character, who is at best an opportunist, manipulating people and a system with full awareness of his abuses, and at worst just plain evil.
It’s still much more than Keller gets to do, earning third billing for vamping onto the scene mid-series, luring Daniel like a siren and giving Betty the stinkiest of stink-eyes. I don’t think Dirty John owes Daniel a thing, but it feels to me like if your goal is re-evaluating the stereotypes the media and culture forced Betty to embody, seeking some empathy for Linda outside of genre cliches might also have been a worthwhile way to fill these eight hours.
Slater’s recognizable star power aside, the focus, really, is exclusively on Betty, and if there’s any real reason to recommend Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story, it’s to appreciate the sheer range and volume of characterizations Peet gets to offer.
There are episodes in which Betty is treated like an Erin Brockovich-style crusader, episodes that hope you forget that whatever else Betty was, she was also definitely a woman who killed two people. There are episodes in which Betty is mostly sad and clearly struggling with her sanity, though true to the murder trial itself, Cunningham and company can’t bring themselves to argue an insanity defense. So Peet gets to play her as charging and righteous, as tragic and pathetic, and even, though not nearly enough, as humorous. Whatever things I’m not sure are or aren’t intentional, I’m confident that it’s no accident that Betty is a different person in almost every installment.
But is it intentional that every single supporting character is undeveloped to the point of namelessness? I get that they’re mostly composite characters, but if you’re making a composite doesn’t that mean you’re bringing together many elements and not no elements? After eight hours, I can’t tell you a personality trait or name for any of Betty’s string of San Diego County prissy housewife friends nor any of Daniel’s WASP-y colleagues.
Their homogeneity may be the point; I’m not sure there’s a named person of color in the series. But should Betty and Dan’s kids, composites themselves, be so devoid of individual personality? So much depends on the show making you believe that Betty cares about kids that the show doesn’t care about at all. Or maybe Betty is so wrapped up in her ongoing identity crisis that we’re not even supposed to believe she cares about the kids? This is one where I definitely don’t buy intent.
I’m not sure how many viewers, especially viewers with no memories of the original case, are likely to be as tolerant in the search for meaning as I was. Some will tune in to try to figure out what traits define the Dirty John franchise — tacky fashions, SoCal opulence, flimsy matte backgrounds and, oddly, guest star Sprague Grayden — and then interest will dwindle before they even reach the Boston cream pie.
Cast: Amanda Peet, Christian Slater, Rachel Keller
Developed by: Alexandra Cunningham
Two-hour premiere Tuesday, June 2, at 9 p.m. Subsequent episodes air Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on USA.
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