“Dirty John,” the 2018 Bravo limited series, was set up to shock its audience, but it had more on its mind, too. Connie Britton, playing a woman systematically alienated from the world around her by a vexingly charming lover (Eric Bana), effectively depicted the process by which a person loses themself, and loses grip on reality. It was, yes, ripped from the headlines — based upon a narrative podcast of the same name — but there was something overarching and elemental there, too.
Which is why its follow-up series on USA, about a woman who was convicted of killing her ex-husband and his new wife, is so surprising. The puzzlingly titled “Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story,” launching June 2, retains its predecessor’s commitment to depicting female vulnerability and strength under pressure through a compelling lead performance. But it puts the star at its center, Amanda Peet, through a spin cycle of reversals, depicting Betty Broderick first as monomaniacally obsessed with her ex-husband, then as having been pushed to this seeming madness by his mistreatment of her, then overdoing it again, then revealed to have been right all along, and so forth. This show borrows certain real facts — like Broderick’s having supported her husband through a medical degree and a law degree before he spurned her — and imagines others in what is perpetually the least flattering, most broadly emote-worthy light, with Jeff Perry of “Scandal” explaining in court why women snap after each of her worst offenses. Peet is done up in exaggerated 1980s drag, less to situate us in time than to make this story feel more outlandish than its facts, already startling, merit. If you ever wanted to see Amanda Peet weeping while erratically driving a car in an Easter Bunny costume, your time has come.
Peet gives her all to a role that doesn’t respond in kind. The problem, here, may be that the Betty Broderick story — previously brought to TV in “A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story,” which got Meredith Baxter an Emmy nomination in 1992 — is both outsized and small. It gives ample opportunity for Peet to decry the ways in which Christian Slater’s character mistreats her, but it also kind of begins and ends there. The larger point, perhaps, is that marriage makes monsters of us all, but the manner of Peet’s coming into her rage — especially that it happens onscreen before we see the flashbacks explaining, at exhaustive length, why — is so grand as to exclude us. Britton’s gradual slip away was something we could follow, and see ourselves in; Peet’s dialed-up intensity exists simply to document that something beyond belief once really happened to a woman named Betty Broderick.
The current boom in true-crime stories — both documentary and scripted adaptations — too often falls prey to this tendency to prioritize emphasis over empathy. Consider, say, “Tiger King,” Netflix’s documentary series in which the odd circumstances and preoccupations of the subjects turns them into characters, and two-dimensional ones at that. HBO’s “McMillions,” earlier this year, was not content to dwell in the world of the real, and so staged purposefully phony re-enactments, as if to make a point, that its players were comically inept losers, that the story actually didn’t bear out. Exceptions to this tendency towards exaggerated goofs on the subject matter — last year’s “When They See Us,” for instance, or, covering a story of less significance, the first “Dirty John” — extend outwards beyond their stories’ immediate specifics with a broad idea of the world. So much true crime, though, seeks not to reach out but draw viewers in; it’s a narrow, hollow victory for work that draws its charge simply from the fact that things really happened, that the world is a crazy place.
Which is the strangest thing of all about “Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story” — that what happened to her is not strange, at all, really. A person trapped by their own insecurity, or misused by a romantic partner, or lost in the labyrinth of their own rage is grindingly, painfully the stuff of life, and would seem to provide endless opportunities to connect with us, to say — well, anything, but something. Simply pointing out that it happened and tossing some goofy costuming on top isn’t enough. Indeed, it erodes the possibility of seeing Betty Broderick or Carole Baskin or whomever as real, not merely true. Broderick is still in prison; she was most recently denied parole in 2017. Learning this after I watched the full limited series was startling; it had been easy to assume, throughout, that her existence and mine ran parallel, that I could spend a series reacting to her with shock but never recognition.