Dirty John's new season widens the anthology's historical scope, but thin characterization cheapens its provocations.

By Darren Franich
May 28, 2020 at 12:40 PM EDT
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Credit: Isabella Vosmikova/USA Network
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To be unfairly blunt: Betty who? According to a straw poll of the humans in my quarantine bunker, no one ages zero to mother-in-law recalls the scandalous sorrow that befell the Brodericks of La Jolla in the 1980s. So consider season 2 of Dirty John's true-crime anthology (debuting June 2 on USA) an exuberantly flawed piece of tabloid archaeology. Amanda Peet stars as the titular SoCal superwife turmoiling through a divorce nightmare. In the premiere, she drives her car straight into her ex-husband’s front door. That lands her in a straitjacket by the 15-minute mark. "I’m not the crazy one," she swears. "He is."

He is Dan (Christian Slater), a hotshot malpractice attorney. We meet them at decadent extremes: her shoulder pads and vanity plates, his daughter-age girlfriend and bespoke Reaganite jackets hung almost knee-length. The grayscale cinematography evokes an eerie chill, with the occasional burst of bright 1986 clothing resembling so much lipstick on a corpse. Even if you haven’t Googled "Betty Broderick," you can sense murder in the future, but the powerful second episode flashes back through the central marriage. As young adults, Betty and Dan are played by Tiera Skovbye (who looks nothing like Peet) and Chris Mason (who looks so much like Slater he even sounds like Jack Nicholson). She supports him through graduate degrees, working multiple jobs, typing up his legal briefs, bearing an impressively Victorian population of children (with an unfortunately Victorian survival rate).

Creator Alexandra Cunningham carefully tracks the couple’s rise from wintry ’70s food stamps through coastal ’80s Corvettes. In episode 3, Peet’s Betty meets her lady friends for harborside white wine, all of them just so sure that fellow housewife Yvonne (Joelle Carter) can heal her marriage with philandering Martin (Doug Savant). Crosscut to Martin at a whiskey lunch with Dan and his fellow legal partners strategizing a lucrative divorce: assets to hide, joint bank accounts to close, damn kids to therapize. The original Dirty John was about one man’s magnificent lies. The Betty Broderick Story suggests American masculinity itself became an over-leveraged con as the boomer generation reached a midlife crisis — and that the women paid all the debts, while the men ran off with the dirty sexy money.

Sound good? It is...and then it isn’t. You sense lawsuits being avoided in the flat portrayals of the Broderick children. Rachel Keller embodies Dan’s new flame Linda as an ethereal cipher, viewed with a narrative remoteness that’s oddly mean. Peet plays confused desperation to the hilt, but the awkward structure of this eight-part saga turns her rage repetitive. The actual act of killing gets morseled out as a tension-creating Big Reveal, fodder for flashforwards and cliffhangers. There’s a word for that kind of shamelessly overextended true-crime storytelling: Dirty. B–

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