Unlike the story of con man John Meehan and the last woman he manipulated before her youngest daughter ultimately killed him in 2016, which was the basis for the first season of “Dirty John,” the subject of Season 2 may be a distant memory to some viewers. Betty Broderick’s 1989 double murder of her ex-husband Dan Broderick and his second wife made international headlines and spawned a few books and a two-part made-for-TV movie that starred Meredith Baxter as Betty — but in the three decades since, no one has taken a deeper look at what caused this relationship to unravel to the point where a once-loving wife and mother would commit such a heinous act. Until now.
In the second season of “Dirty John,” subtitled “The Betty Broderick Story,” showrunner Alexandra Cunningham wanted to examine the “why” behind the murders, she tells Variety.
“The two of them look like the American dream and yet they couldn’t even treat each other the way they wanted to be treated by strangers,” she says. “I wanted to re-examine the whole, ‘Here’s a crazy, evil woman who did this purely out of jealousy’ — and then to put yourself in her place in the narrative she constructed herself.”
The real-life Betty Broderick was convicted in 1991, receiving a sentence of 32 years-to-life in prison. Now 72 years old, she is currently still serving that sentence.
Cunningham recalls being fascinated by the murders as a teenager when they were first committed, but over the years she says she has “become a version of Betty” in that she, too, is “an upper-middle class mother,” and so it’s a lot easier to put herself in Betty’s shoes now.
“Betty, I would argue, is a victim in her own mind,” Cunningham says. “I cannot justify what she ultimately did, but I wanted to tell a story about why she got to that point. I do have empathy for a lot of how she was treated and more for her sense of isolation.”
When Cunningham sat down to break the story into an eight-episode season of her “love gone wrong”-themed anthology series, she wanted to dive into Dan and Betty’s past to showcase the love that was there at the beginning of the relationship and how, why and when things shifted. This saw her telling much of the story in a non-linear fashion, flashing back and forth in time to see Dan and Betty as fresh-faced kids embarking on their relationship (played there by Chris Mason and Tiera Skovbye, respectively), as well as them later in life, going through an angry divorce that ultimately ends in the murder and court case. For those more adult scenes of Dan and Betty, Christian Slater and Amanda Peet inhabit the respective roles.
“There definitely was love there — even though there was so much denial later on that there ever was — and so we wanted to give a real sense of what was there to begin with to show what she was fighting for later on. She was conditioned that this is the ultimate goal and especially when she was young, everything was about reinforcing that,” Cunningham says of the flashbacks. “She’s not the first or last person to shoot people dead in this country because of perception of what has happened to their self-identity and their lives, but it just seemed relevant on a number of levels.”
One of those levels was the exploration of “no fault” divorces, which Cunningham believes are still misunderstood today.
“A lot of our research [showed] women specifically fought so hard for no fault divorce where they would not have to go into court and play the victim and prove how terrible their husband was just to get money that they were entitled to,” she says. “But that actually has resulted in a lot of unfair treatment of women in a courtroom because there’s no assumption that they need to be taken care of, and I think a lot of people don’t know that. They think that in community property states, it’s just 50/50. Those issues alone, for me, would make it worth doing the show.”
Another was seeing how power and wealth changed the couple, individually as well as together, which is a timeless tale. When Dan and Betty first met, he was a medical student, but as time went on, he realized that wasn’t what made him happy and decided he wanted to go to law school instead. The two already had children at that point, but Betty supported the idea, even though it meant more debt and a move to a new state. (He went to Harvard Law.) Once he started practicing as a lawyer, they quickly climbed the social ranks and their wealth and status became points of pride.
“Betty was there at the beginning; she knows when he used to be on food stamps; she will not allow [Dan] to reinvent himself as the god that he wants to seem,” Cunningham says. “What we used to say in the writers’ room was that Dan refused to take the win. He has all of the money, he has all of the power, he has the children, he has a new girlfriend and the children — but it’s not enough for him to have the power, he wants to make Betty admit he has the power. The only effect she can have on him is to vandalize and leave horrible messages and scream because she has no one who knows what’s going on.”
Meanwhile, the effect on Betty was an “untethering from reality.”
“She’s trying to maintain a certain point of time, a facade of everything being all right,” Cunningham continues. “So she’s just spinning and spinning in her own head.”
While Cunningham admits this makes Betty an unreliable narrator, she and her writers’ room crafted the plot of the story from factual source material such as Bella Stumbo’s book “Until the Twelfth of Never: The Deadly Divorce of Dan and Betty Broderick.” But, the real-life Broderick children were not involved in the development or production of the show.
“They still, obviously and justifiably, have complicated feelings about all of this,” Cunningham says of the real-life Brodericks. “We only wanted to use [their characters] as much as was necessary to tell the story and not let Betty off the hook. The children were just a ball being passed back and forth, which was completely inappropriate, and it was important to show that Betty couldn’t even keep herself from doing that — that’s how low she sank. But it was also important to be to be as respectful as possible to the children who did not ask for this.”
“Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story” premieres June 2 on USA.