Arguably one of the most bizarre true crime kidnapping stories ever told has been adapted by Nick Antosca into a Peacock limited series, A Friend of the Family.
I was familiar with the story of B and the Brobergs after reviewing the 2017 documentary Abducted in Plain Sight for Anatomy of a Scream, but there’s an inherent curiousity factor in seeing how the content of a 90 minute documentary is turned into a 9 hour fictional series.
With the first four episodes available, let’s break it down.
Episode 1 – “Horseback Riding in American Falls”
The series begins as Bob Berchtold or “B” (Jake Lacy) befriends the Brobergs in the early 1970s in Pocatello, Idaho. The family is made up of matriarch Mary Ann (Anna Paquin), patriarch Bob (Colin Hanks), eldest daughter Jan (Hendrix Yancey), as well as her two younger sisters, Karen (Mila Harris) and Susan (Elle Lisic). While B has his own family, including meek put-upon wife Gail (Lio Tipton) and three young sons, it’s clear that his interests lie with the Brobergs and, in particular, Jan.
Following a(n unnecessary) cold open wherein Jan wakes up in bed in 1975, the action flashes back “a few years earlier” to reveal how B inserted himself into the Brobergs’ life. What is surprising is how leisurely Antosca, who script’s the first episode, paces the action. Most of the episode is dedicated to an indoor picnic, a montage elapsing events between April 1973 and Oct 1974, and the day of the abduction.
While it makes sense to end the episode on the cliffhanger, it’s surprising that A Friend of the Family gets to the kidnapping so quickly. There’s plenty of narrative weight in the image of the motor home’s red lights disappearing down a dark country road while a dazed Gail pleads with Mary Ann and Bob not to call the police, but it still feels as though there’s a great deal of groundwork left to fill in the gaps before B initiated his plan.
So far the period aesthetic and the performances, particularly Lacy’s charming, laconic predator, are compelling, but A Friend of the Family isn’t quite appointment television yet. There’s wilder stuff to come, and gaps to fill. Getting to the abduction so early is a curious, albeit highly strategic decision on Antosca’s behalf; I’ll be curious to see how it plays out moving forward.
Episode 2 – “The Mission“
Episode two is a little more straightforward: it documents the 37 days that B holds Jan captive down in Mexico. Writers Brian Chamberlayne & Rachael Paradis adopt a relatively simple narrative strategy wherein the run time is split between Mary Ann and Bob as they track down leads and B’s strategy to keep young Jan on his side, which involves…an alien plot.
This is where the story of the Brobergs really starts to deviate from expectations. B isn’t merely a run of the mill pedophile, though he is described as such by Austin Stowell‘s FBI Agent Peter Walsh (the term was so new in the early 70s that none of the adults have heard of it).
It’s clear from this episode that B is incredibly smart: he understands that Jan will miss her parents and her sisters if he doesn’t turn the abduction into something much larger. So he concocts the titular mission, which includes a plan to save a dying alien race and positions Jan and B as the two most important humans in the world.
It’s a genius strategy. It’s also absolutely bonkers. The episode opens with Jan’s incredibly disorienting experience of awakening in the motor home and hearing the auditory message from aliens Zada and Zethra. While this may seem out of the blue, the groundwork for this deception was laid in the first episode when B caught Jan listening in on the adults discussing UFOs. He clearly saw how captivated she was and how he could utilize her curiousity to keep her docile and on his side.
Sadly, as the end of the episode confirms, his plot works. Jan is safely reunited with her parents and brought home, but she resists Bob’s hug in the Mexican police station and demands to know about B. Between Gail’s wishy-washy response to helping the Brobergs, B’s shady brother Joe (Philip Ettinger) attempting to steer clear of the police, and Bob’s discovery of Jan and B’s Mexican marriage license, there’s no shortage of exciting developments left to explore in the series.
Episode 3 – “The Gift of Tongues”
Writers Lucy Teitler & Julia Batavia throw us for another loop as the events of episode three doesn’t follow chronologically from episode two or explore how Jan adjusts back to normal life in Pocatello. Instead the story flashes back two years before the abduction to 1972 to explore all of the character backstory and groundwork that was hinted at back in episode one.
“The Gift of Tongues” zeroes in on how B slithered his way into Mary Ann and Bob’s marriage. It’s clear that his relationship with the Broberg’s was more than a mere friend of the family (as the title suggests). No, B actively involved Mary Ann and Bob in his marriage, soliciting advice to improve his sex life with Gail, and even calling on Mary Ann to dress his wife for the Golden Green Ball.
Of course the narrative development that is sure to shock audiences is the gay sex scene between B and Bob. It’s not only surprising because Bob seems so sexually conservative and it’s the 70s, but because B’s interest seems to lie more with Mary Ann than her husband. Consider how B compliments her legs and even professes he wishes he were married to her instead of his wife.
It should be clear, however, that the encounter between the two men in the steamy car is less about sex than it is about power. Whether or not B actually is queer is immaterial; just like his manipulation of Jan in episode two, this is about B manipulating the situation and playing on Bob’s friendship in order to gain leverage in their relationship.
Big credit is due to Colin Hanks, whose performance is exceptional. Bob clearly wants to help his friend, but his obvious discomfort during the handjob and then the shame that follows is written all over the character’s face. Thus far Hanks has played Bob as a dundering, albeit well-intentioned patriarch; a quintessential “father knows best” type who gets upset at the slightest suggestion that he’s not the man of the house (his attempt to assert his parenting will over Mary Ann here and the first episode is emblematic of that).
Does this explain some of the events of the last two episodes or does it anticipate their relationship moving forward? At minimum, B now has content with which to blackmail Bob, so it will be interesting to see how their relationship changes as a result of this encounter as the series rolls on.
Episode 4 – “Articles of Faith”
Oof. After three episodes of laying the foundation, episode four feels like the big pay-off as A Friend of the Family finally pulls the trigger on Mary Ann’s romance with B.
As discussed last episode, this development felt inevitable. It was always a matter of when, not if. It’s incredibly difficult not to scream at the TV each time the Brobergs allow the Berchtolds to reel them back in, even though they should know better. Leave it to Agent Walsh to explain it to exasperated criminal prosecutor Garth Pincock (Patrick Fischler): these folks are incredibly naive.
It hasn’t come up organically, but that naivety and innocence seems directly correlated to the Brobergs’ Mormon faith, a plot point that really comes to forefront in “Articles of Faith.” As predicted, Bob’s physically “close, private, intimate” relationship with B winds up significantly contributing to these events: not only does it create distance between him and Mary Ann, he is disfellowshipped by the Bishop (so he can no longer take communion), and, finally, he’s socially blackmailed by the Berchtold’s new lawyer Jennifer Ferguson (Bree Elrod). She comes off nice in the beginning, but quickly guilts Bob and Mary Ann into signing affidavits stating that they gave B permission to take Jan to Mexico lest his “homosexuality” become public and the girls taken away from them.
It’s pretty awful.
One element that doesn’t work particularly well, though, is the framing of Bob and B’s tryst as though it just happened. For viewers, this just happened last episode, but in reality it would have happened well before Jan was abducted. It’s slightly manipulative of writer Marie Hanhnhon Nguyen to treat the handjob as something that’s timely and informing all of these character dynamics.
Quibbles aside, it seems as though the Brobergs can’t do anything to help themselves, including the groan-inducing moment when Bob reveals to Pincock that he mailed the original marriage certificate back to Mexico to have it annulled and didn’t make any copies. <wince>
The episode culminates when B lures Mary Ann to his motor home and seduces her: first by complimenting her, then putting his head in her lap and finally telling her he wishes they were together. It’s interesting that things go much further than they did with Bob…
My final noteworthy observation about episode four is how insidious Lacy plays B in this episode. From B’s perma-smile at the hearing (the better to manipulate both Mary Ann and Jan) to the way he floats in and out of the shadows when he talks to Jan about “the mission” at the court house water fountain, Lacy is delivering a masterclass in creepy.
Where do we go from here? We’ll have to wait a week, but I imagine the Brobergs aren’t going to win their case against B now that they’re both sexually compromised. In theory the kidnapping is black and white, but the reality is that the Brobergs have basically had their lives put under a moral microscope (and/or been the subject of a character assassination). It’s truly amazing… and things are unlikely to improve for them in episode five.
A Friend of the Family airs Thursdays on Peacock