Dirty John season 2 review: Campy, skewed take on Betty Broderick story

DIRTY JOHN -- "No Fault" Episode 201 -- Pictured: Amanda Peet as Betty Broderick -- (Photo by: Isabella Vosmikova/USA Network)
DIRTY JOHN -- "No Fault" Episode 201 -- Pictured: Amanda Peet as Betty Broderick -- (Photo by: Isabella Vosmikova/USA Network) /

Dirty John season 2 falls short with the Betty Broderick story.

Dirty John season 2 makes the TV crime drama almost unrecognizable from its fantastic and addictive first season. Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story feels like the USA series reached too far—in many aspects.

Many people are familiar with Betty Broderick, who murdered her ex-husband Dan and his new wife Linda in 1989. The case was heavily publicized for years, including two TV-movies and a Law & Order episode that was “partially inspired” by the events.

Now more than 30 years later, USA wants audiences to take another look in something that’s akin to NBC’s Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders.

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That series, when it aired in 2017, leaned heavily toward Erik and Lyle Menendez in its retelling of their murder case. Defense attorney Leslie Abramson was the center of the show (earning Edie Falco an Emmy Award nomination), and it was clear throughout that the writers wanted audiences to feel sympathetic toward the Menendez brothers.

That same slant is true in Dirty John season 2. Most of the first episode comes from Betty’s point of view, and the audience is clearly meant to take her side as we watch her resist getting a divorce, deal with Dan selling their marital home, and talk to her friends in the grocery store about how her soon-to-be ex had her committed to a mental hospital.

But Betty’s responsibility for her own actions is never convincingly addressed. She winds up in the mental hospital because she decides to drive her car into the front door of Dan’s new house. She refuses to sign paperwork that would settle their divorce proceedings or show up in court. And she is seen trying to burn their old house down, but we’re supposed to feel sorry for her because she  starts sobbing over it instead.

Amanda Peet, who’s been fantastic in shows like Brockmire, spends the majority of her screen time either having a breakdown or being indignant. Christian Slater’s version of Dan Broderick is barely developed except to express his continued exasperation with her behavior. Likewise, the other characters seem parts of a story instead of people, even when the show goes backwards to reveal the better years of Betty and Dan’s youthful courtship and eventual marriage.

All of this isn’t to say that the audience can’t understand Betty Broderick. Although this week’s two-hour premiere just scratched the surface of this, she supported her husband and carried their household. Her own ambitions were set aside to be a stay-at-home mother, while Dan ultimately began an affair with the woman he insisted he wasn’t sleeping with—Linda Kolkena, who became his second wife and Betty’s second victim. It’s easy to have empathy for how Betty built her whole life around Dan, and then lost everything.

But that empathy doesn’t excuse her irrational and later violent behavior, which is where Dirty John season 2 leans too far. Just because she thought she was in the right doesn’t mean the show has to follow that same point of view. It doesn’t look closely enough at her part in the tragedy, as if the show is trying to justify Betty’s crimes by saying “they made her do it”—whether it’s Dan or her parents or society.

Comparatively, the first season of Dirty John had a much more well-rounded story. John Meehan was a terrible person, and while audiences got to comprehend what made him that way with its own set of flashbacks, it was always clear who he was. There were no excuses made and there wasn’t a search for sympathy. We also got to understand how Debra Newell wound up falling for him, based on what she’d been through. And with strong performances by Connie Britton and Eric Bana, the show was full of white-knuckle suspense, even though viewers knew the ending.

This Dirty John is all about Betty Broderick. Peet is the only actor with anything juicy to do, and even she doesn’t have a ton of range as the scripts don’t give a complete picture of who Betty Broderick is. Episodes feel choppy, with scenes jumping ahead or going backward in time on a regular basis, making it that much harder to connect with Betty or to see anything more than her perspective as a woman scorned.

Showing some of her very understandable flaws, or even some of Dan’s, would have made the season feel so much more real and compelling. We need to see the full breadth of these people and their relationship—but we get Betty telling her friends that she’s the victim after she’s plowed her car into her husband’s front door.

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Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story airs Tuesdays at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT on USA.