The Monster Next Door

True-crime drama unfolds in A Friend of the Family

True-crime drama unfolds in A Friend of the Family

The latest true crime series to hit TV screens is so incredible in its twists and turns that its real-life victim felt compelled to introduce the series to viewers in a special message at the start. “I know it may seem unbelievable, but we lived in a different world back then,” says Jan Broberg, who also helped produce A Friend of the Family. “I want to tell my family story today because so many think something like this could never happen to them. Especially at the hands of someone they know and trust. But it did happen. It happened to me.”

Broberg’s story begins in the early 1970s when the Pocatello, Idaho native is just 12 years old and Robert Berchtold, a close friend of the Broberg family, abducts her and keeps her captive in a motor home in Mexico. Had the mystery ended with Broberg’s recovery shortly thereafter it would be dramatic enough, but Berchtold convinced her to leave with him yet again at 14, having brainwashed Broberg to believe that UFOs would harm her family if she did not do as she was told.A Friend of the familyShowcaseIn hearing Broberg’s story, Mckenna Grace, who portrays Jan at 14, could not get over the events that took place. “This entire story was just so shocking to me, and at the same time, [it is] unfortunately not shocking that there are monsters out here like this,” says the Haunting of Hill House alum. “The most terrifying aspect of this is that it could happen to anyone. It’s so easy to watch this from an outside perspective and be like, ‘I can’t believe that they let that happen. I would’ve never let that happen,’ but you never know until you’re in that situation. This family has gone through so much torment at the hands of a human being that they loved and trusted.”

Stepping into the shoes of that beloved family friend is White Lotus star Jake Lacy. Used to playing charming yet villainous characters, Lacy made no attempt to find commonality with this particular monster. “I felt like I can have empathy for the fact that he was abused as a child but it’s nothing compared to the pain he inflicted on his own family, on the Brobergs, on numerous other children and their families for decades,” the actor explains. “So finding a way in through empathy was less productive and also probably less realistic for me, because of what he did. I felt like that was not going to add value to me trying to tell this story.”

A Friend of the FamilyShowcaseFor Why Women Kill alum Lio Tipton, however, empathy was crucial to playing Robert Berchtold’s wife Gail, who appears to defend and protect her partner at every turn. “I hoped to present Gail as another victim without being a victim,” explains Tipton. “So many people that are victims of grooming have no idea that it’s happening. And I filtered everything through, ‘I love my family.’ Every single line I said was in pursuit of the health and happiness of my family. That seemed to trump all manipulation or seemingly wrongdoing acts that Gail [committed].”

While it is easy for us today to apply the term “grooming” to the crimes committed by Berchtold, the events take place during a time when even more obvious labels attached to this type of abuse did not yet exist. “We all know the terms now and unfortunately we know the telltale signs of something like this happening, but, at the time, their FBI agent had never heard the term ‘pedophile’ before,” says Grace, adding that the Broberg family was never equipped to face this kind of predator. “It was in the ’70s in a tight-knit Mormon community. There was just so much that they didn’t know. They were almost the perfect victims for this master manipulator.”

Having the real-life Jan and her mother Mary Ann Broberg guide them through the project made the series more appealing for the actors. “Each of these productions, it’s a leap of faith. You’re looking at the people involved and what the story is and how you may or may not fit into that,” says Lacy. “Knowing about Jan and Mary Ann being involved creatively, as producers, had the makings for something creatively fulfilling.”

A Friend of the FamilyShowcaseMeanwhile, Lacy’s 16-year-old co-star appreciates that in this retelling of the Broberg tragedy, the creative approach was tasteful—even when the events taking place are anything but. “Our show did a good job of not being overly graphic,” says Grace. “In this day and age, there’s nothing that goes unseen. There’s a lot of shock factor in the media and in films; like, ‘What can we show to make people’s jaws drop to the floor?’ But some things are better left said vs. shown.” And in the end, A Friend of the Family is scary enough without all the visuals. “Maybe it’s so terrifying because it really happens,” says Grace. “Like, that could have been me.”

A Friend of the Family premieres Monday, October 17 on Showcase