'Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story': Inside the Cautionary Tale About America's Messiest Divorce
By Stacy Lambe
Following its successful transformation from podcast to limited television series, Dirty John is back with a second season -- telling another true story of love gone wrong. Here’s everything to know about The Betty Broderick Story, which recounts what Oprah Winfrey once deemed one of “America’s messiest divorces.”
The first installment recounted the unbelievably true events of a charming, handsome man named John Meehan who sweeps Debra Newell, a successful, yet lonely divorced woman, off her feet before it’s revealed that he’s a con man with sinister intentions. Upset by Meehan’s newfound presence in their mother’s life, Newell’s daughters, Terra and Veronica, decide to investigate his lies as he continues to manipulate everyone around him. Based on the Los Angeles Times breakout podcast of the same name, the series starring Connie Britton and Eric Bana was also a hit on Bravo and earned a Golden Globe nomination for Britton’s portrayal of Newell.
“Our world is becoming increasingly bizarre, so a lot of the interesting stories are the true ones,” Britton told ET about the relevance of Dirty John, which was adapted by Alexandra Cunningham for the screen.
Moving to USA Network, the anthology true-crime series is turning its attention to the saga of Dan and Betty Broderick’s divorce that ended in a double homicide, with the scorned couple portrayed by Christian Slater and Amanda Peet, who gives a searing performance as Betty. “The first season of Dirty John was a story of twisted love and coercive control -- and both these insidious elements are also present in and integral to the story of Betty Broderick, whom I have wanted to write about since I became a writer,” says Cunningham.
Spanning several decades, the story kicks off in 1965 when Elizabeth Bisceglia first met her future husband, Dan Broderick. The college sweethearts eventually got married in 1969 and gave birth to their first child together, Kim, the following year. They would eventually go on to have four more children, Lee, Daniel, Rhett and an unnamed boy who died shortly after birth.
After completing his medical degree at Cornell University, Dan pursued a law degree while Betty became the family’s main provider. Soon after, he became a superstar in the San Diego, California, legal community, specializing in malpractice cases. By that time, Betty was finally able to enjoy the fruits of their labors and the couple was seemingly happy and wealthy.
Things turned, however, when Dan hired 21-year-old Linda Kolkena to be his legal assistant in 1982. Not long after she started working for him, Betty suspected the two were having an affair. The marriage quickly broke down and Dan moved out by 1985 and eventually took custody of their children. Later, he reportedly told Betty she was right about the affair, which had been going on since 1983.
Betty and Dan soon engaged in what would become one of the most notorious divorce cases in the United States at the time. Broderick vs. Broderick wasn’t settled until four years later, in 1989, when the divorce was finalized. By April of that same year, Dan and Linda got married.
Months later, on Nov. 5, an enraged Betty broke into the couple’s house, where she shot and killed them while they slept. In 1991, after her first trial ended in a hung jury, the second trial resulted in Betty being convicted on two counts of second-degree murder with a sentence of two consecutive terms of 15 years to life in prison. Denied parole in 2011 and 2017, Betty remains behind bars and will not be eligible for parole again until 2032.
Premiering Tuesday, June 2 with two back-to-back episodes, Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story recounts Betty’s decades-long journey from supportive housewife to matriarch of a growing family suspicious of her cheating husband to an ex-wife unwilling to accept the end of a marriage that she put so much time and effort into.
While the series doesn’t excuse Betty for her crimes, it does show how a mix of mental illness, self sabotage, gaslighting and emotional abuse led to the dissolution of her marriage with Dan and ultimately her tragic downfall. “Betty was not just this cliché of a woman scorned, Dan Broderick was not the sole villain in this tragedy by any stretch of the imagination,” Peet says. “And I think [Alex] just wanted to really explore how it's possible that this very normal, successful seeming suburban marriage -- American marriage -- could’ve taken such a precipitous fall and become so hellish and so violent. I think this is just a very intimate look at what the factors were that led up to the tragedy to the murder.”
Even thought Betty is still alive behind bars, Cunningham ultimately decided against meeting with her since she has given so many interviews and wrote hundreds of letters to adoring fans before and after the trial. “I don't know that an accused murderer has ever written or spoken to more people about their life and crime than Betty did,” she says, adding that “given how both her parole hearings have gone, I think her point hasn't changed, which is that she has a regret, but not remorse because Dan and Linda were trying to destroy her.”
“This whole case is about lies, greed and callousness and none of it had to happen and none of it should have happened,” Betty told the Los Angeles Times in a 1992 phone interview from the Central California Women’s Facility. That same year, she appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in her first televised, in-person interview after her conviction. “I thought we did have the perfect marriage,” she told Winfrey. “I took those marriage vows, and I believe he did at the time, too, believing that we’d be together, and we’d get through everything.”
In addition to the eight-part series, there are other ways to revisit the tragic story. The L.A. Times magazine article, “Till Murder Do Us Part: Dan and Betty Broderick's divorce played out over five vicious years,” was adapted for a two-part TV movie -- A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story and Her Final Fury: Betty Broderick, the Last Chapter -- starring Meredith Baxter as Betty. (While not streaming anywhere, the movie is available to purchase on DVD.) There’s also a 1991, “ripped from the headlines” Law & Order episode, “The Wages of Love,” which earned guest star Shirley Knight an Emmy nomination for her portrayal of an ex-wife accused of a double murder. (The episode is available for purchase on Amazon Prime.)
Additionally, Betty and Dan’s story has been the subject of various true-crime podcasts, including an episode of My Favorite Murder, as well as a new one from the makers of the Dirty John podcast. Written and hosted by Los Angeles Times columnist Patt Morrison, It Was Simple: The Betty Broderick Murders, is a four-part series that examines the many elements that made Betty’s story so ingrained in the zeitgeist 30 years ago and the impact of her case on divorce laws with new interviews from Betty’s divorce attorney, her defense attorney and the foreman on the jury that convicted her.
“It’s a cautionary tale,” Slater says of The Betty Broderick Story. “It’s a really dark story but something for people to see.”