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How Accurate Is Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story?

The first season of "Dirty John" premiered on Bravo in 2018, dramatizing a popular true crime podcast from The Los Angeles Times of the same name. "Dirty John: The John Meehan Story," told the real-life story of interior designer Debra Newell (Connie Britton), who fell prey to the con artist John Meehan (Eric Bana). That relationship ended in 2016, when Newell's daughter Terra stabbed Meehan to death in self-defense. 

The anthology series returned to USA Network on May 31, 2020. This time, "Dirty John" goes all the way back to 1989 for its inspiration — the double-murder of Dan Broderick (Christian Slater) and Linda Kolkena (Rachel Keller) by Broderick's ex-wife, Betty (Amanda Peet). In 1991, Betty Broderick was convicted on two counts of murder, crimes for which she received 32 years to life in prison. (Both seasons were added to Netflix in May 2021). 

As with any true crime adaptation, it's always fair to wonder which aspects of the Betty Broderick story "Dirty John" got right and which parts it exaggerated for dramatic effect. The Broderick-Kolkena murders remain one of the most sensationalized true crime stories of the 1980s, and "Dirty John" isn't the first Hollywood attempt to adapt them for the screen. Weeks after Broderick's conviction, CBS released a TV movie about the case starring Meredith Baxter and Stephen Collins. While Baxter earned an Emmy nomination, Betty Broderick wasn't happy with her portrayal. "According to the movie, I am exactly what Dan Broderick told everybody I was," Broderick told The LA Times in 1991. "An unstable, crazy b***h that went around doing crazy things. And Dan and Linda are these simple, innocent people that just want peace. Ha!"

So, did "Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story" do any better? Yes, it did fabricate some details, but some of the most shocking moments actually happened.

Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story does fudge some details

"Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story" mostly adhered to the facts of the Betty Broderick case, but it also departed from reality in some places. Many of the case's facts remain disputed to this day, so "accurate" really depends on whose version of events you believe.

The show's biggest departure from reality is the way depicts Betty's personal life. On the show, Betty is single for the entire period of time following her divorce. In reality, Betty was reportedly in a relationship with a contractor named Bradley T. Wright. In 1990, Betty denied that Wright was her boyfriend (via The LA Times), but Betty's daughter, Kim, disagreed. "Dirty John's" showrunner, Alexandra Cunningham, told Oxygen why she decided to omit Wright from the series: "The reason that I chose not to do that had a lot to do with how Betty herself talked about him and regarded him," she explained.

One major moment that may have been fabricated appears in Episode 6. In it, Dan takes Linda to his daughter's graduation. This enrages Betty, and she follows the couple around the ceremony taking pictures of them. IRL-Betty denied doing this (via The LA Times). Then, there's the scene in which Betty crashes her car into the home she and Dan used to live in, and then gets committed to a mental hospital. That incident did happen, but the show omitted one key detail: As reported by the Times, after the crash Betty attacked Dan with a butcher knife. Otherwise, that scene was accurate.

Finally, the show did invent some characters for dramatic purposes. Betty's circle of friends, including Karen Kinter, Evelyn Crowley, Janet Ravis, and Marie Stewart, are all fictional (via Deadline). 

Some of the most shocking moments really happened

Truth is often stranger than fiction, and many of the most salacious details from "Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story" really happened like the show portrayed them.

First, there's the start of Dan and Linda's relationship, and Betty's resulting suspicions. Betty told The San Diego Reader in 1989 that she picked up on clues indicating that Dan was interested in Linda, especially when he hired her to work in his legal practice. As Dan and Betty's relationship deteriorated, things became contentious. Most of these moments weren't exaggerated, either. Once, Betty tried to throw a surprise birthday party for Dan at his office, only to find out he'd already celebrated with Linda. Betty retaliated by burning Dan's clothes. Another time, when Betty found out Linda had baked Dan a Boston Cream Pie, she retaliated by smearing it all over the walls. Later, as things between Dan and Linda deteriorated even further, Betty began leaving obscene messages on his answering machine. Even the incident when Betty crashed her car into the house she used to own with Dan happened pretty much verbatim, except for the butcher knife detail. 

The real Betty Broderick story was just as sensational as "Dirty John" claims. Dan and Betty's five-year divorce was front-page news in their La Jolla community (via The LA Times). It was full of explosive moments that didn't have to be exaggerated for dramatic effect. And that may be one reason why the show's producers chose the Betty Broderick story for Season 2.