It behooves both of us, probably, to avoid the question of what you look for when you watch true crime programming. So let’s make this simple: If it is to mutter “holy shit” under your breath at five-minute intervals for an hour and a half, Abducted in Plain Sight might just be the documentary for you.
Netflix’s latest addition to the what-the-ever-loving genre is, uh, quite something. It begins with the 1974 kidnapping of 12-year-old Jan Broberg by a neighbor, Robert Berchtold, who tells her parents that he is taking Broberg horseback riding and then proceeds to drug her, badly fake their joint demise, and take her to Mexico. From there, things spiral out in ways so horrifying and bizarre that it’s difficult to describe them: There is sexual blackmail, arson, a coterie of overly trusting nuns, a purchased water park, and an intricate plot involving aliens, the latter being a tale peddled to Broberg by Berchtold to justify his rape of her. The viewer knows from the outset that Broberg makes it out alive—now 56 years old, she does much of the narration herself. Her parents, Bob and Mary Ann, meanwhile take turns attempting to explain their repeated lack of intervention, from allowing Berchtold to spend months sleeping in their daughter’s bed (for therapeutic reasons, he insisted), to refusing to believe that Jan’s eventual kidnapping was, in fact, a kidnapping at all, to the brutal horrors that come after the Mexico chapter.
Have we reached peak true crime? Almost certainly not, given the realities of both crime (there is an awful lot of it, much of it baroquely terrible) and the appetite of the viewing public (now as ever insatiable; if it bleeds, etc.). Netflix in particular has bet big on the genre. Click into the red-and-black ba-dum, and you’ll find grisly fates aplenty. There are crimes you’ve heard of: Ted Bundy’s reign of terror, digestible now in documentary form and, soon, in the many abs of Zac Efron, or the slaying of Gianni Versace, whose American Crime Story rendition is now streaming. There are crimes you might dimly recall, like those detailed in Evil Genius, or others you may not have heard of at all: the 1969 death of Cathy Cesnik, say, or the now-two-season retelling of the fog of violence surrounding Steven Avery. There’s true crime as courtroom procedural; soon, there will even be fresh episodes of Unsolved Mysteries: true crime as participatory whodunnit.
Abducted in Plain Sight makes ample use of Unsolved Mysteries–esque reenactments, using actors to walk us through the procession of events while a voice-over describes them. Which means, in this case, that we get shots of actors reenacting some extraordinarily dark situations: a child sleeping as a grown man gets into bed beside her, a child lying in restraints, a child’s face as she is raped, a view of a tree branch Broberg says helped distract her in those moments. It’s hard to watch.
If there is a point to Abducted beyond simply retelling the saga’s many horrors and waiting for the viewer’s jaw to drop, it might be its own principals’ disbelief. Broberg’s parents make clear that they were almost ontologically unable to conceive of their kindly neighbor as a predator; they just didn’t have the language, Abducted suggests, for a monster of that degree. Jan’s mother Mary Ann eventually wrote a book about her daughter’s abduction—Stolen Innocence: The Jan Broberg Story—and together she and Jan have given talks on Jan’s experience and the threat of sexual predators.
Still: We learn that three days went by before the Broberg parents so much as contacted law enforcement in 1972. “I didn’t see the red flags,” Bob explains of his early interactions with Berchtold, who died in 2005, which together are a quilt of crimson semaphore. “Does he still want you to marry him and all that?” Bob asks his young daughter in one recorded call. He sounds almost casual; she sounds, well, like a child.
“I found the Brobergs to be naive,” an utterly nonplussed FBI agent tells the camera, making clear that he’s stewed on the victimization of Jan Broberg for 40-odd years now. You might just, too.