Back in November 2018, New York Magazine published a horrifying story about a real-life New Jersey family who started receiving threatening letters from a mysterious stalker shortly after purchasing their dream home.


Now, a Netflix series is taking inspiration from their true story, starring Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive) and Bobby Cannavale (Blonde) as Maria and Derek Broaddus.

However, creator Ryan Murphy, who has blurred fact and fiction before, most notably in his controversial Jeffrey Dahmer biopic and American Crime Story anthology, has changed some key details, including the real-life couple’s names.

The Watcher boasts a compelling cast of suspects and sleuths. But which characters are based on real people and which are the figments of the TV powerhouse’s fervent imagination? Read on to find out.

Who are the real-life people in The Watcher?

The Brannocks

the Brannock family sat around the dining table reading a letter
Eric Liebowitz/Netflix © 2022

Although certain details have been changed – most notably their names – Dean and Nora Brannock (aka Bobby Cannavale and Naomi Watts) are based on two very real people who were, indeed, threatened by various typewritten letters after buying their dream home.

As documented in a 2018 The Cut magazine article, Derek and Maria Broaddus purchased a property at the same address featured in the Netflix original, 657 Boulevard, Westfield, New Jersey, in 2014. While the couple were busy renovating the property – apparently, they didn’t install a butcher’s block kitchen island, though – ‘The Watcher’ began his mail-based reign of terror.

As a result, the new homeowners, who had three kids under 10 and not two teens at the time, never actually moved into their new home. Derek and Maria, who specifically asked show producers to make their on-screen counterparts as different to them as possible, eventually sold the house after years of trying in 2019 at a loss of $400,000.

Mitch and Mo

mo and mitch relaxing on sun loungers in their garden
Eric Liebowitz/Netflix © 2022

You might initially be perturbed to discover that Mitch (Richard Kind) and Mo (Margo Martindale) were also inspired by two of the Broaddus’ real-life nosey neighbours. Luckily, the whole blood-drinking cult allegations and homicidal son part of their story was the work of pure fiction.

Bill Woodward told The Cut that while painting the Broaddus’ house he often saw the pair who lived behind relaxing on garden chairs. And just like the arugula-harvesting duo on screen, they were facing 657 Boulevard instead of their own home.

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Pearl and Jasper

pearl and jasper standing side by side in their doorway
Eric Liebowitz/Netflix © 2022

Having scared the living daylights out of the Brannocks early on by leaping out of their dumb waiter, Jasper (Terry Kinney) understandably became their first suspect. Although this incident didn’t occur in real-life – 657 Boulevard didn’t even have a food-transporting elevator – the Broadduses did have an emotionally-disturbed neighbour who also lived with a sibling (several, in fact, alongside their mother).

Described by The Cut journalist Reeves Wiedeman as “an odd guy but ultimately harmless”, schizophrenic Michael Langford was also the first person to be questioned about the letters. But police couldn’t find enough evidence to link him with the crime. Abby Langford, loosely portrayed by Mia Farrow’s Pearl in the show, was later quizzed too after female DNA was discovered on the envelopes. Once again, though, she was soon ruled out.

Roger Kaplan

roger caplan standing in the hallway smiling

Responsible for the “Ode to a House” poetry project, Roger Kaplan (Michael Nouri) initially appears to be a kindly retired English teacher. Yet after being put in the frame by a former pupil’s mother, not to mention his fit of rage outside the Brannocks’ property and subsequent joining of the weird Westfield Preservation Society, he eventually becomes a credible suspect.

The idea to address a house directly instead of its occupants stemmed from a real-life high school teacher, Robert Kaplow. The author of novel-turned-Zac Efron vehicle Me and Orson Welles, of course, inspired his students to write love letters and not chilling threats. He retired the same month The Watcher’s reign of terror began, but Kaplow has never been officially linked with the crime.

John Graff

John Graff stood outside reading a letter
Joe Mantello as John Graff in The Watcher. Netflix

John Graff (Joe Mantello) is based on the real-life serial killer who evaded capture for nearly 20 years.

In 1971, John List murdered his wife, mother and three children in cold blood at their Westfield mansion. Just as Graff did in The Watcher, he also sat down to lunch in between the killings and cut himself out of every single family photo before going on the run.

List eventually made a new life for himself in Denver under a new name, even marrying for a second time. But after his case was brought back into the limelight on America’s Most Wanted in 1989, he was finally caught and sentenced to five life imprisonment terms. However, the accountant, who died in 2008, had nothing to do with The Watcher mystery.


Dakota climbing out of his white work van

Teenage security expert Dakota (Henry Hunter Hall) comes under suspicion when it’s discovered his gaming tag is “The Watcher.” This is the only aspect of the character, though, that’s inspired by real life.

During their investigation, Westfield police approached a car that had been suspiciously parked outside the Broaddus’ home for several hours. The woman at the wheel revealed her boyfriend, who lived on the same road, was a gamer who played a character named The Watcher. Although the man in question agreed to be quizzed about the letters, he twice failed to show up for interviews. However, believing there wasn’t much to this lead, officials decided not to pursue him any further.


Theodora sat at a diner table with dean

Noma Dumezweni’s Theodora Birch is one of The Watcher’s most compelling characters. Had she not passed away in the final episode, then we’d have loved a spin-off which put her super-sleuth skills front and centre. Unfortunately, the real-life case didn’t involve a no-nonsense jazz singer-turned-private investigator.

The Broadduses did hire a PI, former NYC police officer Frank Shea, to help bring the still unresolved mystery to a close. As far as we know, though, he didn’t previously make a living as an orange-gloved crooner.

The others

Karen sat down smiling at a table while smiling
Netflix © 2022

Whereas most of The Watcher’s major players have some kind of real-life connection, unscrupulous realtor Karen (Jennifer Coolidge), troubled actor Andrew Pierce (Seth Gabel) and the apathetic Detective Rourke Chamberland (Christopher McDonald) appear to have been plucked from thin air.

The Watcher is available to stream now on Netflix. Sign up for Netflix from £6.99 a month. Netflix is also available on Sky Glass and Virgin Media Stream.

Looking for something else to watch? Check out our guide to the best series on Netflix and best movies on Netflix, or visit our TV Guide.


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