Arrives shortly after Netflix Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story became Netflix second most popular television series of all timethe streamer is unleashing another true-crime bombshell from executive producer Ryan Murphy. The Observer is based on the disturbing 2010s New Jersey mystery that shook the internet when New York the magazine reported (and very long) article about the incident was published in 2018.
But who is “The Watcher”, the person/figure who haunted a family and their new dream home after buying it in 2014? Or maybe, What is “The Watcher”? And how do you make sense of this veritable banana scandal that has bitterly divided peaceful and pretty Westfield, New Jersey? And how exactly did Netflix and executive producer Ryan Murphy shape the material into their highly anticipated fictional limited series? The Observer, with Bobby Cannavale and Naomi Watts among a fleet of other ultra-famous faces? Here’s an explainer to break it all down for you.
(Warning: If you don’t know Watcher’s real-life story, this contains major spoilers for the series.)
What is The Observer show on?
The Watcher haunted a family in Westfield for several years. In 2014, Derek and Maria Broaddus and their three children purchased their $1.4 million dream home at 657 Boulevard, a magnificent historic six-bedroom home. In a charming neighborhood, although very white and affluent. Before the family had a chance to fully move in, they received the first of what became a series of letters. The envelopes had handwriting, but the notes themselves were typed with a cursive signature: “The Watcher.”
Scary enough if you’re new to the neighborhood, but the Observer went on to describe how important 657 Boulevard had been to their family for years, with their grandfather and father watching over the rectory from a distance.
“Now is my time,” the initial letter continued. “Do you know the history of the house?” Do you know what is hidden within the walls of 657 Boulevard? Why are you here? I will find out.”
The letters continued in this chilling vein. And became downright menacing, serving as some kind of spirit haunting the house and referring to the children of the Broadduses as “young blood”, brought for the Observer. The Observer even correctly ticked the names of the children in order of age.
What did the Broaddus do about the Observer?
Derek and Maria went to the local police and naturally asked them to get to the bottom of the matter. But there was little the police could do and generally resisted going all out. ITUC. Even if they caught the Observer, the cops pointed out, the creep was unlikely to face much legal consequences. They had unsolved murders on their hands.
There were also few hard-hitting clues. The fact that the letters were typed — and as the Observer pointed out, hundreds of cars drove past the house on Boulevard every day, and a passerby might have picked up a few details about the family — confounded matters.
A close neighbor probably sent the letters, but which one? Everyone seemed to have a motive: those resentful of the Broadduse’s apparent success, the historical society types who hated their home renovations, a registered sex offender in the area. Maybe it wasn’t a person at all.
Police investigated further, surrounded a neighbor who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and walked into people’s yards, but several residents said he was harmless and actually quite nice. DNA from the saliva on the seal of the envelope was found to be from a female, while most assumed a male assailant.
Facing the unknown, the Broaddus’ alarm skyrocketed. When word from the Observer got out, Derek and the rest of Westfield were at odds. Neighbors worried about potential land values affecting them. Once the family wanted to sell the house, they sat in the market even at a steep discount. The Broadduses were in a precarious financial situation. Derek went after other residents with his own anonymous hostile letters and sued to try and get his money back. Needless to say, in this upscale, appearance-obsessed neighborhood, it didn’t go over well.
Who is the Observer?
The identity of the Watcher is the central question of the events, the viral article and Netflix The Observer. But at least in reality it has not been solved. The letters have gradually faded over the years. The Broadduses successfully rented the house and then eventually sold it for just under a million dollars, as author Reeves Wiedeman wrote in his update.
But theories about the Observer abound. Many still have their eyes fixed on this or that neighbor. But another popular theory online is that the Broadduses, or at least Derek, orchestrated the scheme all along. What would really be the ultimate twist, since in this scenario he would have burdened himself with a ton of debt and a suburban rivalry with little to show for it, except maybe notoriety? But the Broadduses early on wanted to keep the letters out of the press, hoping for a legal solution. And Derek would probably have to be, well, some level of unhinged to fix this. He wrote unpleasant letters to neighbors, but those who opposed his attempts to hand over the property and get out of a worrying situation.
How accurate is Netflix The Observer?
The Netflix limited series centers on Bobby Cannavale and Naomi Watts as husband and wife, but the names have been changed. The setup is fairly faithful at the very beginning, then the subplots are quickly made up from scratch (which isn’t necessarily bad, but definitely worth knowing if you’re waiting for the realistic version). In true Ryan Murphy fashion, a disturbing story in itself is layered with flashbacks, supporting characters seemingly out of nowhere (just wait for the jazz singer-turned-private-eye), and more horror tropes than you need.
Part of it is pretty unnerving if campy, like with a pet ferret reaching an abrupt end. But at least in the first two episodes, it’s far from the gory level of Dahmer. The dialogue can get woody, but the style is sharp. Given Watts’ presence and the overly idyllic suburban setting, it’s hard not to see the connections to the American remake of funny games also featuring her.
Speaking of which: stick around for the game, with heavy hitters for the jolly spectacle: a phenomenal Jennifer Coolidge as the whispering real estate agent (a character who has her own false advertisements currently plastered around Los Angeles in a promotional stunt), Richard Kind, Margo Martindale, Mia Farrow!
Watcher’s story is unforgettable once you learn it. Unraveling it seems impossible, at least so far. by Netflix The Observer isn’t a big TV, but it’s compulsively watchable. And (who knows!) maybe it will finally give us the closure that Westfield never had.
Paul Schrodt is a freelance writer and editor who also contributes to Esquire, GQ, Money, The Wall Street Journal, and more.