Ryan Murphy would be Netflix’s big win, the successful super producer who could turn any new show into an international event. It’s fair to say that hasn’t fully played out – none of his Netflix shows have landed elsewhere with the impact of his series – and now we seem to have hit a new low. Murphy’s latest series, ponderously titled Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, came out of nowhere on Netflix this week, with no fanfare.
Dahmer has just arrived. There was no premiere. No media was granted preview access, none of the show’s stars were made available for interviews. If you haven’t seen the cursory trailer that slipped online five days before the show’s release, you’ll be forgiven for not even knowing it existed.
Usually this is a sign that a platform wants to bury a show. It hints at the possibility that the series was commissioned in good faith, but something went so wrong in the process that Netflix felt it was best to give it as little attention as possible.
And that might be the case because, whether by accident or design, Dahmer is an almost unwatchable queasy show. A biopic about Jeffrey Dahmer, a man who killed (and sometimes ate) 17 victims over a 13-year period from the 1970s to the 1990s, the series seems almost pathologically unable to show finesse. The first few episodes in particular are a demonstration of all the worst tendencies that the true crime genre has to offer.
Long, long stretches of the series slip by without insight or analysis, instead letting things play out beat after grisly beat, as if Wikipedia had decided to fund dramatizations of all their worst entries. The show seems aware of this too, hacking into a broken chronology to distract you from its bluntly grisly procession of murders.
Evan Peters, usually so good elsewhere, plays Dahmer in a really confusing way, as if he accidentally saw all of Joe Pera Talks with You as his research process. Even the looks are borderline exploitative, taking on the sort of fuzzy, desaturated feel of a disappointing Saw sequel.
Worst of all, to some extent, is the show’s choice of focus. What Ryan Murphy’s murder shows — particularly The Assassination of Gianni Versace — do so well is reclaiming the lives of the victims. A legacy is stolen from these people when they are murdered. It doesn’t matter who they are or what they’ve done. You will always be just one photo and one name in a series of victims, an entire existence defined only by how it ended. The only good thing a show like this can do is steal the spotlight from the killer and show who these people actually were. But for the most part, Dahmer is too infatuated with his star attraction.
Dahmer is undoubtedly fetishized here. The dirt from his apartment remains, right down to the bloodstains on the mattress. We see him disembowel his first fish, dissecting the animal in an unsettling gynecological fashion so he can admire its organs. We see him shirtless and sweaty. We keep seeing him masturbating. There is a sequence where Dahmer puts a mannequin to bed and pets it gratuitously while KC’s Please Don’t Go and the Sunshine Band play in the background.
To be fair, the series improves towards the end. In the second half, the monofocus shifts and Jeffrey Dahmer fades into the background. One episode is devoted to the life of Anthony Hughes, a deaf man who was killed at Dahmer’s hands. We also see the effect the murders had on Dahmer’s parents, allowing Richard Jenkins (who plays Dahmer’s father) to deliver a mind-blowing performance. Jesse Jackson shows up and puts the story in a more political perspective (after all, one of the reasons Dahmer got away with it for so long was the police’s tendency to brush aside the legitimate concerns of the black community).
But that comes from deeply queasy guts at the surface level after five long hours. A show about the worst of humanity isn’t necessarily supposed to be entertaining, but Dahmer seems to actively get excited about how awkward it is, as if that’s the sole purpose of making it. No wonder Netflix didn’t want to release it.
On the other hand, Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story was Netflix’s most watched series at the time of writing, so that shows what I know. Who needs nuance when the audience is blood hungry?