Maybe it’s a testament to the clunky title Dahmer – Monsters: The Story of Jeffrey Dahmer (now on Netflix) that watching the series had me in a funk for days. Surely something so grimly impressive has to do its job, creating an enveloping mood of fear and sadness that permeates every room you find yourself in like a foul, inescapable stench. In that sense creator Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan have, I assume, achieved one of their goals.
But at the end dahmer‘s grueling 10-hour run, I wondered if that goal was ever a worthy goal, or if the whole undertaking – all those mock horrors – wasn’t a horrific and often cruel waste of time. Some of the show’s goals are noble. It looks at at least some of the victims in the fullness of their lives – their aspirations, their families – and delves into the fact that most of Dahmer’s victims were men and boys of color. This overlaps with the negligence of the Milwaukee Police Department, who had myriad ways to stop Dahmer as he continued his killing but routinely ignored the concerns of those in his community.
Niecy Nash stars Glenda Cleveland, Dahmer’s neighbor when he lived in the Milwaukee apartment complex that was the scene of his latest murder spree. She’s given plenty of room on the show to rage and plead, trying towards the end to find some kind of peace in the rubble Dahmer left behind. Nash is great in the role, and the show has credit for the compassion he showed for Cleveland, which had largely become a footnote in Dahmer’s lore. As well as his sad reflections on the victims of Tony Hughes (Rodney Burnford) and 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone (Kieran Tamondong) and their families.
Even if the show included the families in its production, or at least got their blessing (there is some evidence that it didn’t), dahmer‘s dutiful reciting of terrible things could probably never exist without a hint of horniness. Many of its viewers, myself included, are certainly drawn to the show in part out of a morbid fascination – a natural human impulse that perhaps has gone untapped in these true crime boom years.
On dahmer, not everything is true. There are omissions in its story and a multitude of narrative inventions. Some of the latter, particularly the one with Hughes, might be explained by the show’s occasional leanings toward surrealism. Perhaps the real relationship that develops between Dahmer and Hughes before Hughes is murdered is simply meant as a tragic fantasy. But in these moments you feel the manipulative grip of the series too strongly, a firm hand that squeezes out emotions by any means necessary. At the same time, they follow a Hollywood mandate to entertain.
Given that this is a Ryan Murphy production, that shouldn’t be too surprising dahmers look often seems a little arrogant. Dahmer is played by Murphy-Verse mainstay Evan Peters, who intricately embodies a man whose true inner workings were in many ways completely unknown. (Dahmer has given several lengthy interviews in prison, but even there there’s something opaque and evasive about him.) It’s a mesmerizing performance, and yet perhaps we are to attracted to Dahmer – or Peters’ version of him. Peters is a handsome guy and on many occasions throughout the series the camera seems to be in lustful awe of that fact. How exactly is Dahmer mythologized in these cases?
This was also a problem with Netflix’s Ted Bundy film, Extremely evil, shockingly evil and hideousin which Zac Efron turned a sadist into a daring Adonis. (Efron is pretty good in this movie, but it’s all for the lurid ending.) dahmer is different from this almost light-hearted film, but the series still has an odd and queasy take on how sex works in its story. It’s all too easy to get the impression that sometimes dahmer is meant to be some kind of collaborative gay drama centered on a handsome young man, as Murphy tried (and mostly partially succeeded) to do. The assassination of Gianni Versace.
But Andrew Cunanan, who killed Versace, was a dangerous fabulist who wanted admiration and attention – his crimes pointed outwards, to the zeitgeist, to the kind of media attention that was sure to follow. Versace Maybe he did too much to give a killer exactly what he wanted, but the show still felt right somehow.