Refrain from critics, presumably so co-creator Ryan Murphy could protect the viewing experience from audiences without access to Wikipedia, recent television, or semi-recent history, Netflix‘s Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is a furious mishmash. (That’s the last time I’m going to use that completely idiotic title, one of many things Netflix buyer should have had the resources to avoid.)
One can appreciate the artists in Dahmer — Richard Jenkins and Niecy Nash in particular; Evan Peters despite an excess of familiarity in turn – and respect that Murphy and co-creator Ian Brennan have tangible and meaningful things to say here, while also feeling that the 10-episode series is haphazardly structured, never finding a happy medium between exploration and expectation, and probably never would have existed if admiration for The Murder of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story had been more universal.
Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story
It comes down to
Chilling but repetitive.
Broadcast: Wednesday September 21 (Netflix)
Form: Evan Peters, Richard Jenkins, Molly Ringwald, Michael Geleerd, Penelope Ann Miller, Niecy Nash
creators: Ryan Murphy & Ian Brennan
That’s not it Versace was not admired, but most critics, including myself, compared it negatively to the previous season, The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. Looking back over the years, I’ve come to really appreciate the points Murphy and writer Tom Rob Smith made Versace, and the relative elegance of the character study that enabled the series’ reverse story. I’m sure if we’d all admired the season properly, Murphy and his company wouldn’t have felt the need to say, “Look, you didn’t get my last fragmented 10-hour interrogation of the serial number intersection. Killing and racing.” , aimed at reclaiming the victims’ names and identities from the perpetrator’s notoriety – so I’m going to try again with more hand in hand.”
As was the case in Murder, Dahmer begins at the end, in 1991, when prolific serial killer, necrophile and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer (Peters) picks up Tracy Edwards (Shaun J. Brown) at a gay bar in Milwaukee and returns him to his dingy apartment, where really everything is a warning sign: there is a drill soaked in blood, a tank filled with dead fish, a festering stench, a mysterious blue ship’s drum and a VCR that plays The Exorcist III. Tracy – historical spoiler alert – escapes and gets to the police and it is soon discovered that Dahmer has murdered and done horrific things to the bodies of 17 young men over the course of three decades, mostly young men of color.
From there, we follow Jeffrey’s evolution from antisocial kid (a great Josh Braaten) to dissection-loving teen to serial killer, though never in chronological order, because everyone knows the chronological order is for squares and Wikipedia. We witness his relationship with his caring but distracted father (Jenkins’ Lionel), unstable and mistreated mother (Penelope Ann Miller), barely marked stepmother (Molly Ringwald’s Shari), church-going grandmother (Michael Learned’s Catherine), several victims, and the neighbor (Nash’s Glenda) who kept calling the police about the stench and kept getting ignored.
Five episodes, directed by Carl Franklin, Clement Virgo and Jennifer Lynch, Dahmer makes the same loops over and over through Jeffrey’s behavior, which I would call “more and more nightmarish”, except that once you tell the story in semi-random order, you lose the character progression implied by “more and more”. So it’s all a nightmare-but-monotonous miasma in which Jeffrey drinks cheap beer, fixes himself on someone, masturbates inappropriately, and then does something horrible, although at least the series keeps us in suspense about what horrible things he’s going to do. Developing this tension by “Is he going to eat this victim?” or “Is he going to have sex with this victim?” makes audiences’ minds, an indictment of gaping viewers that I might find more compelling had it not come from the creative team behind countless seasons of American horror story and the network behind feature-length documentaries about every serial killer imaginable.
Smarter observations begin to arrive in the second half of the season, starting with the episode “Silenced.” “Silenced”, written by David McMillan and Janet Mock and directed with more empathy than voyeurism by Paris Barclay, tells the story of Tony Hughes (superb newcomer Rodney Burnford), presented here as perhaps the only victim with whom Jeffrey traces a real had a relationship. It’s easily the best episode of the series, an uncomfortably sweet and sad hour of TV that probably should have been the template for the entire show. Tony was deaf, and by putting a black, deaf, gay character in the center of the story, the series gives a voice to someone whose voice is too often barred from staring portraits of serial killers.
Obviously Murphy and Brennan want this to be a major takeaway from Dahmerbut unlike something like when they see uswho had a similar message of transforming “The Central Park Five” into individuals with names and personalities, Dahmer maybe it does with two or three of the non-Jeffrey characters. The second half of the series should be, but the show can’t shy away from it. There are pointless and long and manipulative asides about the likes of Ed Gein and John Wayne Gacy getting more screen time than at least 10 victims. That’s just giving in to the obsessive serial killers and subverting various series themes. I would add that focusing on that sort of thing and reducing most victims and their families to their pain is closer to exploiting that pain than honoring memories.
Or take “Cassandra,” the episode built around Nash’s Glenda (at the same time, the actress avoids the comedic cadence that made her a star and delivers two or three lines of incredulous dialogue that will have some viewers cheering). It’s a good episode because Nash is so good, but it can only get into Glenda’s head with the help of a subplot featuring Jesse Jackson (Nigel Gibbs), there to spell out themes that the writers are unsure of have been established before.
That’s the problem. I know why, on an intellectual level, Dahmer does many of the things it does. I only wish it relied on its own ability to do them.
The first half of the season is as repetitive as it is in part because it aims to make it clear how many different points Dahmer could have been caught or his appetite controlled at. “All those red flags,” laments Lionel Dahmer. True story! Would the true story have been delivered in two episodes instead of five? Why yes, especially in a series that wants to be about the stories we don’t know, since those five episodes are very much the story we to do you know, anchored by Peters who gives a performance full of uneasy terror, but never surprising except in ‘Silenced’. After Peters won a well-deserved Emmy for breaking away from the eccentricities and affections of the Murphy Cinematic Universe in Mare by Easttownit’s back to the performance you expect in Dahmeralbeit with an inconsistent Midwestern accent.
The second half of the season aims to capture the completely uncontroversial assessment that Dahmer was able to get away with his crimes because he was a white who preyed primarily on economically disadvantaged men of color. The Milwaukee Police Department, possibly the real villains of the play, missed many opportunities to stop things because they weren’t interested in the race and economic status of the missing persons, didn’t want to be a part of the sexuality of everyone involved, and couldn’t. make the effort to show support in the affected neighbourhoods.
This is hard to dispute as fact in the case – plus, it’s the EXACT subtext of many of Versace – and I would say that Dahmer makes the point pretty clear. In the last few episodes, with Jesse Jackson and others, the show just keeps people coming out and saying it. About articulating it once, shame on anyone in the audience who hasn’t gotten it yet. Do it twice, shame on you for not trusting that audience. Do it three times, shame on Netflix’s development managers for not saying, “Yeah, it’s going well. Move on.” But again, Ryan Murphy likes to show and tell (over and over), and in a world where too many storytellers forget to do the first thing altogether, do I think we should be thankful?
Having gone through another editing process, there is an intelligent interrogation of Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes, the real people affected and the consequences here. It is often lost or obscured. I hope the dramatic choices and the decision to let the series self-promote don’t cause Niecy Nash, Richard Jenkins, Rodney Burnford and the show’s valid points to be lost as well.