RYan Murphy was supposed to be the big hit of Netflix, the hit-making super producer capable of turning every new show into an international event. It’s fair to say that hasn’t quite succeeded yet – none of his Netflix shows have landed anywhere else with the impact of his series – and now we seem to have hit a new low. Murphy’s latest series, the unwieldy title Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, came out of nowhere on Netflix this week, without any fanfare.
Dahmer just arrived. There was no premiere. No media outlets were given preview access, none of the show’s stars were made available for interviews. Unless you saw the perfunctory trailer that slipped online five days before the show’s release, you’d be forgiven for not knowing it existed at all.
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 has gone so wrong along the way that Netflix thought it would be best to draw as little attention to it as possible.
And that may be the case, because whether by accident or design, Dahmer is an almost unwatchable nauseating show. A biopic of Jeffrey Dahmer, a man who killed (and sometimes ate) 17 victims over a 13-year span from the 1970s to the 1990s, the series seems almost pathologically incapable of finesse. The first few episodes in particular are a demonstration of every worst tendency the true crime drama genre has to offer.
Long, long stretches of the series go by without any insight or analysis, instead we just let things play beat for creepy beat as if Wikipedia had decided to fund dramatizations of all of its worst entries. The show seems to be aware of this as well, chopping itself into a broken chronology as a way to distract you from its bluntly gruesome parade of murders.
Evan Peters, who’s so good elsewhere, plays Dahmer in a way that’s really confusing, as if he accidentally viewed Joe Pera Talks with You as his investigative process. Even its appearance is groundbreaking, taking on the kind of hazy, desaturated feel of a disappointing sequel to Saw.
Worst of all, to some extent, is the show’s focus choice. What the murder of Ryan Murphy – especially The Assassination of Gianni Versace – does so well is reclaiming the lives of the victims. By being murdered, these people are deprived of an inheritance. It doesn’t matter who they are or what they’ve done. They will always be just a picture and a name in a series of victims, an entire existence defined solely 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 really were. But for the most part, Dahmer is sadly too in love with his star attraction for that.
Dahmer is undoubtedly fetishized here. The misery of his apartment lingers, down to the bloodstains on the mattress. We see him swell his first fish and disassemble the creature in a disturbingly gynecological way so he can stare at his organs. We see him topless and slippery with sweat. We see him masturbate repeatedly. There’s a scene where Dahmer takes a store mannequin to bed and strokes it for free, while KC’s Please Don’t Go and the Sunshine Band play in the background.
Honestly, the series improves towards the end. In the second half, the monofocus shifts and Jeffrey Dahmer moves into the background. One episode is devoted to the life of Anthony Hughes, a deaf man who died at the hands of Dahmer. We also see the effect the murders had on Dahmer’s parents, allowing Richard Jenkins (who plays Dahmer’s father) to give a blast of a performance. Jesse Jackson appears, who 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 away the legitimate concerns of the black community).
But this comes after five long hours of deeply nauseating guts on the surface. A show about the worst of humanity doesn’t necessarily have to be entertaining to watch, but Dahmer seems actively excited by how obnoxious it is, as if that was the sole purpose of making it. No wonder Netflix didn’t want to publicize it.
But again, at the time of writing, Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story was Netflix’s most-watched series, so that shows what I know. Who needs nuance when there’s an audience hungry for blood?