Netflix’s ‘Dahmer’ Can't Conquer Its Grim Fascination

Maybe it’s a testament to the clunkily titled Dahmer—Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (on Netflix now) that watching the series put me in a funk for days. Surely something so grimly affecting must be doing its job, creating an enveloping mood of dread and sadness that permeates whatever room you’re in, like a foul, inescapable stench. In that sense, creators Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan have, I suppose, accomplished one of their goals.

But at the end of Dahmer’s grinding 10-hour run, I was left wondering if that goal was ever a worthy one, or if the whole enterprise—all of this reenacted awfulness—wasn’t a terrible and often cruel waste of time. Some of the show’s aims are noble. It considers at least some of the victims in the fullness of their lives—their aspirations, their families—and it delves into the fact that most of Dahmer’s victims were men and boys of color. This intersects with the neglect of the Milwaukee police department, which had myriad opportunities to stop Dahmer as he went about his killing, but routinely ignored the concerns of people in his community.

Niecy Nash plays Glenda Cleveland, Dahmer’s neighbor when he lived in the Milwaukee apartment complex that was the site of his final spate of murders. She’s given ample space on the show, to rage and plead and, toward the end, try to find some sort of peace in the wreckage Dahmer left behind. Nash is terrific in the role, and the compassion extended toward Cleveland, who had mostly become a footnote in Dahmer lore, is to the show’s credit. As are its doleful considerations of victims Tony Hughes (Rodney Burnford) and 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone (Kieran Tamondong) and their families.

Even if the show involved the families in its production or at least got their blessing (there is some evidence that they did not), Dahmer’s dutiful recitation of horrific things could likely never exist without a trace of prurience. Many of its viewers, myself included, are surely partially drawn to the show out of morbid fascination—a natural human impulse that has become perhaps over-served in these true-crime boom years.

On Dahmer, not everything is true. There are elisions in its history and a host of narrative inventions. Some of the latter, especially those involving Hughes, could be explained away by the show’s occasional tilts into surrealism. Maybe the genuine relationship we see developing between Dahmer and Hughes before Hughes is murdered is simply meant as tragic fantasy. But one too tightly feels the manipulative grip of the series in these moments, a firm hand wringing out emotion by any means necessary. While also following a Hollywood mandate to entertain. 

Given that this is a Ryan Murphy production, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that Dahmer’s gaze often seems less than high-minded. Dahmer is played by Murphy-verse mainstay Evan Peters, who complexly embodies a man whose true inner life was, in many ways, entirely unknowable. (Dahmer granted several long interviews while in prison, but there is something opaque and evasive about him even there.) It’s a mesmerizing performance, and yet we are perhaps too drawn to Dahmer—or Peters’s version of him. Peters is a good-looking guy, and on many occasions throughout the series, the camera seems in lusty awe of that fact. How exactly is Dahmer being mythologized in these instances?

This was also a problem with Netflix’s Ted Bundy movie, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, in which Zac Efron turned a sadist into a rakish hunk. (Efron is quite good in that movie, but it’s all in service of lurid ends.) Dahmer is pitched differently than that almost lighthearted movie, but the series still has a curious and queasy view of how sex functions in its story. It’s all too easy to get the impression that, at times, Dahmer is supposed to be some sort of communally related-to gay drama, with a handsome young man at the center, much as Murphy attempted (and, for the most, partly succeeded at) in The Assassination of Gianni Versace.

But Andrew Cunanan, who killed Versace, was a dangerous fabulist who wanted admiration and attention—his crimes pointed outward, toward the zeitgeist, toward the kind of media attention that certainly followed. Versace maybe did too much to give a killer exactly what he wanted, but the show still felt, somehow, properly framed.

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