tv review

The Problem With Dahmer

Rodney Buford, briefly centered in the frame as Tony Hughes, in Dahmer. Photo: Netflix

The sixth episode of Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story begins with the joyful birth of a baby boy, then very quickly cuts to that baby’s mother receiving some tough news: that antibiotics previously prescribed to her son have caused permanent hearing loss.

That is what this Netflix series tells us first about Tony Hughes, played with gentle charisma by Rodney Burford of Deaf U: that he was a well-loved human being who encountered significant challenges before he was even old enough to walk. More than 15 minutes pass in this episode before adult Tony encounters Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial killer who murdered him in grisly fashion along with 16 other victims over the course of more than a decade. Rather than defining Tony by his death at Dahmer’s hands, the episode’s writers, David McMillan and Janet Mock, and its director, Paris Barclay, deliberately structure this chapter of Dahmer to center Tony’s life first and foremost. For long stretches, the audio drops out, allowing us to not only see Tony’s experiences but view and hear the world as he might have when he was an aspiring model in his 30s, unwittingly starting a relationship with the man who would cut his life short.

This is exactly the sort of thing that Dahmer, co-created by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, should have done more frequently and more effectively: focus primarily on the people affected by Dahmer rather than the cannibalistic monster and his atrocities. In its second half, starting with the Tony-focused “Silenced,” the series leans more assertively in that direction with episodes that revolve primarily around Glenda Cleveland (Niecy Nash), a next-door neighbor of Dahmer’s whose multiple warnings about him were ignored by police, and Lionel Dahmer, played in his later years by Richard Jenkins as a father destroyed by his son’s downfall. But the first five of the ten episodes, which bounce clumsily back and forth along the timeline of Jeffrey’s childhood and adulthood, have already established that Jeffrey, played by Murphy regular Evan Peters, is the central figure. Even the title of the series, which nonsensically includes the name Dahmer twice, suggests where the lens will most often be pointed.

As indicated by the other operative word in its title — “monster” — Dahmer clearly doesn’t aim to glorify this man or even make the show all about him. The series announces early on its interest in the police’s jaw-droppingly negligent assumptions that Dahmer couldn’t be a criminal; the way he targeted and killed gay men, particularly those of color, at the same time the AIDS crisis was unfolding; and how the race, sexual orientation, and/or economic status of the victims made them less of a priority to racist and homophobic law enforcement. But it handles those issues without significant depth. It’s as if the team behind Dahmer marked the socially relevant subjects raised by the serial killer’s behavior with a highlighter instead of actually building deeper narratives around them the way a superior true-crime series might. (Admittedly, this is a difficult task, but for proof it can be done properly, please see Unbelievable and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.)

Dahmer has a habit of announcing what kind of show it wants to be instead of actually being that show. Rather than genuinely interrogating why people are so fascinated by the depraved behavior of a serial killer, it has its characters express their horror about all the attention Dahmer begins to attract once he’s been caught. “This is not some Halloween story,” says Glenda after seeing Dahmer interviewed on television. “This is my life.” Murphy and his collaborators are obviously aware of how exploitative it can be when the stories of serial killers are sold to a murder-obsessed public and how hurtful it is when victims are diminished, but the show never figures out a way to avoid committing the same crime. You don’t get credit for lamenting the existence of a circus when you happen to be the ringmaster.

Dahmer is very clearly a Ryan Murphy show, as indicated by the grotesque and macabre nature of the material, the “based on a true story” element, and the cast of strong actors who elevate what’s on the page. But those factors also magnify the sense that we’ve seen this narrative before. While Peters is a fine actor, casting him as Dahmer only adds to the sense of the familiar. As a core member of Murphy’s troupe, he has played the ghost of a mass shooter (American Horror Story: Murder House), a mental patient suspected of being a serial killer (American Horror Story: Asylum), a serial killer (American Horror Story: Hotel), both Charles Manson and a psychopath influenced by Manson (American Horror Story: Cult), and a murderous bloodsucker (American Horror Story: Double Feature). (This is not a complete list.) Perhaps Peters feels the same way about villains as Dahmer purports to feel in this limited series: “Even in Star Wars, I always liked the bad guys more,” he confesses to a priest. “So did I,” responds the apparently pro-Vader member of the clergy. “Those characters are written better.”

As strong as Evans’s work is — here he effortlessly slips on a midwestern accent and adopts Dahmer’s emotionless affect — the fact that he keeps playing roles like this for the same creator is starting to blunt the impact of that work. It’s less startling to see the handsome boy next door fly into a murderous rage when you’ve already seen him do it multiple times. It also gives Dahmer a tiny hint of American Horror Story vibes, which is the opposite of what you want for a series aiming to avoid turning Dahmer’s crimes into another “Halloween story.”

It’s tempting to assume viewers might be put off by yet another revisitation of the ghastly crimes Dahmer committed given that there have been multiple movies, books, and documentaries about them, including the upcoming Netflix docuseries Conversations With a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes. But almost as soon as Dahmer arrived on Netflix earlier this week, even without any promotion or screeners for advance reviews, it became the most-watched TV show on the platform. In a year that has been overrun with scripted series based on true-crime tales previously told in book, documentary, or podcast form — Apple TV+’s Black Bird, HBO Max’s The Staircase, Hulu’s Candy and The Girl From Plainville, Peacock’s The Thing About Pam — it feels as if we should be reaching a tipping point with this sort of scripted true crime. But, assuming the most-watched rankings on Netflix are actually reflective of viewer interest, it doesn’t seem we have. Maybe there is no tipping point for scripted shows about murder, even when they’ve barely been marketed.

If that is indeed the case, I can only hope creators will realize there is a way to tell these kinds of stories with more sensitivity and care rather than mere gestures toward sensitivity and care. In the sixth episode, Dahmer does exactly that, but it doesn’t maintain that approach for the entirety of its season. Even the final act of “Silenced” can’t help itself, ultimately leaving us with a nasty image of Dahmer sitting down to eat a freshly cooked organ that once resided in Tony’s body.

Honestly, no one, least of all the friends and family of Hughes and Dahmer’s other victims, needs to witness that moment and be traumatized or retraumatized by it. It’s admirable that Dahmer wants to honor the victims’ lives and celebrate who Hughes was as a person. But that effort can’t be a complete success in a show that also insists on literally reducing Hughes to a piece of meat.

The Problem With Dahmer