by Paul Deeter
Ryan Murphy is no stranger to a disturbing biopic. The "most powerful man in modern television" has worked on prolific and popular TV shows since 1990, including Nip/Tuck, Glee and perhaps most significantly and relevant: American Horror Story. At least as far as success goes AHS has been around for over ten years on serialized television now, with season 11 on the radar and a multitude of horror topics and niches covered. Murphy creates stories involving the bizarre and unusual, with topics of American Horror Story covering settings like the circus, asylums and haunted houses of many types. What's notable about his love for horror is also in his respect for Trans representation in film/TV along with overall LGBTQ+ inclusion as well. The critical acclaim for his work has fluctuated all that being said, with a mix of quality on the content served in AHS, and love for the exemplary work on his take on OJ Simpson in American Crime Story. His stylistic approach to glitz and glamour often gets bogged down in the excess of his violence and on screen cruelty. His work on AHS focusing on a character portrayed as a school shooter (also played by Evan Peters), found itself into controversy. A whole episode was edited due to the untimely release along such a tragedy in 2011. Then there was a particular backlash to the on screen depiction of sexual assault without trigger warnings in Season 6 of AHS: Hotel.
Putting aside the lack of shortage for TV controversy, Murphy worked extensively over the past ten plus years on tons of content pulling in incredible watch numbers and a sizable amount of Emmy awards as well. But just as common as he reused performers such as Peters for multiple seasons of his anthology show, he would also dip twice into the theme of serial killers in two seasons of American Crime Story. In the second season, or The Assassination of Gianni Versace, Murphy utilized the exemplary talent of Darren Criss to portray Andrew Buchanan, a troubled Versace fanatic that pulled the trigger famously, outside of a numerous amount of additional sociopathic crimes on his infamous killing spree. Versace also fell into the limelight not only for its depiction of ultraviolence, but its particular monsterized approach to the main character: a gay man. This is not something unlike Murphy to do, which made viewers feel uncomfortable; despite his inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters, most of them do fall in the realm of troubled or evil.
So its no surprise that Murphy would take on a project like Dahmer, for at least two reasons. The story of Jeffrey Dahmer, a famous Wisconsin serial killer, is a scandalous and multi-layered tale. There are many factors that make Dahmer the monster he is. His preying on young gay men in the 90s, whom he would seduce into sexual situations before murdering them is a common way he got his victims. Additionally his sociopathic behaviors involved defiling and worse, often consuming his victims bodies. This would distinguish him as one of the most horrific monsters not just in Wisconsin history, but national as well. And just as there is for many other murderers of our time, the man garnered some morbid curiosity, or even worse: fandom. The romanticizing of serial killers is often a gray area when mistaken for research and fascination regarding the actual cases. For example, the podcast My Favorite Murder is a research study by two women who do their best to emotionally respect the victims when discussing the crimes that were committed. Of course the title is no tip-toeing around the fandom of the genre. But there are some who go beyond that fandom, and fall into love for killers. Charles Manson was married behind bars by an extreme fan, and many other murderers were written love letters and fan mail while incarcerated for life.
So the overall treatment of history's monsters in the media is problematic. And with that I admit I too have a fascination with the genre, so I fall into that gray area as well. But I also must be sensitive to the issues of the controversy and true horrors of these crime sprees. That's why Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is a very difficult show to review. For me, I've lived in Milwaukee almost all of my life up until 31, and the criminal stomping grounds of Dahmer often fell in Milwaukee. In fact it was the MPD that thankfully arrested him on the fateful final day of his spree, something the very first episode covers before diving into the makings of the monster. And the public response to his crimes is a sensitive topic for some years later. There are those who had family's victimized by Dahmer all the way to those who are in the blue that have lasting trauma from his investigation and arrest. If its any solace to them in the fact that Dahmer died in prison almost immediately, it can also be argued that the old wounds are re-opened every time he is covered. And given Murphy's master of television status, its safe to say that even beyond its #1 open on Netflix, Dahmer may be a show to see an ongoing following critically and in the awards season.
Albeit to say, and helpful to the hot button topic it is, Dahmer is receiving mixed critical response. The audience score sits at 87% and we know that can be the deciding factor in a project's success (I'm looking at you Don't Worry Darling). A negative review example is as follows in its blurb on RT: Ryan Murphy's latest exploration of human monstrosity amounts to little more than sluggish torture porn. - them. But a positive review from Consequence argues ... Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story smartly sidesteps common pitfalls of the true-crime genre, acknowledging the perspective of Jeff Dahmer’s victims and their families in more depth than possibly any other on-screen depiction. All in all the Rotten Tomatoes consensus of 46% (mind you with only 13 critical reviews) does not much to put a pin on whether or not the show is worth watching. A common response despite its mixed reception does argue that Evan Peters is excellent in his depiction of Dahmer. And in my opinion, Peters is the real pull here.
So the factor of my life in Milwaukee comes into play when I think of this show. I personally was not alive or directly effected by the crimes of Milwaukee's monster, but I also am aware of the overall climate in the gay community he left behind. I know the soreness is felt in comment sections of local news coverage of the series. There's an uneasy feeling of distaste not just for the localness of this series, but also the fact that this series could be construed as torture porn, or fandom for the criminal.
Now I've seen exactly three episodes of Dahmer, and I know that given review embargos on popular series, its appropriate to weigh in on a show from its start. Sure some shows (I'm looking at you Loki) significantly improve in their latter half. But without early coverage of series audiences wouldn't know whether to watch shows they're on the fence for. It actually surprises me there isn't more review coverage of the show yet. So its 46% could very well change over the next few weeks. But like I said, I do believe I have a good sense for the quality of Dahmer from its first third. And is it worth watching? Well, I'd argue yes. Is it problematic? I'd also argue that it is.
With the fact that Ryan Murphy has a bit of a love for the topic, sometimes at worst the show seems to fetishize the makings of this murderer. Because of its Netflix release its no doubt Murphy uses some of the scandal to pull viewers into binging the show. So the use of cliffhangers is pretty overwrought, but not utilized poorly simultaneously. Part of what intrigues me about Dahmer, and this worked well in Versace also, are the moments of just-misses. A neighbor is aware of the smell and the bizarre age gap between Dahmer and one of his boy-hookups and tries to dial it in. MPD does nothing to intervene outside of some very surface level examinations of the victim and his apartment. Schoolmates are also concerned about Jeff. His love for dissecting animals inside and outside the classroom raise red flags with them and his mother. In fact he goes so far at one point to commit to a dissection project that he asks to bring a pig cadaver home for homework from class. Its interesting despite it all, that Jeff isn't bullied extensively or traumatized by his parents in a way that might lead to the nurture of the monster inside him. He seems sociopathic by nature itself, and leads himself into exile by his own sick desires of discovery.
The subject matter intrigues me but not to the effect of Versace because I feel like I know the story better. But that being said I do like some of the little details I didn't know about this case, and the show with its 10 episode run extensively covers it. I think it gets a little lost in the weeds at points. But the slow burn allows the show to build its tension with moments of dread.
And of course, there's Evan Peters. Peters fits disturbingly well into these kinds of roles, but I think this is the year of recognition he'll receive. He excels not in moments of murder or malice, but in quiet contemplation at the subjects he studies and the clockwork in his brain ticking away. He battles with his demons, sexuality and desires in a way other actors might over-act. Peters is a natural for this role, and I do hope it doesn't take a toll on his mental health like the role of Anton Chigurh did for Javier Bardem as example. I think without his commitment the trickling pace of the series might unfortunately feel like boredom. But Peters is arguably at his best here, after years of quiet talent left unnoticed.
Its important to handle topics like these sensitively, especially given that there's such a morbid fascination that is fed when series or films like these break big. Milwaukee is a city of incredibly rich history, something I've felt for a while. And as I fall parallel to the LGBTQ+ community myself, I understand that hate and horror is often felt for those who only desire love and acceptance. I believe that community should be protected especially in the face of making a monster like Dahmer felt on TV again. I believe the families and victims should be honored (and perhaps even compensated) when these shows come out. Will that always be the case? No unfortunately it won't. So I ask, wherever you're from that you take a show like this with a grain of salt. Its a dark experience and eye-opening portrayal of the darkness that undeniable exists in cities like ours. We must respect our towns' history and the controversy that falls into the cracks. I will always be a Milwaukee native. I'm Milwaukee strong for its community, and hope you'll respect our city too.