Why do we like true crime?
Why is true crime such a popular genre? For me, it’s about telling victims stories and learning about humanity and our mistakes. For others, it’s a fetishization of violence and gore. I’m afraid DAHMER – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story leans more toward the latter.
What is DAHMER about?
DAHMER tells a story most of us are familiar with. Spanning three decades, Jeffrey Dahmer lured young men, usually of color, back to his home. After drugging and killing them, he would dismember them and sometimes engage in necrophilia and cannibalism. Unsurprisingly, because of the sexual orientation and race of the victims, police largely ignored the crimes and complaints.
Overall the show is well made. Production value is great, the writing is competent, and the performances are compelling. Niecy Nash as Dahmer’s neighbor Glenda Cleveland is a stand out. I found Evan Peters’ turn as Dahmer to be a little too weird. He speaks a touch too slowly. The pauses he takes are a beat too long. His eyes are too haunted. I don’t call myself a Dahmer expert but Peters’ take was almost cartoonish.
The timeline is hard to follow. In order to break up the viscera, the show is intercut with flashbacks to Dahmer’s childhood and teen years, which I honestly found offensive. I don’t need him humanized. He’s a mediocre white man with abandonment issues. We get it.
But setting that aside, I don’t think this show did what it set out to do if its goal was to tell the stories of these victims. All I see is hero worship of a serial killer and the disgusting obsession some people have with him. No better than the fan comics that Jeffrey loves after his arrest.
Episodes 1-5: Gore Ad Nauseum
The first half of this limited series is difficult to watch. And I know many people would say intentionally so or that this is what happened and the story needs to be told. But does it? In 2022? We know the story. Victims’ families are still alive. Look no further than this tweet from a cousin of victim Erroll Morris:
Think what you want, but Netflix will make a lot of money with DAHMER. It’s the number 1 show on the app as of today, September 26, 2022. This is exploiting trauma as a money grab. The worst aspect of the true crime genre.
There are far too many lingering shots of the horror in Dahmer’s apartment: the bloodstains, the power tools, the 57-gallon drum. It’s gratuitous.
To the show’s credit, it pivots to something of more substance in episode 6 “Silenced,” but viewers have to endure what feels like countless druggings, murders, and dismemberments before they get to the political machinations and systemic prejudices that BIPOC and gay people face, which is what the show should really be about.
Episodes 6-10: Less Gore and More Substance
Far and away, the best episode is episode 6 “Silenced,” which is actually from a victim’s point of view. It follows Tony Hughes, a deaf gay man, played brilliantly by Rodney Burnford, who moves to Madison to start a modeling career. We actually see Hughes’ life. Not just his death. For once, the episode isn’t really about Jeffrey Dahmer.
The themes of prejudice by the police really take off in the back half of the series, but I wish we had gotten more of that sooner. I can palpably feel the frustration that Glenda Cleveland must have experienced when she is ignored time and time again. I can imagine cops during the AIDS epidemic joke that they needed to delouse after touching a gay man.
The series toys with the question of whether Dahmer chose his hunting grounds because it was a low income neighborhood populated by minorities. I’m not sure if that was a conscious decision on his part, but it’s undeniable that it worked to Dahmer’s advantage.
Also, I could have done without John Wayne Gacy. First of all, there’s no evidence that he ever killed anyone while in his clown costume, so please tell me how that isn’t just playing on fears for a reaction? It’s true that Dahmer was baptized the same day that Gacy was executed but I don’t really see any worthwhile parallels.
DAHMER: Final Thoughts
Even Dahmer’s death in the final episode feels gross to me. It’s so gory and graphic that I almost had to turn away. There’s catharsis in seeing Dahmer get some form of justice, but I don’t like that being lingered upon anymore than I liked it when it was done to his victims.
It should be noted that viewers rate the show much higher than critics. DAHMER currently has a 50% on Rotten Tomatoes from critics but a whopping 87% from its audience. Our appetite for violence is insatiable.