I interviewed a comedian years ago who lamented to me that a TV comedy she had come up with about an eating disorder was unfilmable. However loveable the protagonist and acute the observations, you simply couldn’t put the grim reality of certain key details – bags of vomit were mentioned – on the screen .
imagine a similar hesitancy delayed Jeffrey Dahmer’s journey to TV drama. The stuff of his story – dissected roadkill, homemade lobotomies, bodies dissolving in vats – all sounds too gross for prime time. But the public are obsessed with serial killers and years of true crime have inured us to horror and stoked our bloodlust.
Dahmer, a soft spoken, remorseful and disarmingly reflective mass murderer, has always been a particular source of fascination for gay men like filmmaker Ryan Murphy and the homophobia, self-hatred and racism that shaped his carnage surely merit examination through a modern prism.
And so we have Dahmer (Netflix), Murphy’s series about the Milwaukee serial killer. At first glance it looked like Murphy might pull his punches in leading us into Dahmer’s demented interior: the show has the same glossiness you’d expect from the maker of Glee.
Dahmer’s apartment lair isn’t quite scuzzy enough, his childhood flashbacks a little too cute and picket-fenced. But Murphy soon gets to grips with the gore: intestines pulled from a dead possum, Dahmer (Evan Peters) obsessively slicing ham at the deli where he works. My partner had to leave the room as he approaches one of his drugged victims, drill in hand.
From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s Dahmer killed at least 17 men and boys, most of them from racial minority communities. He drugged them, dismembered their bodies, and preserved parts of their skeletons, all while getting drunk and watching snippets of The Exorcist III and Return of the Jedi.
When he was finally caught, he waived his right to a lawyer, and calmly told everything to police. Had they got him six months later, he explained, they would have found him sitting in front of an altar of his victim’s bones.
At Dahmer’s 1992 trial a collection of experts argued over what had made this man like this. Answers ranged from ‘free will’ to ‘obsessive paraphilia’. Murphy blames the parents but does so in a way that seems baldly literal – a boy looking up from a salvaged road kill to ask: “You and mommy aren’t going to divorce, are you daddy?”
A better, lighter touch is shown when Dahmer steals a male mannequin torso from a local department store. KC and the Sunshine Band’s Please Don’t Go plays as Dahmer snuggles up to the plastic torso. In his own twisted way Dahmer wanted intimacy and the sugary plea of the song humanises him.
Video of the Day
Peters is quite good as Dahmer, capturing the strange contrast of his midwestern folkiness and blank death glare. There is a crumpled quality to the performance and a sense that behind the lurid misdeeds and psychosexual craziness Dahmer’s life was small, sad, and desperately lonely.
Murphy is surest when he delves into the racism and homophobia which underscores the whole story. Dahmer was able to target black and Latino men and in one incredibly dramatic moment – when one of his victims briefly escapes the apartment – a couple of homophobic police officers are so disgusted by Dahmer that they accept the idea this adolescent is his drunken boyfriend.
It’s a moment which shows that as much as Dahmer was the product of family pain, the tragedy of his story was also shaped by powerful societal factors.
If Dahmer requires a strong stomach, the documentary Sins of Our Mother (Netflix) requires a credulous disposition. It’s ostensibly about an American woman’s descent into religious madness but since she seems fairly unwell right from the start it’s difficult to share the incredulity of the contributors as events unfold.
Still, over a mercifully brief three episodes it’s twisty and soapy enough, with just the right mix of attractive people, cloying grief, and murder, to have roused the online sleuth community into action.
That the protagonists, who are accused of killing their spouses and two children, have yet to stand trial, is an indication of the haste to get this series out and perhaps a clue as to the level of addictive true crime drama it serves up.
Hiding in plain sight: Three best true crime series
What George Gibney was to Ireland, Larry Nassar was to the US: a once-acclaimed coach who has become synonymous with sexually exploiting women and girls. This gripping documentary has footage of the former US gymnastics coach’s original interrogation.
The Devil Next Door
Was John Demjanjuk, a retired Ukrainian emigrant to America, or a holocaust perpetrator in a previous life? This gripping series explores the multiple trials Demjanjuk underwent and more recent photos (available on Google) provide a confirmatory postscript.
Olivia Colman and David Thewlis play a meek middle England couple who are accused or murdering her parents and fleeing to France. Director Will Sharpe blends elements of theatre and fantasy in a series that explores the unreliability of memory.