Ryan Murphy’s ‘Dahmer’ Highlights How IP Jeffrey Dahmer Is

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

As soon as Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story debuted last month, became most-watched show on Netflix: streamer says Dahmer had one of biggest launches in its history. But the limited series invited an array of quick and strong reviews, with most focusing on one central question: why tell this macabre story again?

Evan Peterswho plays the serial killer, told Netflix Waiting line this co-creator ryan murphy had one guiding rule: the show would “never be told from Dahmer’s point of view.” It’s a good idea, considering the details. Dahmer killed 17 people between 1978 and 1991, and the majority were queer men of color. The idea is that Dahmer escaped his crimes for so long because US law enforcement rarely cares about these types of victims the way they do, say, white women.

But in practice, the stories of Dahmer’s victims aren’t centered enough. Critics say so. The families of the victims say that. After watching some series, In it podcast host Sam Sanders says so too. This week he spoke with our TV critic Jen Chaney (who wrote our Dahmer exam) about the responsibilities that a true crime series has to its viewers, to the real people affected by those crimes, to marginalized communities, and to the true crime genre itself. You can read a snippet of their conversation below and check out the full episode wherever you get your podcasts.

How much of this new Dahmer show have you watched?
All.

Oh, thoughts and prayers.
Thanks. I took one for the team on this.

You really did. It’s heavy. I want to talk about the central question of this series: who is it centered on? Is it Jeffrey Dahmer, played by Evan Peters? Or is it, as Ryan Murphy has indicated, centered primarily on the victims of color who died at the hands of Jeffrey Dahmer?
Ultimately, Jeffrey Dahmer is centered more often. But there is an episode that focuses on Tony Hughes, one of Dahmer’s victims, who was deaf. And they’re really trying to film this episode more from his point of view, even to the point of losing the audio so you see the world – and don’t hear the world – the same way he did. already done. It was the best episode of the whole series because they did what they said they were going to do here: the first 15 minutes of this episode is pretty much about Tony and his life before he even meets Dammer.

Note that the episode was written by Janet Mocka black trans woman who worked with Murphy for some time now.
It’s true. There is also an episode a little more centered on Niece Nash, a neighbor who constantly tells the police to do something about this guy. And they focus a bit on his father. But it really is Jeffrey’s show. I mean, it says “Dahmer” twice in the title.

I’ve been watching Ryan Murphy stuff forever and I like some of it but his whole shtick of Pinch/Tuck so far has kind of glorified pretty white men and the nasty things they do. Could Ryan Murphy ever have made the best version of this series and this story?
One of the reasons we have this conversation about these kinds of shows is because of another show he did several years ago, American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson. It was a show where I was like, I don’t need to see this. I know this story. But it surprised me how good it was, how it allowed us to go back and look at how different people were treated during this whole saga and see it in a new light. It was so good in that regard – and also successful with the Emmys and the audience – that he kept doing it, revisiting true stories and trying to dramatize them. But he does so many shows that it’s hard to do any of them consistently well.

Are there other true crime shows, scripted or unscripted, that do better on these kinds of viewability issues and are centered? Which shows do this correctly?
Well, the one that immediately comes to mind is a show called Unbelievable. It was released on Netflix in 2019; it throws Toni Collette and Merritt Wever playing detectives investigating a series of rape cases based on real cases. They just take a whole different approach to talking to someone after they’ve been traumatized, and this show is just great at illustrating how women aren’t believed in those kinds of situations.

Another is I’ll be gone in the dark. This is actually an HBO documentary about the Golden State Killer based on Michelle McNamara’s book. She died while she was working there, the show therefore traces what happened to her and her investigation of Golden State Killer. In the end, the work she did in this book helped finally get to grips with this guy after decades. But she was under so much pressure to write the book that she took drugs, mixed the drugs and died.

Oh my God.
So it’s like those two things on parallel tracks, but it also interrogates what happens to your brain when you’re thrust into a true crime.

Family members of some of Dahmer’s victims have spoken out against the show, complaining that they were not contacted when the show was created. Most reviewers recognize the core problem you and I are talking about. If you had to give mandates to creators who create true crime content, what three golden rules would you give them?
A rule of thumb is: at every turn, should we show it? Do we need to do this? There is a whole sequence in Dahmer where they show people making their impact statements about how what he did affected them. And there’s a victim’s sister who just starts yelling at him. You’ve probably seen it displayed side-by-side with the actual video of when it happened. And to me it’s like, Now we cosplay reality. The woman’s name is Rita Isbell. She is the real woman who was portrayed in the series.

And she has complained about this show herself since its release.
She has. She is one of those who said, “I didn’t know this was happening. No one settled this with me. And then I’m kind of a meme. Don’t recreate things shot by shot.

Rule #2: Recognize the impact of true crime. There are hand signals in this direction with Dahmer. There’s a point where Tony Hughes’ mom is suing the Dahmers because Dahmer’s dad wrote a book, and that lawyer says, “All the families of the victims should get some benefit from the rights to movies and books and so on.” There’s this idea presented that it’s kind of macabre to do that, but it doesn’t acknowledge that the show does that too.

I would say stop exciting the killers. It’s strange.
Ted Bundy was a decent looking guy, but you don’t have to make him Zac Efron either.

These shows, and Ryan Murphy in particular, do this thing where they introduce someone who’s supposed to be a bad guy, who’s supposed to be the bad guy, but then they confuse you by not just letting them look good, but focusing on them visually in the show so as to highlight their beauty.
He doesn’t have to take his shirt off as often as he does on the show. But as we speak, there’s another Jeffrey Dahmer documentary set to drop on Netflix.

Please no.
It’s very similar to a few years ago when Netflix gave up a documentary by Ted Bundy then broadcast it Zac Efron movie about Ted Bundy near.

So rule #3: Netflix and other platforms shouldn’t do that.

This all brings up a bigger point: it feels like true crime is everywhere these days. Are we in a true crime moment, Jen? Or has this thing always been there, going back to Unsolved mysteries days?
This stuff has always been there to some degree. As I thought of Dahmer and came here to talk to you, I remembered this 80s mini-series titled Fatal Visionwhich was based on the book about this military veteran who allegedly killed his entire family but claimed he was innocent. And that was decades ago – there’s always been an element of that. Eight years ago, this trend was really launched with the success of the podcast Serialthe success of HBO The Jinxand the success of Netflix make a murderer. All of these shows and podcasts came in very close succession, and I think that really started this wave of true crime that never abated at all.

I had forgotten make a murderer. It was a while.
Yeah. I honestly thought before Dahmer fell and really started to be watched, This is going to be the tipping point. People will say: “It’s too much”. And I was wrong.

Why is this the case? It has to come back to money: is it cheaper to make than other things?
Some true crimes, certainly documentaries, aren’t as expensive to produce as a scripted series might be. But when we think of studios and platforms depending on their IP, we think of star warswe think of wonderwe think of franchises that they continue to build more things around. And the reason is that they don’t have to tell you who Spider-Man is. You already know. This part of marketing is therefore already done for you. Serial killers are IP. It’s a horrible thing, but it’s true. People know who Jeffrey Dahmer is. They didn’t do any promotion. They didn’t give filters to reviews in advance. There was a trailer and then a few days later it was on Netflix. What if you turn on Netflix and see Dahmer on your home screen you are like, Oh, I remember that case.

How can I leave this chat feeling optimistic about the state of things we talked about?
I will say no. You leave feeling quite uncomfortable. There are good ways to do this – I feel like there are creators who can do this with some sensitivity – but I don’t think we need the market flooded. And unfortunately, if people keep watching this stuff, Hollywood is going to keep flooding the market with it.

This interview excerpt has been edited and condensed.

The documentary, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapesdebuted on Netflix on January 24, 2019. The film, Extremely evil, terribly evil and vile, premiered three days later at Sundance. Netflix started streaming it in May.

The veteran, Jeffrey MacDonald, remains imprisoned for life. He appealed his conviction and sentence several times. His most recent call was refused last year.

A Deadline report suggests Dahmer could soon be one of the top five most-watched Netflix shows of all time.

Kimberly B. Nguyen