Anyone who knows me well would declare that I, without question, am the number one fan of true crime. I listen to true-crime podcasts while I brush my teeth. I watch “Criminal Minds” before I fall asleep, and I sleep well. I eat my morning toast with my laptop in front of me as I watch Emily Deschanel pick apart human remains on “Bones.” In short, I eat, sleep and breathe true crime — and that’s barely an exaggeration. But even as a constant consumer of the true crime genre, I simply have to draw the line at some shows — shows that blur the divide between informative and exploitative. Netflix’s “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” is one of those shows. With an unbearable amount of gore and a sickening subject, “Dahmer” fails to honor the victims of the titular serial killer’s gruesome crimes. It is a perfect example of the disasters that are created when true crime gets out of hand.
Dahmer, the infamous Wisconsin-born serial killer of the ’80s and ’90s who claimed the lives of 17 young men, is a man who does not require an introduction — nor his own television show. Nevertheless, with Evan Peters (“American Horror Story”) as Dahmer, “Dahmer” goes on to give a comprehensive retelling of Dahmer’s life and crimes. The plot of “Dahmer” is constructed just about how you would expect: Dahmer’s progression through his life, including moments of self-discovery about his sexuality and, of course, an overview of the crimes he committed. While some moments in later episodes do take a haphazard turn to focus on the lives of Dahmer’s victims, the show is, without a doubt, Dahmer-centric, almost to the point of obscenity and glorification. “Dahmer” also portrays the aftermath of Dahmer’s crimes, showing the emotional effect his arrest had on his parents and the explosive amount of attention the criminal case garnered from media outlets and observers. The show serves little purpose other than to make a spectacle out of Dahmer yet again, honing in on the grisly details of his crimes. “Dahmer” offers little to no new details of importance in regard to any aspect of Dahmer’s life or criminal case. Despite this fact, the surprise release of “Dahmer” sent the show rocketing to the top of Netflix’s most-watched list within hours of its introduction onto the platform, bringing the show huge success in spite of its accompanying controversy.
The central issue with Ryan Murphy’s (“American Horror Story”) most recent horrific creation can be gleaned from just a quick glance at its title. Right off the bat, “Dahmer” makes it clear that Dahmer himself will be the main event of the show, despite plenty of other potential narratives that would have been more interesting and less overdone. With plenty of movies, books and TV shows that provide more than enough detail about Dahmer’s psychosis and crimes, it’s safe to say that, at this point, Netflix and Murphy are just beating a dead horse. This doesn’t stop them from developing an uncreative storyline with a disturbing focus on Dahmer and the sexual impulses behind his crimes. The show includes an unnecessary amount of sexual scenes, with several of Dahmer masturbating and one particularly odd and uncomfortable scene in which he fondles a male mannequin in a store’s dressing room. While Peters’s flat Wisconsin accent and monotone effect were Midwestern to a T, every other aspect of Dahmer’s portrayal on this show was left wanting.
Criticism of the show’s choice of focus is only more justifiable when it becomes clear how close Netflix and Murphy came to grasping the concept of nuance. In episode six, titled “Silenced,” the show takes a sudden turn in an attempt to shine a spotlight on the stories of Dahmer’s victims rather than continuing to bombard viewers with scenes of mannequins and masturbation. “Silenced” focuses on Tony Hughes (Rodney Burford, “Deaf U”), a young, deaf Black man with aspirations of modeling whose relationship with Dahmer would ruin, and end, his life. This brief but poignant portrayal of Hughes as a charismatic person, beloved by friends and family, rather than a victim provides a devastating glimpse into what “Dahmer” could have been: a unique show with a narrative that gave justice to the young men whose lives were destroyed, and to their families. Instead, we are presented with a show that takes six episodes to give us anything resembling an unheard story, only to continue to barrel full-steam ahead into an exploitative performance that paid no consideration to the victims’ families or memory. This failure by the “Dahmer” creative team is even more of a betrayal considering the promise they made upon the original announcement of the show’s production to honor the lives of Dahmer’s victims through their work. “Dahmer” has successfully reduced the meaningful lives of an evil man’s victims from complex people to corpses.
The controversy that “Dahmer” swims in does not lie only in the exploitative nature of the show, nor in its failed promises to victims and families or even in the gross dramatization of real-world tragedy. The problem is not just the show’s content, but the reaction it has evoked from its viewers. While the show has received backlash for both its concept and characterization of Dahmer, it has also sparked an overwhelming amount of sympathy for Dahmer, who, lest we let the show fail to remind us, is a vicious murderer, not simply a lonely or misunderstood human being. Hundreds of TikTok videos have emerged expressing sympathy for Dahmer. A simple search of Dahmer’s name will lead to a disturbing amount of fan edits, accounts and videos dedicated to Dahmer. With this kind of response to a depiction of a man who did unspeakable things, we have to begin to ask ourselves what has led to this moment. The growth of true crime and the serial-killer documentary genre seems to have become more than humanity can handle, numbing viewers to the kind of sickening imagery and stories that “Dahmer” depicts. The show’s remarkably high streaming numbers and audience ratings only support our collective descent into desensitization. With “Dahmer,” true crime watchers and the genre itself may have tipped past the point of no return.
Despite the overall lack of taste and thoughtfulness that went into the production of “Dahmer,” it certainly leaves viewers with a lot to consider. Not about the show itself or its overdone storyline, but about the implications of the ever-growing popularity of true crime. With the potential cost of the continuation of creations such as “Dahmer,” it’s up to frequent viewers and fans of murder mystery and true crime, myself included, to put our collective foot down and decide: Where do we draw the line? When has this all gone too far?
Daily Arts Writer Annabel Curran can be reached at email@example.com.