Television

Why Dahmer Is Netflix’s Biggest Hit Since Squid Game—and Its Most Controversial

Does the Ryan Murphy show have some artistic merit, or is it just pure exploitation?

A close-up of a white man w/ dirty blonde hair, oversized glasses, and an orange jumpsuit sitting in a courtroom.
Evan Peters in Dahmer—Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. Netflix

Dahmer—Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (yes, that really is its title, hyphen and all) stars Evan Peters as the serial killer notorious for having dismembered and cannibalized his victims. The show arrives courtesy of Glee and American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy and has quickly become one of Netflix’s biggest ever, up there with Squid Game and Stranger Things.

That success has not come without controversy, with detractors accusing Netflix of sensationalizing the tragedy or sympathizing too much with Dahmer. The show devotes much of itself to painstaking recreations of some of his crimes and also reaches back to Dahmer’s childhood in an attempt to trace the origin of his bloodlust. Among Dahmer’s critics is the sister of victim Errol Lindsey, Rita Isbell, whose statement at Dahmer’s sentencing in 1992 is recreated in the series.

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Dahmer, who killed 17 men before his arrest in 1991, particularly targeted gay men, many of them BlackDahmer details the years of indifference on the part of law enforcement to goings-on in Dahmer’s apartment—the consequences, the show suggests, of police homophobia and racism. Niecy Nash costars as Dahmer’s suspicious neighbor.

On this week’s Slate Culture Gabfest, Stephen Metcalf, Julia Turner, and Dana Stevens discuss Dahmer and debate whether it brings anything new or valuable to the true-crime genre. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

Stephen Metcalf: Julia, let me start with you. The Dahmer story is certainly nothing if not familiar territory. Why do you think creators return to it, and how do you think they did with this new retelling?

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Julia Turner: Steve, I have never felt more alienated from American pop consumption habits than I have watching this show. This is one of the most successful launches on Netflix in years. And I hated it. I hated it. I think it is bad—deeply morally wrong, and coats itself in a veneer of righteous, modern recasting of how we’re thinking about this story. Man, I could not have disliked this more. I am not interested in this weirdo, and I don’t want to spend time in his company, and I don’t want to stare at him for hours at a time, as he slowly, malevolently sidles down hallways and turns up and turns down the temperature of his ominous glower. What is wrong with people? Just leave him alone. I don’t want to know about it. I don’t want to be there. Is it that it’s a horror movie and people like horror movies and I don’t like horror movies?

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Is that what Murphy’s trying to do here? But it seems so enamored of [Dahmer] and curious about him, and it just made me furious. I don’t think his depravity is worthy of curiosity. And maybe that’s an inhuman response. Of course people are interested in freakshows. I don’t know. I really detested this show. The show is thoughtful about really emphasizing the fact that these crimes were committed largely on queer men of color. And Dahmer’s Black, female neighbor tried desperately to get someone to take her seriously in her conviction that something deeply wrong was happening, as she literally, in the depiction of the show, watched young men disappear around her after walking into his apartment. And I am not a completist on all previous tellings, but there’s sort of a righteousness in the portrayal of how systemic racism is part of what enabled him to be so evil. That is no doubt true, but somehow the way that that is done felt so glossy and thin, overlaying this “let’s just stare at the monster” fundamental interest of the show. And I did not like it. How about you guys?

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[Read: How Netflix’s Dahmer Is Landing With the Communities He Hurt Most]

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Dana Stevens: I mean, now I feel like it makes me a morally depraved individual that I wasn’t outraged at every second while watching it. I will start by saying I’m not a watcher of true crime. I have no desire to revisit the Jeffrey Dahmer story. So, I went into this knowing that it was not going to be my personal thing and I was not going to sort of groove with the series, but because it was such a big hit on Netflix. Apparently also they marketed it hardly at all, in part, I think, because of fear about the controversy—which we can get to—it’s ignited. So in spite of this complete lack of publicity, it does incredibly well for them, proving that people cannot get enough true crime and there’s a giant appetite for it out there.

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I went in a little bit more with a cold, experimental eye of, “I want to understand how this story’s being told and what the appeal of it is in this format.” Especially given that Netflix is just about, in two or three days, to drop a non-scripted documentary series, Conversations With a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes, that’s based on the recordings he made, I think, with his legal team before the trial. So they’re about to bombard us with more Dahmer, and I wanted to understand the appetite for it more than to see whether it was artistically successful for me. And I’m still not sure I do after watching over half of the show. But I will say that I think I have more respect for what the show is trying to do than Julia. I mean, if you take it as a given that there is this massive appetite for true crime.

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Does this show unfold or complicate or do anything new in that genre? I think it does, to a certain extent. And I think that starts to happen in the second half of the series. It’s a 10-episode series, and I watched through Episode 6. In part, I watched that far because I had read that it takes a big turn in the second half and stops being as much about Dahmer. Episode 6 is almost completely from the point of view of one of his victims. It’s really the best episode so far, because it is telling a story besides the one Julia is talking about: very slowly paced, very sordid, somebody who from childhood had a serious something wrong with them kind of protagonist. Which is not necessarily somebody you want to spend five hours with before you get to visit with anyone else.

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But the main character of Episode 6, who, unfortunately, by the end of Episode 6 has been horribly killed by Jeffrey Dahmer, is a fascinating character, this Black, queer man who’s deaf, who’s played by a deaf actor [Rodney Burford] who’s fantastic in the role, and who is an aspiring model and who has an actual relationship of sorts with Dahmer. He flirts with him in a bar and then they date a few times. It’s much more of an actual something approaching a love story than any other episode so far. So I don’t know. I mean, I’m not saying stick with it for five hours, and then you’ll like it. That is not what I’m saying, but I’m saying that that combined with the framing, the very first shot of the show is of Niecy Nash, of the neighbor, watching something on TV and being aware that there’s something next door to her that’s wrong. So I think that in a way, this show is trying to skew the way that we look at the white serial killer so that it’s not just some sort of sick, glorified vision of him.

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Turner: No, and Episode 7, which is all about Niecy Nash’s experience, is incredible and powerful and makes its own resonant points about how frustrating it is to not be listened to, and then in its final shot—without revealing what happens in the episode—suggests that the motives of the people who are finally listening to her are not necessarily that much better and are going to leave her in a whole different heap of trouble. And the show is well-crafted and well-shot and sort of beautiful in how it depicts that.

I don’t know why its attention to those themes felt insincere to me. Those are important themes, obviously, to look at in the context of this story. I was, I think, struck and influenced by a piece that Jessica Winter wrote for the New Yorker about the story that notes that in its deep exploration of how it is that Dahmer came to be the way that he was, the show just makes a bunch of stuff up. If it’s true crime, if it’s a psychological portrait, and we’re staring at the monster and how he became a monster, but then it’s just adding a whole bunch of random filigree on top, what are we doing here? I don’t know. Steve, help us out. Adjudicate.

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Metcalf: Well, I can break the tie by saying: Team Julia. I’d be curious to know if either one of you can think of an analogy, but I’ve just never seen something so deliberatively paced. I mean the agonizingly slow buildup in Episode 1 to the violence is drawn out, incredibly elongated, like taffy. And it already began to lose me there a little bit. But then oddly enough, and I hear you Julia, there’s a didacticism to “Niecy Nash was a Black neighbor who got totally ignored in favor of the white serial killer and the weird nonsensical alibis offered by the white serial killer.” Point taken, that’s well-depicted I think, as is the oddity of cops repeatedly showing up at the door and not seeing what was pretty much right under their noses for years. I thought that that was admirable and well done.

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What offended me about it in a way, oddly enough, was the idea that you can tell a revealing narrative about the causal factors that go into creating someone who’s evil. It’s just Shakespearean in a way, what he says about Iago, it’s just motiveless malignancy. I mean, there’s just a certain kind of wickedness that can’t possibly fit into: If X, then Y. Because by definition, they’re a person who doesn’t really exist within the same narrative constraints as virtually the rest of humanity. And I could only get to about midway through Episode 3. I found it just so totally repetitive and off-putting. I wasn’t, in the end, learning anything about why. And now to find out that many of those are fabricated details from his childhood, I began to think it was useless. Dana, I just can’t answer the question: Why? And I don’t know that watching five hours to get to some glimmer of that is a fair ask.

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[Read: The One American Serial Killer Whose Star Won’t Stop Rising]

Stevens: Yeah, I agree. I mean, I’m also like Julia, somewhat amazed that there is such a huge thirsty appetite for this kind of programming. It just does not seem like a thing you would want to flop down after a long day and watch on Netflix. But given that that is the case, I guess I was surprised, especially given that it’s Ryan Murphy—who I have never been a fan of and who I find sensationalizes everything—I was surprised that this movie had as much respect and care as it did for the victims, for the fact that these stories are hard to tell and not there to be sensationalized.

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This show is not that gory, given the fact that it’s about someone who did things that would be very easy to portray in a horror movie, sort of gore-ish way. The mood has to do with horror sometimes, but it’s not slash or gore. And I have to hand it that it does not relish the scenes of violence in that way. Also, we haven’t mentioned it yet, and this is kind of a given when Ryan Murphy is at issue, but the acting is really good. Evan Peters as Jeffrey Dahmer, I mean, talk about a role that is thankless, incredibly demanding while not allowing you to earn any of the audience’s love or charm them at all. I think he brings a lot of pathos to it and underplays it more often than he overplays it.

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Turner: Yeah, no, there’s a ton of craft here that’s good. And I really want to be clear that I think the part of the project that is about explaining how structural and systemic inequity is part of what allowed this terrible thing to happen feels really well done. I mean, I love your word: taffy. It’s like dread taffy. The whole thing is so slow and oppressive. And there’s a moment in the second episode where Dahmer’s dad’s talking to the cops and they’re like, “How’d he get this way?” And it’s like, flashback to the school bus. And I was like, “Are you fucking kidding me? We’re going to the school bus?” It just doesn’t seem like the right way to think about this guy.

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There have been protests from the families of Dahmer’s victims objecting to the show and objecting to the fact that they were not contacted about the fact that it was being made and objecting to having the stories of their loved one’s death and dismemberment exploited once again for the profit of a major corporation and the glory of a bunch of actors and directors. And I have great sympathy for those complaints. As a journalist, terrible stories and inequities can be told. And I don’t think it is up to the victims of the world to determine who gets to tell their stories. I’m sympathetic to their complaints, but I think journalists have the right to describe the truth of the world as they discover it. And I think artists have the right to tell whatever stories they want.

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But I wonder if this show tripped those complaints because—even though it does make some interesting formal experiments with how it thinks about the victims and their stories—fundamentally, what the first batch of episodes seems to do is almost treat what happened to their loved ones as a thrill ride. Like, you’re trapped in the apartment, you’re full of dread. You don’t know if you can get out. Who is this guy? Why is he so weird? Then he turns sort of compelling. It does feel exploitative. And the “curiosity about what made him that way” that’s technically driving the plot feels actually incurious if they’re just making up details for dramatic effect. And so, I just have sympathy for these people. I think there is a Dahmer project that I would defend and I defend the right of artists to try and make projects. And sometimes people make projects and they come out well or poorly. But just the fundamental project here seems excited about putting you in the shoes of Dahmer’s victims in a way that felt deeply gross.

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