The true-crime cottage industry that exploded in the years following “Serial,” the podcast that became a cultural phenomenon in 2014, is inherently exploitative — even when the work in question has an ostensibly noble mission. In the case of “Serial,” the mission was to find out whether an innocent man had been convicted of a murder he long maintained he did not commit. But even as the “This American Life” spinoff inspired fervent interest in Adnan Syed’s 2000 conviction for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, it has also received criticism for what — and whom — it left out.
“This is not a podcast for me,” Lee’s brother Young Lee said after a judge last week vacated Syed’s 2000 murder conviction. “This is real life — a never-ending nightmare for 20-plus years.”
Those who consume true-crime podcasts, films or TV series, whether documentaries or fictionalized, must make calculations about whether the larger quest for truth, redemption or cultural examination justifies the intrinsically fraught aspect of retelling harrowing stories. And sometimes, the question is whether such a justification holds up, as in the case of Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix series “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.”
Murphy’s professed aim in retelling the story of the Milwaukee serial killer, who confessed to murdering and dismembering 17 young men, is to shed light on who his victims were as individuals, and the fact that they were primarily Black and gay. The show also depicts Glenda Cleveland, the Black female neighbor (played by Niecy Nash) who repeatedly called the police about the stench and unsettling noises coming from the apartment of her neighbor, Jeffrey Dahmer (Evan Peters), but was ignored.
The 10-episode limited series follows several film efforts to tell the story of Dahmer, from the 2002 horror film “Dahmer,” starring a then-unknown Jeremy Renner, to the 2017 drama “My Friend Dahmer,” which was based on a graphic novel by Dahmer’s high school classmate Derf Backderf and starred Ross Lynch (of Disney’s “Austin and Ally”) in the title role. This series, notably, is one of the few about the killer that aims to put the focus on his victims — though it ultimately falls short.
“Dahmer — Monster” sets the tone by opening with Cleveland crying as she watches a news report about a Black man who was killed by police after they pulled him over for a supposed traffic violation as he was working undercover. The rest of the episode focuses on Tracy Edwards (Shaun J. Brown), the Dahmer victim who was able to fight off his attacker and flag down police, leading to Dahmer’s arrest.
But even as Dahmer is handcuffed and led away — with a distraught Tracy wishing that he meet death for his despicable acts — the series soon goes for gruesome shock value. As police interview Dahmer’s father, detailing the horrific discoveries they made in his son’s apartment, the series displays a severed head found in Dahmer’s refrigerator and a human heart stashed in a deep freezer.
Critics and viewers have been divided over “Dahmer — Monster,” which carries a 50 percent rating at Rotten Tomatoes, where several reviews note Murphy and Co.’s attempts to tell the stories of Dahmer’s victims, and how those stories are too often overshadowed by the acts of the killer himself. One example is the sixth episode, in which Dahmer meets a deaf man named Tony Hughes (Rodney Burford, in a standout performance). The episode is centered on Tony, the events that led to his murder and his family’s heartbreak over his initially unexplained disappearance. But the final frame of the episode centers on Dahmer and the unspeakable things he does to his victims’ dismembered bodies.
Murphy has sparked a similar ethical debate in previous projects, namely FX’s “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story,” which was slammed by the slain fashion designer’s family, which said in a statement that neither the series — nor its source material, “Vulgar Favors” by journalist Maureen Orth — had been authorized by the family and should be viewed as “a work of fiction.”
“ ‘The Assassination of Gianni Versace’ is about a lot of things. It’s about homophobia, internalized and externalized. It’s about a country that allows hatred to grow, unfettered and unchecked,” Murphy said in his Emmys acceptance speech for directing an episode of the anthology, for which Darren Criss also won a lead actor trophy for portraying Versace’s killer, Andrew Cunanan. “One of out of every four LGBTQ people in this country will be the victim of a hate crime. We dedicate this award to them, to awareness, to stricter hate-crime laws, and mostly, this is for the memory of [murder victims] Jeff [Trail] and David [Madson] and Gianni and for all of those taken too soon.”
Relatives of at least one of Dahmer’s victims have spoken out against “Dahmer — Monster.” Rita Isbell, whose brother Errol Lindsey was killed in 1991, spoke to Insider about the series, which re-creates the emotional moment Isbell lashed out against Dahmer in a courtroom. “When I saw some of the show, it bothered me, especially when I saw myself — when I saw my name come across the screen and this lady saying verbatim exactly what I said,” Isbell told Insider. “If I didn’t know any better, I would’ve thought it was me. Her hair was like mine, she had on the same clothes. That’s why it felt like reliving it all over again. It brought back all the emotions I was feeling back then.”
Isbell added that she was never contacted by Murphy or anyone at the streaming platform. “I feel like Netflix should’ve asked if we mind or how we felt about making it,” she told Insider. “They didn’t ask me anything. They just did it.”
Despite the criticism surrounding “Dahmer — Monster,” viewers are still tuning in: The show is listed as the No. 1 TV series on the streamer after being quietly released last week. While the backlash remains loud — viral tweets memorializing the victims ask the audience not to “romanticize Jeffrey Dahmer just because he is played by Evan Peters,” while outlets including the Guardian ponder whether the “fetishised” take is the “most exploitative TV of 2022” — the fascination with the murderer remains strong. And it is hard to separate the interest in the victims of the crimes from the heinous ways the ends of their lives are depicted. Amid the controversy, the Netflix Twitter account has promoted the series like any other, referring to real-life events as if they were plot developments.
“Can’t stop thinking about this disturbing scene from DAHMER where one of Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims finally manages to escape … and the police actually bring him back inside the apartment,” reads a tweet accompanying video from an episode that features Dahmer’s youngest murder victim, 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone. “Now on Netflix.”