Is Ryan Murphy’s Jeffrey Dahmer show the most exploitative TV of 2022?

Ryan Murphy was meant to be Netflix’s big get, the hit-making super-producer who was able to transform every new show into an international event. It’s fair to say that hasn’t completely panned out – none of his Netflix shows have landed with quite the impact of his series elsewhere – and now we seem to have reached a new nadir. Murphy’s latest series, the lumberingly titled Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, appeared on Netflix this week out of nowhere, with nothing in the way of fanfare.

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Dahmer just arrived. There was no premiere. No media were granted preview access, none of the show’s stars were made available for interview. Unless you caught the perfunctory trailer that slid out online five days before the show’s release, you would be forgiven for not knowing it existed at all.

Usually, this is a sign that a platform wants to bury a show. It hints at the possibility that the series was commissioned in good faith, but something went so wrong along the way that Netflix thought it would be best to draw as little attention to it as possible.

And that might be the case because, whether by accident or design, Dahmer is an almost unwatchably queasy show. A biopic of Jeffrey Dahmer, a man who killed (and sometimes ate) 17 victims over a 13-year period from the 1970s to the 1990s, the series seems almost pathologically incapable of finesse. The first few episodes in particular are a demonstration of every worst tendency that the true crime drama genre has to offer.

Long, long stretches of the series pass without any insight or analysis, instead just letting things play out beat by grisly beat as if Wikipedia had decided to fund dramatisations of all its worst entries. The show seems to be aware of this too, chopping itself into a fractured chronology as a way to distract you from its bluntly grisly procession of murders.

Evan Peters, usually so good elsewhere, plays Dahmer in a way that is truly confounding, as if he accidentally watched all of Joe Pera Talks with You as his research process. Even the look of it is borderline exploitative, taking on the sort of fuzzy, desaturated feel of a disappointing Saw sequel.

Worst of all, by some degree, is the show’s choice of focus. What Ryan Murphy’s murder shows – especially The Assassination of Gianni Versace – do so well is reclaim the lives of the victims. By being murdered, these people are robbed of a legacy. It doesn’t matter who they are, or what they did. They will always simply be a photo and a name in a lineup of victims, an entire existence defined solely by how it ended. The one good thing a show like this can do is steal the spotlight from the murderer and show who these people actually were. But Dahmer, for the most part, is unfortunately too infatuated with its star attraction for that.

Dahmer is undoubtedly fetishised here. The squalor of his apartment is lingered over, right down to the blood stains on the mattress. We see him gut his first fish, peeling the creature apart in a distressingly gynaecological way, so that he can gaze upon its organs. We see him topless and slick with sweat. We repeatedly see him masturbate. There is a sequence where Dahmer takes a shop mannequin to bed and gratuitously fondles it while Please Don’t Go by KC and the Sunshine Band plays in the background.

In fairness, the series does improve towards the end. In the latter half, the monofocus shifts and Jeffrey Dahmer retreats into the background. One episode is devoted to the life of Anthony Hughes, a deaf man who wound up dead by Dahmer’s hands. We also see the effect that the murders had on Dahmer’s parents, which allows Richard Jenkins (who plays Dahmer’s father) to give a barnstormer of a performance. Jesse Jackson appears, putting the story into a more political perspective (after all, one of the reasons why Dahmer got away with it for so long was the police’s tendency to brush away the legitimate concerns of the Black community).

But this comes after five long hours of deeply queasy surface-level viscera. A show about the worst of humanity shouldn’t necessarily be entertaining to watch, but Dahmer seems actively thrilled by how unpleasant it is, as if that was the sole purpose of making it. No wonder Netflix didn’t want to publicise it.

Then again, at time of writing, Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story was Netflix’s most-watched series, so that goes to show what I know. Who needs nuance when there’s an audience hungry for blood?