Monster: Jeffrey Dahmer: Did TV go too far in 2022?
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The root of that contentiousness is perhaps best illustrated by a comparison with another true-crime drama, featuring a number of narrative parallels, which premiered at the very beginning of the year. The BBC miniseries Four Lives also focused on the horrific case of a serial killer who murdered young gay men, Stephen Port, as well as the resulting police failings in dealing with the victims’ cases that were alleged by some to be driven by institutional prejudice (homophobia in the Port case and both homophobia and racism in the Dahmer one). Except the whole style and tone of Four Lives was sombre and restrained: when Port appeared, he was a pointedly blank, banal supporting character, with no backstory sketched in, while from the title onwards, the show emphasised that this was the story of his four victims only – or rather the victims’ families, for the most part, who consented to and/or cooperated with the show and were depicted fighting for justice for their loved ones.

Where Four Lives was sober, though, Dahmer was unabashedly lurid. In its first half in particular, it centred firmly on the killer, played by Evan Peters, taking us inside his world and flashing back to his early development and broken family life while, in the present timeline, featuring graphic, extended sequences of him entrapping his targets within his grisly apartment. Creator Ryan Murphy made his name in part with the homage-filled horror of his anthology series American Horror Story, and here he leans once more into the grammar of horror – the bolts going across the door, the ominous pan across the drill on the kitchen workspace – in ratcheting up the sense of dread. As reviewer Jack King wrote for GQ “it feels as though Murphy is aping the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, Peters’ performance not so distant from a socially-stunted Hannibal Lecter”.

What’s more, it was made without the consent of any of the victims’ families – and since its release, a number of them have publicly expressed their upset at the show’s existence. That has compounded the feeling among many critics that the show isn’t simply bad, it is indecent. The Guardian asked “Is Ryan Murphy’s Jeffrey Dahmer show the most exploitative TV of 2022?” while an article by Anna Leszkiewicz in the New Statesman, baldly entitled Abolish True Crime, went as far as to suggest that the series proves the genre is “morally indefensible”.

The key questions it raises

Without doubt, the conversation around it lends itself to a wider discussion about the whole nature of what we watch, or should watch, when it comes to true-crime drama and beyond. First of all, it raises the question of focus: is giving a serial killer a narrative platform in itself an act of mythologising and glorification? That has been an increasing feeling within the cultural ether, as a range of works, from books to documentary and docudrama series and films, have made a concerted effort to instead refocus narratives away from notorious murderers and onto their targets. By the same token, in citing evidence for the corruptive consequences of serial killer-centred narratives, some have pointed to the Dahmer-related Tik Toks that have sprung up in the show’s wake, in which users have apparently expressed sorrow or sympathy for Dahmer or created “romantic” edits of scenes with him.

So should serial killers become characters non grata in – or at least be pushed to the background of – film and TV drama? Jarryd Bartle, a criminology and justice studies lecturer at Melbourne’s RMIT University, who has written about true crime and the Dahmer show itself, believes there can be no hard and fast rule on this matter. In fact, he is more sympathetic to the show than many reviewers, pointing out that it does have more of a focus on the victims than many other true-crime dramas, and many other film and TV treatments of the Jeffrey Dahmer story: the second half of the series does indeed refocus away from Dahmer and towards the victims, and their families, with a single victim, deaf, aspiring model Tony Hughes, becoming the focus of one particular episode.

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