This week I watched a programme featuring an adorable child with a bowl cut and spectacles who has adventures and gets into scrapes in wacky oldfangled America. Li’l Jeffrey is a deadpan misfit who has a quirky hobby he shares with his square-jawed father (roadkill collection, vivisection and taxidermy) to the consternation of his flighty UFO-obsessed mother. It has all the makings of a network sitcom.
Sadly, Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is actually yet another prestige series about a famous person from the olden days made by the television auteur Ryan Murphy. Li’l Jeffrey just appears from time to time in flashback, begging for a spin-off. Much of it takes place in the 1980s.
In a way, Ryan Murphy is cashing in on 1980s nostalgia, much like Stranger Things. Yes, everyone loves the eighties — Hall and Oates, the Krankies, supply-side economics, Alf, the Progressive Democrats, Shaddap Your Face by Joe Dolce
Ryan Murphy hasn’t yet encountered a famous person from the olden days he doesn’t want to make a limited series about, and he’s on to the serial killers now. In a way, I suppose, he’s also cashing in on 1980s nostalgia, much like Stranger Things. Yes, everyone loves the eighties — Hall and Oates, the Krankies, supply-side economics, Alf, the Progressive Democrats, Shaddap Your Face by Joe Dolce.
And much like Shaddap Your Face by Joe Dolce, Jeffrey Dahmer is dark and disturbing. This becomes apparent to all in the first episode when the police find human body parts strewn about his flat, in the fridge, in the drain, in the large acid barrel near his bed. On reflection, having an acid barrel near the bed is a bit of a red flag. Also, once I became accustomed to Dahmer’s psychopathic murderousness (there’s a lot of it), I found myself very judgmental about his untidiness. “There’s no excuse for it, Jeffrey, clean up after yourself!” I said frequently.
Before his arrest, Jeffrey waved no red flags at all with the policemen he apparently encountered with almost comic frequency. At one point some officers let him off with a warning for drunk driving because of his sad little face, not noticing that he had a car full of dismembered hitchhiker. When a drugged teenager escaped from his death dungeon, passing policemen allowed Dahmer take his “drunk boyfriend” back to the house where he killed him.
This really happened. Police folk just liked the cut of Dahmer’s jib for some reason. What was it about Jeffrey’s jib, his blond, white jib, that police trusted above those of his worried black neighbours? It’s clear from the start that Dahmer is pretty bad at serial killing, body disposal and police evasion and that he slapsticks his way through it for so long because of institutional racism. Even in the world of serial killing, it seems, white mediocrity rises to the top.
Initially this seems as if it might be the point of the show, to showcase the racist way in which Dahmer’s crimes were investigated and reported, while the young men of colour he murdered were sidelined. But, if so, it would be much shorter. (It’s 10 episodes long!) Also, the creators would surely have focused more on those victims rather than exploitatively depicting their horrible deaths (family members have been critical of the show) and, at least in the first three episodes, dwelling at length on Dahmer’s upbringing and doing so largely from his point of view.
In these scenes we see Dahmer’s cold, angry father and his fragile, emotional mother. We see them argue. We see him engage in recreational animal vivisection with his father. We see him struggle with his sexuality and his loneliness while gazing at passing hunks. He just wants to make new friends, you see, and, also, eat them. We see him drink a lot of Budweiser.
We see Dahmer drink a lot of Budweiser. I start suspecting the whole show’s an advertorial, that Budweiser did some research, found its main demographic was ‘people who are like Jeffrey Dahmer’ and decided to roll with it. If you’ve ever tasted Budweiser, this will ring true with you
It’s always Budweiser, and the camera dwells almost erotically on the label. It does this to the extent that I start suspecting the whole show is an advertorial, that the people at Budweiser did some market research, found that their main demographic was “people who are like Jeffrey Dahmer” and just decided to roll with it. If you’ve ever tasted Budweiser, this will ring true to you.
The moral weirdness of the whole endeavour is exacerbated by the fact that Evan Peters, who plays Dahmer, is a great actor. He’s so good at speaking in Dahmer’s tortured halting style and depicting his creepy blank-eyed suffering that viewers might even find themselves accidentally empathising, saying “Poor Jeffrey Dahmer. He’s having a really tough day” and “Can’t Jeffrey Dahmer catch a break?” and “Hey cop, what’s your beef with Jeffrey Dahmer? Why not cut him some slack?” before remembering: “Oh yeah, there’s also all those murders he did” or “He’s very untidy. There’s no excuse for that.”
Dahmer’s life is presented as a meaningless jumble of biographical details that make his crimes no more or less explicable than before you saw this programme. There’s a void at its centre, and what we’re left with is unnerving, upsetting and philosophically empty
I don’t think Murphy and co are trying to argue some sympathetic causal link between Dahmer’s sad but common life experiences and Dahmer’s uniquely horrible crimes. There’s no plausible cause and effect here. There’s never a point where you can actually say, “Ah I see now that the real ‘monster’ is [insert a societal woe of your choice here*].” (*I always go with “capitalism” or “the music of Maroon 5.) You can’t. Dahmer is a complete outlier.
Consequently, this is an unavoidably cynical and voyeuristic show. Ultimately his life is presented as a meaningless jumble of biographical details that make his crimes no more or less explicable than before you saw this programme. ‘Inexplicably There Is a Serial Killer’ is the thesis statement. There’s a void at the centre of the show, and what we’re left with is unnerving, upsetting and philosophically empty.
And yet people are watching it in droves. It has sat for weeks at the top of the Top 10 TV Programmes in Ireland Today panel on the Netflix homepage, often alongside shows like Selling Sunset and Love Is Blind. As an Irish Times intellectual I am unwholesomely obsessed with the Irish psyche, and the Netflix top 10 feels like as good a place as any to explore that psyche’s gibbering, gurning id.
Based on that, it appears that as a people we are concerned with finding love, purchasing expensive real estate and avoiding or possibly being murderous sociopaths. (Conversations with a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes is also in the top 10 this week.) In time a psychotherapist will write a paper called Hunks, Houses and Homicide: The Irish Psyche in a Time of Netflix, and it will all make sense. It probably has something to do with the British. I find it’s usually their fault.
Paw Patrol is also in the top 10. It sits there like a multicoloured beacon of childlike joy in a bleak, muted wilderness of tawdry adult obsession. Of course, as I’ve written before, the world of Paw Patrol is a dystopia in which the emergency services are outsourced to mechanised dogs and everyone bows to the whims of a financially independent child. So, in a way, our children’s sense of the future is even darker than ours. Maybe someone should make Li’l Jeffrey after all. I’m sure the nihilists at Netflix Kids will be all over it.