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Netflix's 'Dahmer' Series Is A Big Hit. But At What Price?

A photo of actor Evan Peters, wearing glasses and looking threatening, in the Netflix series  "Dahmer: Monster—The Jeffrey Dahmer Story."
Evan Peters in "Dahmer: Monster—The Jeffrey Dahmer Story."
(Netflix)
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I have a friend who is obsessed with true crime stories. So I asked for her take on Netflix’s global hit, Dahmer—Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. Relatives of some of Dahmer’s victims have attacked the series for its graphic recreations of his murders (17 people total) and what followed (dismemberment and cannibalism).

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“I tried to watch the pilot and couldn't do it,” my friend told me. “He freaks me out too much. And, in the back of my mind was the niggling thought that this is glorifying him in some way. Even though I know they are humanizing the victims, I just couldn't do it. This has never happened to me before, but even before the news came out about the victims' families, I felt like watching would be a betrayal of them.”

She’s one of the very few who decided not to watch Dahmer.

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Top Netflix Series

Soon after its debut on Sept. 21, the 10-part series became Netflix’s second most-popular English-language series ever, trailing only the fourth season of Stranger Things. It’s been the top Netflix series around the world, from Argentina to Ukraine.

In discussing the streamers’ better-than-expected quarterly earnings earlier this week, top Netflix executives praised Dahmer’s performance.

It’s indisputable that Dahmer is a financial winner.

Whether Dahmer is a moral winner is quite another question.

Created by Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story, American Crime Story), Dahmer was released with no material marketing or publicity, either because Netflix wasn’t worried about the series, or because it worried too much. (Quite oddly, more than a month after Dahmer debuted, Netflix will hold a “special press conference” about the show on October 29.)

Even without any promotion, Dahmer immediately attracted outsized attention.

Chief among the criticisms is that Dahmer is far more invested in the perpetrator and his childhood than his victims; tellingly and bizarrely, the series title uses Dahmer’s name twice.

In the sixth episode, the show spends more time than usual on victim Tony Hughes, a deaf man who was Dahmer’s 12th target. But whatever fleeting compassion is granted to Hughes is quickly undone by the episode’s final frames, when Dahmer sautes and then eats what appears to be Hughes’ liver.

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Condemning Prurience

At the same time, Dahmer seeks to condemn the prurient media attention his crimes sparked. Yes, that’s a bit hypocritical. As critic Jen Chaney writes in herDahmerreview on Vulture: “You don’t get credit for lamenting the existence of a circus when you happen to be the ringmaster.”

True crime stories can play a vital role, and many movies and series — both documentary and narrative —have done so.

They can expose possible miscarriages of justice, illustrate deeper problems in society, and can use fiction to explore more important truths. (See below for my recommendations on what to watch).

Or they can do what Dahmer does. Which is…what?

True Crime Recommendations

True crime documentaries about possible miscarriages of justice:

  • The Thin Blue Line (1988)
  • Paradise Lost, and its sequels (1996)
  • Making a Murderer (2015-2018)
  • The Keepers (2017)

True (and alleged) crime documentaries that say something more broadly about society: 

  • Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
  • O.J.: Made in America (2016)
  • Strong Island (2017)
  • Wild Wild Country (2018)
  • We Need to Talk About Cosby (2022)

True crime narrative films/series that use the crime to tell a more important story:

  • Foxcatcher (2014)
  • Spotlight (2015)
  • When They See Us (2019)
  • Under the Banner of Heaven (2022)
  • Till (2022)
What questions do you have about film, TV, music, or arts and entertainment?
John Horn, entertainment reporter and host of our weekly podcast Retake, explores whether the stories that Hollywood tells about itself really reflect what's going on?