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Ryan Murphy’s Obsession With Monsters Yields A Middling Morbid Spectacle

Dec 25, 2022

What is it that draws Ryan Murphy to monsters? Or, if not monsters, then at least incredibly flawed people. Brooke McQueen, Andrew Cunanan, Rachel Berry, Nurse Ratched, Payton Hobart, OJ Simpson, Henry Willson, and now Jeffrey Dahmer. Part of this is a rhetorical question, to be sure: us queers love to find solace in the outcasts, alienated, and unwanted. But fewer of us construct, with $100 million development deals, the scaffolding around some of the most diabolical to make them sympathetic. It was a tell when Murphy dropped the singer-songwriter pastiche “Unworthy of Your Love” from the Stephen Sondheim musical “Assassins” into one of his other Netflix ventures, “The Politician”: a musical revue interrogating the nature of the rogues gallery of people who successfully and unsuccessfully assassinated United States’ presidents, the song is performed by John Hinkley Jr. (who is a real folk singer!) and Squeaky Fraum, a testament to a project of trying to make human those who have been flattened by history. 
That, too, seems to be Murphy’s goal, and though it’s not an especially novel one, television maker has a not uninteresting vantage point in his queerness. He is (and I would be the first to tell you) a flawed storyteller, self-aggrandizing and, even working with writing partners like Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuck, imprecise and inconsistent. But, at least in the wake of series like “Pose” and “American Crime Story,” he’s developed a broader consideration of how others are created and cultivated and how those structures maintain power.
READ MORE: Fall 2022 TV Preview: Over 45 Series To Watch 
It’s the conflicting impulses between the self-satisfied moodiness and the relatively earnest, if extremely unsatisfying, analysis of the social landscape of the midwest through the late 1970s to the early 1990s that cleaves “Monster — Dahmer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” in pieces. Unlike “The Assassination of Giani Versace: American Crime Story,” another story of a serial killer, its attention is unfocused and devoid of cohesion, at any time being an origin story for and a dramatization of Dahmer (Evan Peters) and his life, an excavation of the racist police system that refused to help the Black and brown communities affected by Dahmer’s killings, a redemption story for Dahmer’s parents (Richard Jenkins and Penelope Ann Miller), a resurrection and recognition of the neighbor, Glenda Cleaveland (Niecy Nash) who tried to call attention to Dahmer’s crimes, a eulogy to the victims, and an indictment of the social and cultural structures that made closure for those families near impossible while making Dahmer a macabre celebrity. 
But most of these thematic inquiries aren’t grappled with substantively until the show’s sixth episode, “Silenced,” and it’s here where its ambitions and abilities reveal their incompatibility. While the first half of the series meanders in its attempt to pathologize Dahmer, revisiting his family life, murders, and the lack of meaningful consequences to early signs of psychopathy, “Dahmer” tears a page from the “Only Murders in the Building” playbook by building an episode around, and sometimes from the perspective of, Tony Hughes (Rodney Burnford), who was deaf. It’s one of the few moments of formal inventiveness in the series insofar as the sound disappears and dialogue (signed and spoken) is in subtitles. But it’s clear that Tony is a kind of forgotten object for the series, an instrumentalization of the show’s supposed ability to redirect focus to the victimized and the ripple effects in the community and how the justice system doesn’t actually serve marginalized people. Tony, as a character, has to bear much of that burden in a single episode, as opposed to a more fully integrated perspective. And when he isn’t, Glenda is. Most of the other victims don’t have their lives fleshed out. Even when episodes are loosely structured (albeit nonlinearly) around certain murders, they feel like little more than morbid spectacle. 
But “Dahmer” does lay out its aspirations in its earliest moments, with Glenda watching a report of police brutality on the television, simultaneously marking her as the closest thing we’ll get to a purveyor of something like justice. With her gravelly voice spiked with raw emotion, Nash is one of the only things that anchors the show with something truly compelling, even with what little screen time she ultimately has. Her performance is textured, dramatic, and wrought with the pain of someone torn between believing she could have done more and knowing that the system simply did not listen to her. 
One wishes that the show were, from her point of view for its entirety, a sharp bystander who figures within a matrix of social power. But the show spends the majority of its time with Dahmer himself. Peters gives the character something like a laconic midwestern nice accent that toggles between affable enough that you’d believe white cops would let him get away with things and simply ignore Black people and a kind of tediousness that threatens, at least dramatically, to break that reality. He lumbers, not so much the most attractive gay guy at any club, so much as he is tall, blonde, and has cheekbones. He is not especially well-spoken, and the awkwardness is supposed to be, at different times, charming or frightening. There is almost a conflict between the show’s goals and Peters’: “Dahmer” wants to make him, at times, haunting, a terrifying person whose reason is beyond our understanding, but Peters plays him, very often, as vacant and kind of oafish.
This paradox would be compelling, particularly in relation to the way that police basically allowed Dahmer to continue his crimes if the show weren’t so excruciatingly boring. Bathed in darkness, with such a lack of depth to the image that it becomes soporific and waxen, the show repeatedly conflates long shots with tension. While its pilot attempts to establish an aesthetic vocabulary built on gradually shifting power dynamics between predator and prey, those transfers are made at a glacial pace. In the rest of the series, push-ins, zooms, static shots, and other techniques that are supposed to sustain dramatic and emotional tautness are instead turgid and rendered dull. “Dahmer” goes on and on for ten episodes, only ever occasionally finding an intriguing angle in the last few episodes. 
Even when the audience is faced with the punishing reality of police, lawyers, and a broader public uninterested in the humanity of the people involved, which the series is allegedly supposed to reassert, it all comes off as painfully boring. It staggers from scene to scene and episode to episode. Rather than engendering righteous fury or the more complicated emotion, it goes after towards the end of the series, “Dahmer” inspires yawns. You can’t be depressing and monotonous. 
It appears evident that Murphy wants to do for Dahmer what he did for Andrew Cunanan in “Versace” while also being pulled toward the social and political realities of how Dahmer’s crimes, and origins, were different from Cunanan’s. But it’s Cunanan’s more overt, obsessive desire to belong (particularly as a mixed-race kid whose family is not as wealthy as it appears) embodied by the theatre kid desperation of Darren Criss that makes “Versace” the best thing that Murphy will ever make because it feels the most autobiographical. “Versace” is a focused self-laceration that uses its reverse chronology and baroque aesthetics to literally deconstruct how an outsider, and one for whom beauty is tantamount, is created. It’s gorgeous and terrible, sad and thrilling, horrifying and intoxicating, contextualizing a serial killer without necessarily letting him off the hook in a way that would be exploitative. It’s the most honest work Murphy may ever make.
It’s a little ironic since beauty is supposedly something the two would share as an interest: one of the reasons that the audience is given for Dahmer’s crimes is that he wants to capture beauty and keep it for himself. He goes after boys and men because they’re beautiful. His first act is stealing a silver mannequin and caressing its synthetic chiseled features in bed, and he goes on to recreate this scenario with someone at a bathhouse before learning to take and drug tricks there. His obsession is beauty and its tangibility, even if it takes the form of its destruction. He is covetous about it. And while it’s clear that the show is nominally interested in unpacking that, particularly within a queer and racialized framework, it never finds a way to express it. “Dahmer” never knows how to engage with the man’s madness. It basically bails on its own goals of humanization by the final episodes, brushing off the ten hours we’ve spent with a short monologue about how people like Dahmer can never be understood in the first place. But if “Dahmer” is supposed to contain similar streaks of Murphy’s reflection like “Versace” and even “Hollywood” or “Glee,” through his greed for the beautiful and pulchritude amongst the grotesque and voracious hunger to be wanted, the show fails, instead just languishing, unworthy of your love. [C]

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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