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Is Ryan Murphy the right person to make a Jeffrey Dahmer series?

Ryan Murphy at San Diego Comic Con.
Ryan Murphy at San Diego Comic Con. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

TV showrunner mega-force Ryan Murphy has come to define television of the past decade in a way that few other single individuals can lay claim to. Thanks to massive hit series like Glee, American Horror Story, Pose, and American Crime Story, Murphy's empire has evolved into one of the true undisputed behemoths of modern entertainment. The New Yorker even called him "the most powerful man in TV." That's an honor that was only further cemented when he signed an exclusive deal for Netflix that was reportedly worth $300 million over a period of five years, a record high for the streaming service. His tenure on Netflix has been commercially positive according to the platform's mystery numbers but much more mixed with the critics. The Politician did fine while Hollywood proved extremely divisive, and Ratched seems tailor-made to piss off people who don't like Ryan Murphy's work. Still, he is an undeniable force, and whatever project he announces will garner plenty of attention.

That's exactly what happened when it was revealed that Murphy would be the creative force behind Monster, a miniseries focused on the story of the infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. The story of Dahmer remains one of the most brutal and terrifying cases of mass murder in 20th century American history. In 1992, Dahmer was convicted of 15 murders and sentenced to life imprisonment after 13 years of murdering, dismembering, and defiling the bodies of men and boys. Dahmer infamously engaged in acts of necrophilia and cannibalism and preserved various body parts he removed from his victims. He died in prison in 1994 after a fellow inmate beat him to death. Dahmer's case has fascinated true crime aficionados for decades. His mental state and competence has been dissected time and time again, and his status as a white gay man who typically targeted young men and boys of color from marginalized backgrounds is often cited as an example of how race, gender, and sexuality intersect with justice.

There have been a number of dramatizations of the Dahmer story, including one movie with a young Jeremy Renner, but the Murphy miniseries will be the most high-profile version in many years, and it'll certainly be the one that garners the most mainstream attention. But is he the right guy for the job?

One of the biggest problems that Murphy faces as a writer and showrunner is that he often seems to get bored with his own ideas. Watch any season of American Horror Story and you can practically set your watch to the moment where Murphy loses interest in his initial concept and things quickly go off the rails. There’s a fizziness to his stylistic approach that, while making even his weakest efforts oddly watchable, only further exposes his creative inconsistencies. Murphy has great ideas, but sticking the landing is a different skill altogether. He’s not unlike another juggernaut of modern television, J.J. Abrams, in that aspect. The ideas fly around, crying out for attention, but often don’t get the necessary room to breathe. Ratched is a prime example of Murphy off the leash: He wants to take on every idea and theme and trope but there are only so many episodes in a season and not every narrative can survive under this approach. With a Dahmer miniseries, it will be utterly necessary for Murphy and his team to be laser-focused on the realities of this brutal case, one which remains a tough topic to discuss in 2020.

The themes of the Dahmer investigation do seem primed for Murphy in many ways. The best Murphy shows work because he must stay on target. With the American Crime Story seasons, he was forced to adhere to history (often very familiar and extensively reported history) but he was still able to find the unexplored depths that brought the story to life in a new way. The People vs. O.J. Simpson thrived when it revealed the secret struggles of Marcia Clarke and Christopher Darden. The Assassination of Gianni Versace exposed the systemic homophobia of America in the 1990s and how it impacted Versace, his killer, and the investigation into his murder. These series work because of their detail, their empathy, and their ability to find the humanity at the heart of deeply sensationalized narratives.

The Dahmer story certainly would meet that criteria. This was a man, a deeply troubled individual impacted by homophobia and his own self-loathing, who managed to evade capture for so many years, even though he was a convicted and registered sex offender, because the police didn’t seem to care about the welfare of young queer men and boys of color. Two Milwaukee police officers infamously allowed one of Dahmer's victims, the 14-year-old Laotian boy name Konerak Sinthasomphone, to be returned to him after he fled Dahmer's apartment. Dahmer had told the officers that Sinthasomphone was his boyfriend and they had just had a squabble. Sinthasomphone was later murdered and dismembered. Any dramatization of this abhorrent event would need to fully examine the prejudices and systemic failings of the justice system, and that is certainly in the Murphy-verse wheelhouse.

Of course, American Crime Story is not a full-on Ryan Murphy show. He was merely an executive-producer on both seasons while showrunner duties fell to others. With Monster, Murphy will be fully in charge. There’s a world of difference between Murphy as showrunner and Murphy as an executive force. Frankly, the latter is typically more rewarding, as evidenced by series like Pose, where Murphy willingly handed over the reins to incredible trans and non-binary creatives like Janet Mock and Our Lady J.

Murphy off the leash tends to veer towards the garish, the overwhelming, and occasionally the upsetting. He loves moments of visceral disgust but often doesn’t pull back enough to give the moment more context. Murphy's work is tasteless, which isn't always a bad thing. When it works, it's like a glossier John Waters. When it fails, we get moments like the episode of American Horror Story: Hotel where a bunch of serial killers, including Dahmer, get together for wacky shenanigans and Dahmer assaulting a victim is played for laughs. A lot of Murphy’s clumsier moments expose his creative issues with writing women. All too often, casual misogyny is excused as either satire or camp (see basically every character in Glee for proof of that.) Ratched stumbles over and over again because it tries to take issues as grave as mental illness and dress them up as prestigious exploitation fare. It’s no wonder so many critics are fearful for Monster.

Murphy is developing Monster with Ian Brennan and Janet Mock, who both have incredible work under their belts, so hopefully they can temper the worst of the Murphy-verse's tendencies. There is a difficult but vital story to be told here, but the story of Dahmer’s victims is one that has already been overshadowed by lurid voyeurism and dismissal of their lives and identities. To this day, their legacy remains tainted by our public fascination with how they died. Pictures of their dismembered bodies are, unfortunately, available to view online. So many true crime documentaries and horror films have mined this tragedy for cheap thrills over the decades, including Murphy himself. Maybe this is a story that just can’t be told properly because the pain of reality does not and should not mesh with entertainment for pleasure’s sake. Ryan Murphy is a man of aesthetic pleasure, and even at his most humane, this isn’t something he’s primed for.