Murder! Cannibalism! BQB here with a review of Netflix’s latest true crime series.
If you were alive in the early 1990s, then you may recall a time when the news was all Dahmer all the time. You couldn’t turn on the TV without learning something new about the prolific, psychotic serial killer who was caught when one of his victims escaped and led police back to his Milwaukee, Wisconsin apartment which contained bones, skulls, heads, photos of dead bodies and body parts, some preserved and some left to dissolve in a barrel of acid. Yup, Old Jeffy was doing that long before Jesse botched it in his bathtub on Breaking Bad.
Speaking of botching things, Netflix tends to do that with a lot of its movies and shows, but they handle a very gruesome story here and they do it well, such that if you have a sensitive stomach or just ate lunch, you might not want to watch. Otherwise, they bring the viewer in and provide a lot of history, parts of the story that either weren’t well publicized or maybe I just missed it at the time because I was just a kid.
It’s weird how certain things happen that affect a person’s life. But for a certain incident or even several strung together, someone might have been an entirely different person and lived an entirely different life. At any rate, the chain of events in Jeffrey Dahmer’s young life were such that it’s almost as if he were given a master class on how to become a serial killer at a young age and could not have become anything else.
The story moves around a lot, starting when Dahmer gets caught. He openly confesses to police and from there the story shifts back and forth in time, from Dahmer’s childhood, teen years, early twenties back to the height of his murder spree in his late twenties and early thirties up until his arrest.
As a child, Little Jeff saw a lot of things that kids just shouldn’t see. His mother Shari (an almost unrecognizable Penelope Ann Miller) has mental problems, such that she attempts suicide often and Lil’ Jeff sees her in a drugged up state of near death. She constantly screams and hollers at husband Lionel (Richard Jenkins), pulling a knife on him at one point for Lil Jeff to see. Also, she’s obsessed with UFOs. She really believes little green men are after her, to the point that she’s ready to cut you if you disagree.
In turn, Lionel’s response to the situation isn’t great. Though it’s understandable he doesn’t want to stick around his crazy, alien obsessed wife while she’s yelling at him and pulling sharp cutlery on him, the solution wasn’t to just run away, leaving the kids with her alone for days at a time. The solution was to get her some help and get the kids out of the house.
Overall, I’m confused on what happened with his parents. On one hand, the series treats Shari as a woman who late in life, it is revealed by more modern medicine that she suffered from postpartum depression, and perhaps if 1960s doctors had been more up to snuff, they would have been able to help her and not just treat her as a wacko lady suffering from lady delusions. On the other hand, she does pull knives on her hubby and I doubt if the situation were reversed, we’d have much sympathy for a man who pulls a knife on his wife, bats in his belfry be damned.
At any rate, the couple divorces but a lack of communication leads to each assuming the other is taking care of Jeff during his senior year. Mom leaves the house with younger son David, telling 17 year old Jeff to go live with his father. Dad runs off with a new love interest and assumes Jeff was staying with his ex-wife. In a total not-parents of the year move, neither bothers to check on the lad until Dad finally does and realizes the kid has been living by himself for three months (who the eff was paying all the house bills?)
During this unsupervised time, the Jeffster makes his first kill and its a road to horror from there. Then again, the boy was always obsessed with death. Watching his father remove a dead possum from under the house catches his interest. Lionel, a scientist, mistakenly assumes this means his young son has an interest in anatomy, so the duo develop a hobby of collecting roadkill and dissecting dead animals in the garage together.
I could go on and on, but overall, it’s a story of how a kid can grow up to be messed up if a) he’s exposed to messed up things and b) there isn’t an adult who gives the kid the proper guidance as well as c) the police, government, teachers and other members of the system miss the warning signs.
One wonders how many lives might have been saved if Lionel had told his son, “No son. Dissecting roadkill is creepy and everyone will think you’re a creepy little shit if you do it. Stop doing creepy shit.”
What if Shari’s doctors had caught her problem early so she wasn’t always being mental in front of Lil Jeff? What if the police had arrested him at 18 when he had human remains in the back seat? What if the police had listened to good samaritans who found a drugged up boy with a head injury and pleaded with police to look into this rather than just assume it was a lover’s spat gone wrong?
To be certain, there is much non-wokeness in Jeff’s life and Netflix doesn’t ignore it or try to spin it for modern times. It takes places from the 1960s to the 1990s, not exactly a good time for wokeness. Rather than sugarcoat it, Netflix lets things that were considered fine in that day happen on screen for us to cringe at with modern eyes. Lionel and Shari’s doctor talking about Shari as if she wasn’t there, scolding her for interrupting. Cops who couldn’t get out of Dahmer’s apartment fast enough, concerned they might catch gay germs. Grandma who urges the young man to come to church and pray the gay away. (Although I don’t want to knock Granny too much as she seems like the only relative the kid had who had any patience for him.) A socially isolated Jeff who makes fun of kids with cerebal palsy for laughs, just because he’s starved for any kind of attention.
Context is largely dead in modern TV, but Netflix trusts us to look at these olden times, warts and all, that we won’t think the bad things that were acceptable in that era were cool but rather, that we can see how they led someone like Dahmer to do bad things.
STATUS: Shelf-worthy. Great acting from Miller and Jenkins (Molly Ringwald also as Lionel’s second wife Shari) as well as Evan Peters, he of X-Men Quicksilver fame who plays Dahmer. Don’t forget Niecy Nash who plays Dahmer’s long suffering next door neighbor Glenda. Speaking of what ifs, one wonders how many lives might have been saved if police had taken her calls about her neighbor’s smelly apartment, scary sounds coming from her neighbor’s apartment, holy shit will you guys come check out my neighbor’s freak show apartment already?