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'Dahmer' on Netflix: All the Backlash and Real Story, Explained

Netflix took away the Jeffrey Dahmer show's LGBTQ tag after huge backlash.

Gael Cooper
CNET editor Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." She's been a journalist since 1989, working at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, Twin Cities Sidewalk, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and NBC News Digital. She's Gen X in birthdate, word and deed. If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
Expertise Breaking news, entertainment, lifestyle, travel, food, shopping and deals, product reviews, money and finance, video games, pets, history, books, technology history, generational studies. Credentials
  • Co-author of two Gen X pop-culture encyclopedia for Penguin Books. Won "Headline Writer of the Year"​ award for 2017, 2014 and 2013 from the American Copy Editors Society. Won first place in headline writing from the 2013 Society for Features Journalism.
Gael Cooper
4 min read
Evan Peters as Jeffrey Dahmer

Evan Peters plays Jeffrey Dahmer in the new Netflix series.


Netflix's latest true-crime blockbuster -- Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story -- has broken viewing records, but some wish the Milwaukee killer wasn't getting quite so much exposure. Dahmer (the show) has been generating plenty of controversy. Let's break it down.

The reaction 

Dahmer is the latest in a long line of real-life-inspired stories that focus on the killer or criminal. The fascination with serial killers goes back past Silence of the Lambs in lurid fiction and nonfiction, with real-life killers portrayed in films like the 2019 movie Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, which starred Zac Efron as murderer Ted Bundy. There's a whole industry of nonfiction books and podcasts, including the glibly titled My Favorite Murder. Netflix has already got into the act with true-crime serials, including The Staircase, Making a Murderer and Tiger King, as well as serial killer dramatization Mindhunter. 

But any true-crime show invites the question of whether it's glamorizing the criminal at the expense of the victims. Rita Isbell, sister of Errol Lindsey, one of the men Dahmer murdered, talked to Insider about the show. She gave an emotional victim impact statement at Dahmer's 1992 sentencing, a scene that is re-created in the series.

"I was never contacted about the show," Isbell told Insider. "I feel like Netflix should've asked if we mind or how we felt about making it. They didn't ask me anything. They just did it."

Others have posted on social media asking that the victims be remembered rather than the man whose name appears twice in the show's title.

What's more, Netflix originally put Dahmer in its LGBTQ category, which usually features upbeat shows like the acclaimed romance Heartstopper. Dahmer was gay, but Netflix has since removed that tag following fan outcry. "This is not the representation we're looking for," one viewer wrote on TikTok

How real is the series?

Anne E. Schwartz, the reporter who broke the Dahmer story in the Milwaukee Journal in 1991, told the UK-based Independent that the Netflix series wasn't accurate in some ways. 

Schwartz, who later worked for the Milwaukee Police Department and Wisconsin Department of Justice, said "the depiction of city police officers as racist and homophobic was incorrect," the paper reports. 

Also, the series features Niecy Nash as Dahmer's neighbor, Glenda Cleveland. She's shown as living right next door to the killer and staring him down in the hall, as well as reporting the smells and sounds of the murders to the police. Schwartz pointed out that Cleveland, who died in 2011, actually lived in a separate building from Dahmer. But it was Cleveland who tried to talk the police out of returning a 14-year-old victim, Konerak Sinthasomphone, to Dahmer, who went on to murder the boy.

The basics

Jeffrey Dahmer was real, of course, but the things he did were so horrible it almost seems impossible. Born in Milwaukee in 1960, he had a troubled childhood, with an early interest in dead animals and dissection. Then, over 13 years beginning in 1978, he murdered and dismembered 17 men and boys, committing necrophilia and cannibalism, and preserving body parts and bones. He was finally caught in 1991 and sentenced to 17 terms of life imprisonment. Another inmate beat Dahmer to death in prison in 1994. 

The 10-episode series jumps between Dahmer's unhappy childhood, his murders and his eventual arrest. In addition to the horror of Dahmer's crimes, the series shows how the Milwaukee police didn't listen to neighbors who warned them something was going on in the killer's apartment. Two officers actually returned one of Dahmer's victims to him when the boy, badly injured and drugged, tried to escape the house of horrors. 

The show is disturbing, often gory, and a grim watch. After about a week on Netflix, it has mixed or average reviews from critics on Metacritic, and generally favorable reviews from users.

Daniel Fienberg of The Hollywood Reporter wrote in his review, "Put through a different editing process, there is an intelligent interrogation of Jeffrey Dahmer's crimes, the real people impacted and the consequences here. It's frequently lost or obscured."

Fienberg and other critics call out episode six, titled Silenced, as an exceptional episode within the series. It focuses on one of the men Dahmer killed, Tony Hughes. "Tony was deaf and, in placing a Black, deaf, gay character at the center of the narrative, the series is giving voice to somebody whose voice has too frequently been excluded from gawking serial killer portraits," Fienberg writes.

But Caroline Framke of Variety writes that, unfortunately, "Silenced is the exception rather than the rule," and not all the episodes are as well-done.

Who plays the serial killer?

Dahmer is played by Evan Peters, who has held multiple roles in various American Horror Story seasons and who plays Quicksilver in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Dahmer reunites Peters with director Ryan Murphy, who co-created both American Horror Story and Dahmer.

Show features two iconic actors

Michael Learned, famous for her role as rural mother Olivia Walton on The Waltons, stars as Dahmer's grandmother, Catherine. Learned is a 1970s icon, but there's also a 1980s icon starring in this show. Molly Ringwald, of John Hughes movie fame, plays Dahmer's stepmother, Shari. You'll barely recognize her.

The series also stars Richard Jenkins as Dahmer's father, Lionel. Niecy Nash plays Glenda Cleveland, Dahmer's apartment neighbor who tries everything she can to make the Milwaukee police pay attention to the horrific smells and sounds coming from behind his door.

Actors Richard Jenkins, Molly Ringwald and Penelope Ann Miller converse in a hallway in a scene from Dahmer - Monster

Richard Jenkins plays Jeffrey Dahmer's father, Molly Ringwald (center) plays his stepmother Shari, and Penelope Ann Miller plays his mother, Joyce.


How to watch

All 10 episodes are now available for streaming on Netflix.

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