Last fall, Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story took the TV world by storm. The series quickly became one of Netflix’s most-watched English originals, generating a self-reported 1 billion hours viewed, and during the 2023 Golden Globes, Evan Peters took home an award for his role in the series. But for all of these accolades have come even more criticisms. Dahmer has been repeatedly called out by viewers, celebrities, and the families of victims for both its graphic nature and allegedly failing to reach out to survivors.
Seemingly unintentionally, Ryan Murphy’s serial killer drama has sparked a long-needed conversation about the ethics of true crime dramatizations. But what’s most interesting about this case is that this isn’t the first time Murphy has navigated these waters or even the first time he’s faced criticism in them. All seasons of American Crime Story — The People v O.J. Simpson, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, and Impeachment — have centered around real people and real cases. And though there was no crime at its center, Feud: Bette and Joan sparked a lawsuit from Olivia de Havilland for the portrayal of her character (it was later denied by the Supreme Court). FX’s list of dramatizations hasn’t even been limited by Murphy’s involvement. The Broadway miniseries Fosse/Verdon was an FX original as was Trust, a series about the Getty kidnapping. This is all to say, we’ve been here before. Yet unlike with Dahmer, these series have largely been met with widespread critical praise.
How are these true crime dramatizations handled? What’s the line between insightful and gratuitous? And what marks the difference between a critically-praised installment of this subgenre and one that is destined for criticism? To further open this conversation, Decider sat down with FX heads John Landgraf, Nick Grad, and Gina Balian at the Television Critics Association’s 2023 winter tour to discuss the ethical conversations around these projects. All three have worked with Murphy on his many real-life adaptations for FX, and all are involved in the upcoming second season of Feud, the Aaron Hernandez season of American Sports Story, and the John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette season of American Love Story. During a time when most executives dodge questions of this nature, all three were gracious enough to honestly share their insights into this thorny topic.
Decider: There have been a lot of true story dramatizations – FEUD is definitely in there, as are American Crime Story and American Sports Story. But with Dahmer on Netflix, there was a conversation about the ethics of these stories that was starting to open up. Do you have anything to say about that? And how do you feel about reaching out to the people you’re portraying on these shows?
John Landgraf, Chairman FX Networks and FX Productions: It’s really hard, frankly, to do true stories. Let’s put it this way: You need editorial control. One of the things I fight really hard for in all cases is editorial control, which we then delegate to the creators so that they really have creative freedom. Anybody who has editorial control other than the creator may have their own point of view and their own agenda. Now, for a victim, they have every right to have their own point of view or their own agenda. But what I would say is we’re pretty staunch about wanting to make uncensored stories and television.
I do think that if you think about it as a cycle, we’re late in the cycle as opposed to early. [The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story] was kind of early in the cycle, and now we’re late. Cycles, of course, come to an end, and then they inevitably reboot in some other form. Because, really, this kind of elevated true crime storytelling didn’t exist until O.J., so credit to Ryan for pioneering that.
John Solberg, Executive Vice President of Communications, FX: But the difference, if you look at FX, there’s generally a long window of time between when the events took place and when we actually start the show. So that’s one difference. Historically it was always like, “Let’s get it at the end of the year. Let’s rush to get it on the air.” And that’s not what we do.
Landgraf: Yeah, and Nick [Grad] pointed out, there’s a podcast called Revisionist History that Malcolm Gladwell hosts that’s really good. That’s what American Crime Story was and is.
Nick Grad, Co-President, FX Entertainment: I think a version of – maybe not as pronounced as Dahmer – with [The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story] we experienced… that show really focused on the victims and humanizing the victims that no one even knew.
Gina Balian, Co-President, FX Entertainment: Except just a name.
Grad: And part of the reason is because no one said there was a serial killer because the families had so much shame about, basically, outing their children. So it’s the subject matter. It comes down to intent.
Balian: Everyone feels a responsibility. You can’t do these stories and not feel a responsibility. The showrunners feel an enormous amount of responsibility around it. Ryan does incredibly, worries about it. So I don’t think it’s something anyone takes lightly.
No, I’ve never gotten the sense this was treated lightly. But it is a conversation currently happening. What are the conversations on your end about intent when it comes to these sorts of true crime stories?
Balian: Some of them are around what you’re actually showing, how far you’re going or not going and why a showrunner feels we need to show this. What’s the value of showing it? We debate those questions.
Grad: But I think for the most part, we’re less concerned with the who, what, when, where of a story and more concerned with the how and why. I think by nature of doing that, the intent is going to be more about really understanding what happened here. It takes you off that sort of gratuitous path.
Balian: Yeah, it’s not a recreation docudrama.
Grad: We’re not just saying, “Oh let’s show these murders because there were murders.”
Landgraf: I remember from the very beginning of American Crime Story, we were talking about the fact that was a story that had been claimed and appropriated by the tabloids. So to the audience, it was a true story, and it was a tabloid story. We were specifically conscious of, as an analogy, The Godfather. Gangster movies, or movies about Italian Americans, had been sort of gritty, grimy B movies until The Godfather. And along came Francis Ford Coppola who recast it as this grand, beautifully rendered opera. I think they specifically chose the locations and the costumes and the way they photographed it to try and elevate it so you could see it from a different point of view.
We were very conscious, when we were doing O.J., of not really seeing any shots until we had something of the cinematic quality and the performance quality of what we were looking to put forward. So that comes back to what Nick was saying and what Gina was saying. Any time we’re approaching something, there’s a historical, sociological, cinematic, thematic reason to retell this story, a feeling that we can present it to an audience – Ryan can present it, collaborators can present it in a different way – and you can change your perspective about what it is.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Comments are closed.