Writing for TV: Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story Pilot
Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story was the talk of the month when it first premiered in September. Though there are some valid criticisms, there is a lot to learn from this show writing-wise, especially its pilot. Any show that gains a large audience is worth highlighting and diving deep into what makes it worthwhile.
Created by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan for Netflix, the series explores the motives of Jeffrey Dahmer and how he became one of the most notorious serial killers in America. Let’s discuss Episode One and how a pilot script like this could attract such a large entity like Netflix.
Still from 'Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story'. Photo credit: The Wrap
Rehashing a Known Story
For whatever reason, audiences are always intrigued by a good serial killer story, primarily when it’s based on a real-life figure. Though it’s challenging to walk that muddled line of romanticizing someone who has committed terrible acts, crime or true crime stories will always be popular, at least in the foreseeable future.
In Dahmer’s case, the name is so deeply entrenched with the phrase serial killer; it’s impossible to imagine how someone can create yet another Dahmer adaptation. This decade alone, we’ve seen dramatized versions of the story with 2017’s My Friend Dahmer and 2002’s Dahmer.
However, we have the successful duo of Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan in this case. Murphy alone has been nominated for 36 Primetime Emmy Awards and won six. So, when you have that level of success, you’ll more likely get the green light on a Dahmer television series than a novice.
For theoretical purposes, even if you wrote the exact same script and did the same pitch Murphy and Brennan did to Netflix, the show probably wouldn’t get made. Thus, a show that focuses on a person who is already so saturated with other films and television series is typically only done by an established writer.
Still, from a writing perspective, Murphy and Brennan understood their task with Dahmer. The question centers around the ability to retell a story that so many people are already familiar with. One of the ways Murphy and Brennan did so is to have its pilot be the end-point of Dahmer’s crimes. The non-linear story structure keeps it different from the various other dramatizations of Dahmer, allowing it to highlight areas that might’ve not been done by previous adaptations.
The biggest issue with an adaptation of a serial killer is its ability to tell a story about the character without romanticizing their actions. It's a valid criticism when a show is about a real-life person who has done terrible things but in a light that gives an excuse for what they did.
Though the verdict is up for debate with Dahmer, the writing lesson is to know who you’re writing about and its perceived message. It’s perfectly fine to tell a story about someone who is clearly evil, but you need to understand that the audience should perceive what they’re doing as wrong.
Showing the acts is one thing; most people can see a dramatization of what Dahmer did and understand it’s wrong. However, there’s the case of heavily focusing on Dahmer’s upbringing and making that a sole excuse for everything Dahmer did later on in his life. There’s a delicate balance between attempting to unpack the reason Dahmer became who he became and showing the brutality of it all.
Music Is Everything
In Murphy’s case, you don’t get to make a show like Glee if you don’t enjoy music. As different as Dahmer is from Glee, both shows understand the necessity of music. In Episode One of Dahmer, one of the first tracks we hear is "Nite and Day" by Al B. Sure. The track sets up the club scene well, removing us from the creepy beginning of Dahmer interacting with his neighbor and shifting gears to another setting.
Setting a Story Up
The criticisms of the show aside, its most significant strength are its ability to set the story up. Ending the pilot with Dahmer’s arrest and the gruesome discoveries of his apartment sets the rest of the season up. I imagine Murphy and Brennan planned it in this non-linear fashion to attract audiences from the top.
With a story about a figure like Dahmer, audiences know how the story ends. In that way, the show chose to showcase that ending early, so the rest of the season is filled with scenes that aren’t as known. In this way, it marks how vital episode one or a pilot is when writing for TV.
Pilots are all about setting the show-up and giving the audience a sense of what to expect. Whether you talk about iconic shows like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos to this current true crime anthology series, none of it will work without a strong pilot. You'll get at least a season if you can get a good pilot.