By now, actress Niecy Nash-Betts has more than proved that she can excel in genres other than comedy. A quick look at her past Emmy nominations say as much, with an Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie nod for “When They See Us,” Ava DuVernay’s poignant limited series about the Central Park Five, listed right next to an Outstanding Television Movie nomination as an executive producer of “Reno 911!: The Hunt for QAnon.”
Yes, she can perform it all, but what her work on “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” proves is that Nash-Betts has the ability to elevate projects in a way where one could argue they would not work without her. Playing Glenda Cleveland, the titular serial killer’s next-door neighbor who desperately tried to alert authorities to Dahmer’s evildoing, only to be belittled and dismissed.
Despite becoming one of the most watched Netflix series of all time, “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” arrived on the platform steeped in controversy over how it was made without the involvement of the victims’ families, and how some viewers found its portrayal of Dahmer to be endearing. If one were to focus on the beginning of the series, which is mainly the serial killer’s origin story, those are certainly valid pieces of criticism. Though viewers are spared from seeing much of Dahmer in action, the audience does glimpse several dismembered body parts and hears all the agonizing noises that tortured Cleveland.
But the show takes a turn at the midpoint, pushing Dahmer further toward the background in favor of portraying not only the damage the criminal did on the mostly Black community surrounding Oxford apartments in Milwaukee, but how the criminal justice system continually failed them.
In actuality, Nash-Betts is playing a composite character (Dahmer’s actual next-door neighbor was a woman named Pamela Bass), and though that aspect brings in even more ethical questions, looking at the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie-nominated performance itself, the star provides the best representation of the show’s best intentions.
Driven by maternal instincts, likely helped by the fact her real-life daughter Dia Nash was on set playing one of Cleveland’s daughters, Nash-Betts does an excellent job in scenes like the infamous moment the cops sent 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone back to Dahmer despite the Clevelands’ pleas to recognize the victim as an endangered child. It is a throughline throughout the season of Glenda Cleveland exhibiting dignity in the face of adversity, trying her best to force a sense of urgency upon the lackadaisical police force without having them pettily turn their target her way.
Still, the moments where Nash-Betts shine most are when Cleveland is alone, shedding her honorable facade to break down and show just how devastating it can be to know something as horrific as the Jeffrey Dahmer murders are happening day-after-day, yet no one with power is willing to heed your warnings.
Speaking to IndieWire earlier in the season, “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” director Paris Barclay, also Emmy-nominated this year, expressed the same concern over the show having any intention of pathologizing Dahmer’s actions.
“I don’t know if we could ever figure it out. And I frankly don’t care. I was glad to be a part in the final episode — of killing him,” he said with a laugh. “But what I do care about is the legacy that people live on. I do care about that. Glenda Cleveland still continued to fight for the (memorial) park and for the acknowledgement of the victims in the course of the series. Those are the things that I think are worth our hearts going out for.”
For as committed a performance as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie nominee Evan Peters gives in the lead role, it’s the soulful, heartrending work of Nash-Betts that justifies why the grisly true crime story would ever need a revisit.
“Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” is available to stream on Netflix.