A version of this story about “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story“ first appeared in the Down to the Wire: Drama and Limited Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
The Emmys won’t air for five months, but already Paris Barclay has made an impact. With his Outstanding Directing for a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie nomination for Netflix’s “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” Barclay became the first Black director to be nominated in all three narrative directing categories: limited series for “Dahmer”; drama series for “The West Wing” in 2002 and “NYPD Blue” in both 1998 and 1999; and comedy series for “Glee” in 2010, 2013 and 2014. (He won twice, both for “NYPD Blue.”)
“I’m very grateful, because whenever a body of your peers actually decides the work is significant enough to be nominated for an Emmy, it’s a huge deal,” said Barclay, who served as the first Black and first openly gay president of the Directors Guild of America from 2013 to 2017. “I never take it for granted and it never gets old.”
When asked how he balances working between the different categories, Barclay said, “I just focus on the story” instead of trying to apply a specific style to all his work.
“Nothing that I do looks like anything else, and I’m glad for that,” he said. “And it doesn’t because all I’m trying to do is be the central eddy of the story the writer wants to tell. That’s been my modus operandi since I started working. It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s a comedy or drama. If the story is worth telling, I will find a way to tell it, and I will find a way to tell it to the best of my ability.”
Throughout his career, Barclay has been involved with some of the most impactful
shows in modern TV history. NBC’s “ER” changed the way health-care workers were portrayed and talked about HIV in what Barclay described as “a new way.” ABC’s “NYPD Blue” was praised for both its grittiness and its dedication to realism, paving the way for how police would be portrayed on television for years to come. NBC’s “The West Wing” consistently ranks among the best TV shows ever made, in part because of how it captured the high-stakes stress of working in the White House. Even “Glee” was a landmark, giving its LGBTQ characters just as much screen time and emotional depth as its straight characters.
Being part of these significant projects is no coincidence. “I am trying to find projects that matter,” Barclay said. “Every time I get something, I sort of weigh, is this going to really make a difference? Is this going to be worth my time to do it? And is it going to be worth the viewer’s time? We’re asking a lot [of viewers]. They could be playing with their child. They could be shopping. They could just be laughing — you know, the experience of life. But we’re asking them to pay attention to something. I think we owe it to them to give them something back.”
This ethos is what initially drew Barclay to “Dahmer.” He directed both the sixth and 10th episodes of the limited series and was nominated for Episode 6, “Silenced.” A complete break from the show’s established form, that episode follows not Jeffrey Dahmer (Evan Peters) but Tony Hughes (Rodney Burford), Dahmer’s 12th victim, who was a deaf aspiring model. By focusing solely on Hughes’ story, the episode puts into perspective how horrifying and devastating each one of Dahmer’s murders truly was.
“I think we elevated [Tony Hughes’] story in a way that was profound and moving,” Barclay said. “I couldn’t have done that without the script from David McMillan and Janet Mock.”
He added that the entire point of the series was to “shine a spotlight” on Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims. “In this particular episode, we did it in kind of an extraordinary
way, using the fact that Tony was incapable of hearing as a metaphor. Carrying that metaphor through made it extremely challenging, and also really moving.”
Directing the episode, he said, made Barclay “think about crime stories in a different way.” Not only does “Silenced” capture the hope Hughes had for his life, as well as the terror he experienced in his final moments, but it also chronicles his family’s pain following his disappearance.
“By shifting away from Dahmer in this particular episode, and really for the rest of the series, we are starting to build up more of the stories of the victims, including his father, and including the character Niecy [Nash-Betts] played. That became what the show is really about,” Barclay said, referring to Nash-Betts’ neighbor character Glenda Cleveland.
Though “Dahmer” has been criticized by the families of some of the victims, Barclay said that he understands that the writers did their best to reach out to those families. He also understands why the families may be “distrustful” of another narrative that potentially “elevates” the story of Jeffrey Dahmer, though “that was exactly not what we were trying to do. I understand how if I were a family member of somebody who is a victim of Jeffrey Dahmer, it would be impossible for me to look at this show without having my heart ripped out.”
Barclay said he is “really, really proud” of his work and his role on this show. “It was very difficult, to be totally honest,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of very emotionally tricky pieces of work. In my experience, this was by far the most difficult, because I’ve known Jeffrey Dahmer — not personally, but I’ve known the story and I have a lot of very strong feelings about him, particularly because he targeted gay Black men and I grew up in that time.
“I had some sleepless nights, and I had some times that really brought me to tears in the making of it. But I feel it was all worth it because we put someone who really mattered on the screen and in people’s hearts.”