For days, every time I logged in to Netflix, the face of Ted Bundy loomed large on my screen.
I’m not sure why the streaming service has decided I’m part of the “taste community” that wants to see Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. Is it because I once stayed up all night to finish the true-crime series The Keepers? Binged two seasons of Making a Murderer?
Or is it just that I’m female, and women are the target demographic for stories about monsters who may not actually look like monsters?
Personally, I am way, way over wanting to give any more head space to Bundy, whose execution 30 years ago seems to have failed to put the serial killer’s story to rest.
And it’s not just Netflix.
Following in the footsteps of NCIS star Mark Harmon, who played Bundy in the TV mini-series The Deliberate Stranger in 1986 — the same year the actor was named People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive — Zac Efron plays the killer in a new film in which the star of Disney’s High School Musical gets to declare, “I’m more popular than Disney World!”
Talk about rebranding.
Efron’s movie, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, was directed by Joe Berlinger, who’s known for the critically acclaimed Paradise Lost true-crime trilogy (and who is, not coincidentally, the creator of Netflix’s Ted Bundy series). It debuted at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 26, and within days, trailers for the film had piled up millions of views on YouTube.
Because stories of attractive monsters will always have an audience?
Netflix weighed in on the attraction issue when it posted Monday on Twitter that “I’ve seen a lot of talk about Ted Bundy’s alleged hotness and would like to gently remind everyone that there are literally THOUSANDS of hot men on the service — almost all of whom are not convicted serial murderers.”
I don’t know who you are, "I" on Netflix Twitter, but points for managing to turn a show of concern, however feigned, into even more marketing for a show my Netflix home page makes it hard to ignore. (I didn’t mind so much when you guys were pushing Roma.)
Bundy’s face does feel as though it’s there to lure a certain kind of viewer, even if I’m not actually that viewer.
It’s Netflix that took Lifetime’s stalker drama You and turned it into what it claims, at least, to be a hit, putting star Penn Badgley in the awkward position of trying to persuade some fans that they shouldn’t be crushing on his character, Joe.
Joe, after all, does (spoiler alert) some very bad things in the show’s first season, and will, I imagine, continue to do so in the second season, which is being produced by Netflix.
Badgley’s efforts to save some fans from themselves are probably hopeless, though, not just because Joe is cute and complicated, but because looking for love in all the wrong places is an antihero-TV tradition.
Twenty years ago, when The Sopranos was new and shiny, I was making the same argument about falling for the wrong (fictional) men after the New York Daily News interviewed some women about their attraction to Tony Soprano, one calling James Gandolfini’s mobster character her “dream man.”
“He’s soooo sexy,” said another. “It’s his coldness, the fact that he can go out and murder someone and come home and sit down and play video games with his son.”
Like the stories of Breaking Bad’s Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the high school chemistry teacher turned meth mogul, and Mad Men’s impossibly handsome (and in all sorts of other ways impossible) Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Tony’s should have been seen as a cautionary tale, not a dating profile.
But in the spirit of not indicting all men, fictional or otherwise, allow me to introduce you to another Netflix character whose face should be familiar.
‘Black Earth Rising’
A few days after the first season of the Roseanne spin-off The Conners wrapped up on ABC, John Goodman was back in the BBC-Netflix coproduction Black Earth Rising, which had its U.S. debut Jan. 25.
Starring opposite Michaela Coel (Chewing Gum) in an eight-episode series from Hugo Blick (The Honourable Woman), Goodman plays Michael Ennis, an international lawyer in London who’s in practice with Eve Ashby (Harriet Walter), the mother of Coel’s character.
Coel plays the firm’s investigator, Kate Ashby, who was orphaned 25 years ago in the Rwandan genocide. Adopted by Eve, who’s raised her in London, she’s now a troubled 29-year-old whose mother and Michael, the boss who’s known her most of her life, know things about her past that she doesn’t.
When Eve, with Michael’s backing, takes a case to prosecute an African general who’d been a hero amid the genocide for later, unrelated crimes, her daughter is horrified.
It’s a complicated story that raises more questions than it answers, particularly about Africa’s relationship to the International Criminal Court, and there were times when I wondered whether Blick, who also appears in the series as a particularly cutthroat lawyer, had overreached.
It helps that Coel is very good as a woman dealing with almost unimaginable trauma while remaining laser-focused on getting to the truth.
It helps, too, that Goodman, whose character is dealing with both cancer and a comatose daughter, helps ground the scenes he’s in, sometimes with humor, sometimes just by projecting an air of decency that I kept hoping wouldn’t prove a sham.
For his trouble, he gets a couple of unconventionally romantic scenes and a few small moments of triumph — just enough to remind us that although TV nice guys may not always get to finish first, they don’t have to finish last.