Des, on Sundance Now, is a 3-episode mini-series that begins with the arrest of British serial killer Dennis “Des” Nilsen. Nilsen (David Tennant) lured approximately 15 young men up to his apartment with kindness and often a promise of a meal. The men were mostly rough living drifters who most likely wouldn’t be missed when they disappeared. Although the victims died by strangulation, Nilsen perpetrated various indignities on their corpses before disposing of them. The series kicks off when human remains back up the drains in Nilsen’s building, and DCI Peter Jay (Daniel Mays) and DI Steve McCusker (Barry Ward) take the call. Although the subject matter is lurid, there is no violence, graphic or otherwise, in this version of the story.
After The Arrest
Des immediately acknowledges that it was him that was disposing of human remains, and confesses to his crimes. Nilsen claims he can’t remember any of his victim’s names, which puts the police in a bind, because charges can’t be brought until there is a victim identification. So, DCI Jay and his team work 24-7 to track down victims. Meanwhile, writer Brian Masters (Jason Watkins), whose book “Killing for Company” is the basis for the series, visits Nilsen in jail and offers to write his story. The balance of the series focuses on three things: the police tracking down evidence (besides the confession) to bring to court; the mindgames that Des plays with not only the police but also Masters; and the trial in which the defense tries to prove that Nilsen is insane and can’t be held accountable for his actions. The creators claim that Des examines the why, not the how, of the gruesome crimes, and also reflects on the effects that working on the case had on the police and Masters. But they did not achieve their objective.
Our take on Des
As an American, the comparisons to the Jeffrey Dahmer case are uncanny. There are a lot of similarities, down to the eye glasses! Even without knowing the story, David Tennant is riveting as the irritable, cagey Nilsen. And Tennant apparently does an amazing job of capturing Nilsen’s mannerisms and speech. But it’s not enough. Des is turns out to be neither fish nor fowl. It’s not a sensationalist re-enactment of the crimes that horrified England in the 1980’s, and it’s not a deep examination of Nilsen’s personality via in-depth interviews. Instead, it touches briefly on many aspects of the story without shedding any light on it. Although the point of view of the series was to see the impact that working on Nilsen’s case had on both DCI Jay and Brian Masters, we frankly never get to know those men well enough to see the before and after. If you don’t know the story, Des is a good primer, and it’s certainly a fantastic showcase for Tennant’s chops as an actor, but other than that, you may find yourself thinking, as I did, “What was the point of making this series?”
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