An episode of Animaniacs features the Warner family at the mall, attempting to entice passers-by into taking a survey about the participant’s interest in watching shows with actor George Wendt and shows with George Wendt eating beans. In many ways, I feel like this was a precursor of today’s algorithms that monitor where you go on-line and then begins to feed you ads based on that history.
I’m a Doctor Who fan. I’ve watched David Tennant’s era as the Doctor and have participated in online forums discussing Tennant’s tenure as the Doctor. So, it was probably inevitable that Facebook’s algorithm would pick this up and begin to feed me ads for other shows featuring David Tennant.
For a couple of weeks, it felt like every other ad I saw was for the U.S. streaming debut of Des. So, when the opportunity came along to get a month of AMC+ at a reduced rate, I decided I’d give it a try, if only to watch Des.
Before beginning the series, I was blissfully unaware of who Dennis Nilson was. And after spending a little less than three hours with this miniseries, I’m still not quite sure any significant answers have been provided.
Nilson is a serial killer who operated in England during the late 70’s and early 80’s. Nilson claims to have killed fifteen men who we lured back to one of two apartments. After killing them, Nilson would store the bodies at one of the apartments for a while, dressing them, talking to them, and storing them at various spots in his residences. Eventually, he’d dismember the bodies and dispose of the remains, whether by a bonfire in the back yard or by flushing them down the toilet.
It’s the flushing them down the toilet part that gets Nilson caught. Nilson’s disposal of a body clogs the plumbing and the police are alerted. It’s revealed that Nilson alerted his landlord about the clogged pipes and eventually freely allows the police into his apartment where the overwhelming smell of rot alerts them that something isn’t right. Nilson is arrested and confesses to fifteen murders.
Des is a fascinating mini-series that follows all the steps of a procedural. There’s the investigation, the building of the case, and finally the trial, all over the course of three episodes. The series takes a few moments to not only probe into Nilson himself but also the impact investigating this case has on the police officers involved and others who come into the orbit of Nilson.
One is Chief Inspector Peter Jay, who thinks he’s got a slam dunk with Nilson’s (apparently) willing confession, only to have stress after stress piled on as he investigates. Played by Daniel Mays, Jay’s determination comes across as does his frustration and fear that Nilson may be found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter instead of murder. The series also raises the question of justice for the victims that Nilson didn’t name and the police couldn’t verify were committed by him.
The series also introduced us to Nilson biographer Brian Masters. Masters wrote a book based on conversations with Nilson that served as the basis for the series.
Watching the series, it’s fascinating to see how Nilson pulls the strings of everyone around him — from Jay to Masters. David Tennant’s performance is nothing short of chilling at times. If you’ve only seen him in Doctor Who or Good Omens, you’re in for something very different here. He’s more restrained here, never going over the top or showing off theatrically as he could at times as the Doctor. It’s easy to see why he’s won praise for this role, though I’m not sure it’s necessarily his best work as some have said.
The frustrating part of the mini-series is that it seems a bit too short. Once Nilson is convicted, we get only a few minutes for the aftermath and its impact on those in Nilson’s orbit. We get an on-screen crawl that tells us the fate of Jay and Masters, but it feels like there are some things left unexplored. There are several victims or those with connections to victims brought on screen and we see how this case impacts their lives, at that moment. But I found myself wondering just what happened to those people and how they worked to put their lives back together after coming into Nilson’s orbit.
So, while it’s a fascinating miniseries with some great performances, it’s still one that left me with a lot of questions. But maybe, that was the point. Unlike a good crime novel, true crime stories don’t always tie up neatly in the end.