In The Most Dangerous Animal of All, producers Ross Dinerstein and Kief Davidson take a New York Times true-crime bestseller and bring it to life, only to fling it against a wall and smash it into a million little pieces. In the end I was moved by both stories — the one that sold hundreds of thousands of copies in hardcover and paperback, and the one about the investigation that effectively pulped the book.
When Oprah insisted on gutting James Frey on TV about the fictions in his Oprah-approved “memoir,” it made for tawdry viewing because it was all about Oprah. The Most Dangerous Animal of All, a spellbinding four-parter dropping this weekend on FX and Hulu, isn’t like that. Nor is this a story about an off-kilter subject being grilled relentlessly by an off-camera director, a la Errol Morris.
Director Davidson and co-producer Dinerstein aren’t interested in emerging as this program’s gumshoe heroes. Relying on a stylized version of the classic true-crime TV format, they keep the viewer squarely focused on the principal subject of this film, Gary Stewart, and his story, which is that his dad was very likely the infamous serial murderer known as the Zodiac Killer.
At great personal cost, Stewart carried out a 17-year investigation into his past that resulted in the bestselling book by the same name as the TV series. From start to finish Stewart comes off as sympathetic, a man genuinely haunted by the revelations he has uncovered in the nearly two decades spent researching the devastating secrets of his past.
Davidson and Dinerstein are not interested in undoing their subject before your eyes. That’s important, because as we discover that Stewart may not be uncovering the truth as much as finding evidence that undergirds his truth, you have to feel for him. To not feel for him is to miss the point of this show, which is really an investigation into the stories that each one of us are capable of telling ourselves and reinforcing in our minds every day, whether they are true or not.
A businessman who seems to have made a nice life for himself, Stewart decides he’s going to search for the parents who gave him up for adoption. The wheels come off fast, as he learns he is the fruit of one of San Francisco’s weirdest tabloid dramas ever — the “Ice Cream Romance,” in which his mom Judi, then 14, was seduced by 27-year-old Earl Van Dorn Best.
After Judi’s parents find out what’s going on between the two, they have Van jailed and Judi hospitalized. He posts bail, impersonates a doctor and gets her out. Halfway across the country, she gives birth to Gary. The San Francisco Chronicle is all over their drama, with stories that “painted my father in a very humiliating light,” says Stewart.
A Chronicle reporter who followed the case tells Davidson that Van wasn’t your typical evil dude. “He was so taken with Judi,” he says. But that was before the cops caught up with him the second time. Sentenced to four years and put through electroshock therapy for his teenage-girl “problem,” Best emerged from prison a broken and changed man.
This is where the show takes its dark turn. Having found his birth mother, but finding her either faulty or false in her recall of what went on back then, Stewart plows on with his own research. And that’s when he sees Bill Kurtis on A&E one night, pulling the cold case file on the Zodiac Killer. Stewart swears he didn’t want to go there at first. But then, he adds, “it’s my identity, my story — and regardless of the outcome, I just had to know.”
I believe him. I’m fascinated by how we humans tell ourselves stories and invest so deeply in them, we can’t possibly imagine letting them go. It’s as if our need for narrative is as vital as our need for air and water, or at least chocolate and fried things. That stories so often override the facts should be obvious to anyone following politics. And as we saw in The Confession Tapes, narrative has been allowed to overpower police investigations and wrongly incarcerate people, potentially thousands of them.
Kudos to FX for not over-ordering episodes of this miniseries. On Netflix this would be a five-parter minimum, maybe eight parts. And kudos to the producers for exposing a dirty little secret about the publishing business, which is that it’s more important to keep a book like Stewart’s a secret for an entire year prior to publication than to fact-check any of the assertions in that book.
In the end, I felt for Stewart, whose quest for the truth has produced two high-profile projects but failed to give him the thing he was really after and which, it seems, he needed most.
The Most Dangerous Animal of All will premiere all four episodes on Friday, March 6 beginning at 8 p.m. ET/PT on FX and will be available the next day on FX on Hulu.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.