Type keyword(s) to search

Quick Hits

Peacock's John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise Isn't the Usual Killer-Clown Claptrap

But is six HOURS on Gacy and his horrific crimes too much?
  • Has this familiar image obscured the realities of Gacy's case? (Marty Zielinski/Peacock)
    Has this familiar image obscured the realities of Gacy's case? (Marty Zielinski/Peacock)

    The editor-in-chief of the daily newsletter Best Evidence, Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. Her weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime TV.

    [Content warning: this review contains references to sexual violence, and crimes against children.]

    I wasn't looking forward to Peacock's true-crime original, John Wayne Gacy: Devil In Disguise. I was mildly curious to see what tone the new streaming service would take with a true-crime property, and whether/how it would set itself apart from Oxygen, its "cousin" in the NBC-verse — six hours of material, centered on yet another serial killer and marketed to play up the killer-clown aspect of the case? What could Devil In Disguise possibly have to add to the conversation about Gacy?

    Plenty, as it turns out, not least because Devil In Disguise isn't as interested in Gacy himself as it is in the factors that enabled him to continue his reign of terror in (at least) two states until his victims numbered (at least) 33. Of course, Devil In Disguise is obligated to review Gacy's ghastly résumé, but surprisingly that too ends up adding to the discussion by surfacing a lot of the particulars of Gacy's crimes that have faded over the years.

    Many viewers will know exactly two things about Gacy — that he had a side gig as a clown, and that he buried his victims in a crawlspace under his house — because that's the shorthand we've reduced him to over the forty years since police started digging under his home. What many may not remember or have ever known is that he doesn't appear to have used the clowning to lure victims; he leveraged a successful construction business for that purpose, and targeted high-school-age boys, not little kids.

    You may also not have known that Gacy had already served time in Iowa for attacking a teenager, but was released after serving only 18 months of a ten-year sentence thanks to, basically, a model-prisoner suck-up campaign that saw him forming a prison chapter of the Jaycees and arranging for a defunct mini-golf course to be relocated to the institution's grounds.

    Devil In Disguise is skilled at pointing out the many opportunities law enforcement had in the '60s and '70s to neutralize Gacy permanently — and the ways in which societal attitudes towards sexuality allowed him to continue his murderous activities with impunity. The series is a good overview of the activities themselves, but where it really shines is in reviewing how Gacy's underground chamber of horrors was discovered, then using that to underline the fact that it didn't have to happen that way. Maybe Gacy could have been stopped if prison officials were immune to his industrious breed of, as one interviewee describes it, "hail-fellow-well-met" networking. (This is the disguise the title refers to — not the clown make-up, but the turning of a harmlessly jolly face to the world.)

    Maybe Gacy could have been stopped if attitudes towards crime, and specifically sexual assault, within the LGBTQ+ community at the time weren't consistently blown off by police as not worth investigating. Maybe Gacy could have been stopped if law-enforcement's understanding of serial killers and their patterns were more developed, or if various police departments had investigated missing-persons reports with some vigor instead of lazily telling anxious parents that their sons had "just run away."

    It may be law-enforcement's resistance to admitting to mistakes or putting in useful overtime that's to blame for the fact that six of Gacy's victims remain unidentified, and why we still don't have a true picture of how many other victims may still be unaccounted for (Gacy himself put the number at 45). And why Gacy's ties to the notorious John Norman pedophile ring weren't of much interest to investigators (Norman's lieutenant, Philip Paske, also worked for Gacy's construction company).

    Did Gacy have high-level connections that protected him until he became a national story? Have cold-case units really done everything they could to connect the dots in Gacy's case? Devil In Disguise asks each of these questions — gently, but firmly and repeatedly — over the course of its six hours, and the end result manages to center the series on Gacy's victims, known and unknown: by asking what could have been done to save them, and what could still be done to bring them and their families a small measure of justice decades later.

    Gacy was executed for the murders we do know about in 1994 and can't answer for any further crimes, but Devil In Disguise has as good an understanding as any true-crime series I've seen about the ripple effect violent crimes have on a community and a society — the pain of loss, the disorientation of not knowing for sure. One interviewee, a "friend" of Gacy's from his first prison stint, talks about it in so many words, and he's just one of the myriad figures close to the case who participates, including Gacy's sister; victims' siblings; law enforcement past and present; Gacy's death-penalty attorney; and Chicago journalists and authors who have followed and/or covered the story over the decades.

    Produced by, among others, Amanda Knox director Rod Blackhurst, the series is authoritative, serious, and well built (while there is a drone operator in the credits, little time is wasted on those shots, thank goodness). It does rely fairly heavily on footage of a jailhouse interview Gacy did with godfather of profiling Robert Ressler in 1992, but primarily to underscore Gacy's smarminess and compulsive lying. It's interested in what we don't know about, but not to the point of losing its way in crackpot theories; it hears its cop sources out, but maintains a skeptical attitude at the same time.

    I don't recommend watching all six hours in a row — the show isn't gory, but it's sorrowful material — but I do recommend all six hours. Devil In Disguise is exactly the right length, and a worthwhile challenge to our assumptions about famous cases and what we think we know about them.

    All six episodes of John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise drop on Peacock Thursday, March 25.

    Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.

    TOPICS: John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise, Peacock, True Crime