More than a decade ago, David Fincher’s “Zodiac” divided audiences. The slow and methodical thriller examined how a real-life killer caused those who investigated to lose their hold on reality. A modern-day Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac killer, continues to fascinate scholars decades after his disappearance. The advent of the internet provided a space for true-crime enthusiasts to bring their theories into the light further. Gary L. Stewart spent years searching for where he belonged, and his quest may have led him to the doorstep of his father. Yet his father and his journey to meet him provide more questions than answers. Stewart wrestles with the idea that his father might have been America’s most infamous serial killer.
Kief Davidson and Ross Dinerstein produce and direct “The Most Dangerous Animal of All” from Stewart and Susan Mustafa‘s best selling book. Gary’s story drew national attention when the book was released in 2004. His novel combined an extraordinarily emotional and passionate search for the parents who gave up Gary at a young age. That longing for family destroyed marriage after marriage for Gary, leaving him on his fifth marriage. Finally, given the opportunity to connect with his mother, he quickly discovered the truth about his parents. Known as the “Ice Cream Romance,” his mother was just fourteen years old when his twenty-eight-year-old father met her. Their story drew its own national headlines, but as Gary tracks his father’s footsteps, it becomes clear his father may have been even more violent than he knew.
Finding the identity of the Zodiac Killer remains the holy grail of true-crime enthusiasts. For every individual who believes they have an answer, there seem to be just as many who can dispute the case. The democratization of information that the internet has allowed gave amateur sleuths more tools than ever. For Gary, his search for his father consumed his life and several opportunities at love. If his claim that his father is Zodiac proves correct, it will upend decades of belief about the killer. To those who have sought this killer for years, it would mean their time and efforts were in vain.
Davidson and Dinerstein wisely investigate these communities, and how Gary’s reputation within them create their own problems. Perhaps the most critical approach to the series is the focus on Gary himself. Evan Van Best Jr., Gary’s father, has passed away. Even if the dots connect back to him, there’s little story there. Watching Gary’s mood and frustrations as he investigates his past becomes a far more provocative act. How Gary handles the ideas and news becomes far more interesting than the Zodiac information. The producing duo’s focus on him as a protagonist yields interesting results, separating it from traditional true-crime and instead makes “The Most Dangerous Animal of All,” a character study.
Despite only coming it at four episodes, “The Most Dangerous Animal of All” drags. The series comes out the gates slow, and it struggles to establish a forward momentum until midway through the third episode. Given the limited amount of time we spend in the story, it feels as if the material was stretched instead of reaching its pinnacle of storytelling. There’s a world where the crazy twists and turns that come in the series, especially in the back half of the season, could have made an excellent two or two and half-hour documentary. Instead, the thin material to buoy the first half feels repetitive. Without my personal taste for Zodiac related stories, it’s fair to say it would not have hooked me as a viewer.
For true-crime, it feels like we’ve covered most of the interesting stories on the table. Returning to Zodiac feels like we’ve gone full circle, landing back at the killer that started it all. There’s a lot to like in the second half of the season, but the buy-in requires you to move through some weaker material. For true-crime enthusiasts, this will satisfy your itch. Wisely, the series will air all four episodes and release them on Hulu the next day. This is the best case for the docuseries and will give it the best chance to become a viral hit over the weekend.