'The Most Dangerous Animal of All': TV Review

Mercifully, not as dumb as it seems.
3/6/2020

In FX's first entrant into the docuseries landscape, a man suspects his father to have been the Zodiac Killer.

"There's a primal wound that adoptees have," proclaims memoirist Gary Stewart at the start of the documentary The Most Dangerous Animal of All. "If you weren't loved enough to be kept, how can you expect someone else to love you?" This self-mythologization via self-pity is the approach that Stewart takes to presenting his near-fantastical claim: that he believes his father to be the Zodiac Killer.

The identity of the Zodiac Killer, who murdered five victims in the late 1960s and early 1970s while taunting the San Francisco police and populace through the media (as recounted in David Fincher's 2007 film Zodiac), has long been a true-crime holy grail. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Stewart received significant blowback from "Zodiac-ologists" when he published his theory in a 2014 best-seller (co-authored by Susan Mustafa). Still, he has been steadfast that he, and he alone, has solved a mystery that has eluded decades of official and amateur sleuths.

Thankfully, The Most Dangerous Animal of All — the first in FX's docuseries slate — is hardly a credulous retelling of Stewart's story. Director Kief Davidson allows the author to have his say and add new evidence that he's uncovered since the book's publication, but his team also does what Stewart's publisher, Harper Collins, apparently never did: fact-check his assertions. (To be fair, a fact-checked nonfiction book is an anomaly; writers bear the responsibility to commit the truth to paper.) It's in those verifications that the documentary justifies its existence (though it never justifies its four-hour run time, which is stuffed with corny close-ups and re-creations).

Even if Stewart had never come to the conclusion that he did about his paternity, his parentage would've made for a wild, if tragic, yarn. The first installment of The Most Dangerous Animal of All focuses on the circumstances of Stewart's abandonment by his parents, then a 27-year-old con man named Earl Van Best Jr. and a 14-year-old schoolgirl named Judy Chandler. (She now goes by Jude Gilford, having taken the surname of her second husband.) Dubbed by the newspapers at the time as an "ice cream romance" (the cutesy name alluding to, but also glossing over the horror of, Van Best's pedophilia), the on-again, off-again relationship took the couple on the lam, from California to Louisiana, where Stewart was born (and raised by seemingly lovely parents).

Van Best and Chandler's legal troubles kept them in the San Francisco newspapers, which prove an invaluable resource to a man like Stewart, who clearly wants not only the truth behind his provenance, but an interesting story about it. But he soon speculates that his birth mother is either hiding other details about his father or in possession of an unreliable memory, that she only remembers what she chooses to remember.

The second episode details Stewart's exhaustive search for evidence that Earl Van Best Jr. was the Zodiac Killer. Even as a viewer who generally finds the true-crime genre ghoulish and morally objectionable, I found the wide-ranging methods that Stewart used to learn more about his father — and connect him to the Zodiac Killer's crimes — fascinating, if not entirely convincing. (Forensic science remains closer to an art than a science.) But these sections, devoted mostly to Stewart's point of view, leave out the documentary's most essential question: What does it mean to the memoirist to be the Zodiac Killer's son?

We get more of an answer in The Most Dangerous Animal of All's latter half, which finally relieve us from Stewart's purple prose ("Did he ever think about me?... Did I ever matter?"), as well as his determination to center himself in the Zodiac Killer's story. Stewart's eventual rifts with his birth mother, whom he had sought to meet for years, and with his collaborator Mustafa, who is floored by the discoveries that the documentary team reveal to her, suggest that the memoirist is — Zodiac or no Zodiac — indeed his father's son. A final visit to the site where he was abandoned confirms what the documentary had suggested all along: that he's a bottomless hole of need. The depths of that need turns out to be The Most Dangerous Animal of All's alarming, if far more prosaic, true subject.

Director: Kief Davidson

Developed by: Ross M. Dinerstein and Kief Davidson

Premieres Friday, March 6, at 8 p.m. ET/PT (FX)