A date with death: a review of Wondery's new podcast, The Dating Game Killer

March 30, 2020

A review of Wondery’s new Hollywood & Crime podcast, and the legacy it may bear as a cautionary tale for modern dating culture.

Wondery, producer of podcasts such as Joe Exotic: Tiger King and The Mysterious Mr. Epstein, has released a new Hollywood & Crime six-part podcast series, The Dating Game Killer, which opens with a sound of bleak foreshadowing: the harmless, upbeat jingle of ABC’s hit 1970’s television show, The Dating Game.

The podcast’s host, Tracy Pattin, introduces the series by describing the premise of the dating show and the essence of mystery it aimed to create. This sets the tone for Wondery’s chilling account of serial killer Rodney Alcala, who raped, murdered, and preyed on multiple young female victims in California and New York throughout the 1970s. The series distances itself from the average podcast format through its highly descriptive narrative style, replicating the tonal format of an audiobook. As vivid context and description are established and reinforced, layers of intimate detail make it difficult for the listener not to feel personally involved in the events as they unfold throughout the series.

This sense of closeness holds as the podcast navigates through the string of Alcala’s despicable crimes. Beginning with the rape and brutal assault of eight-year-old Tali Shapiro, we are led through the assault of 13-year-old Julie J., the murder of Manhattan socialite Ellen Hover, and the rape of 15-year-old Monique Hoyt. Particularly chilling is the banality of his first weapon, his camera. Alcala posed as a professional photographer, requesting to take photos of dozens of young women for his ‘portfolio’.

In order to evade an arrest warrant after the crimes committed against Tali Shapiro, he fled to New York and enrolled at New York University, soon after landing a counseling job at an arts camp for girls in New Hampshire. Later that year, the FBI discovered and arrested him, but because Tali’s family had relocated to Mexico and refused to allow her to testify, prosecutors were forced to have Alcala plead guilty to a lesser charge of assault. He was released after convincing the parole board that he had been rehabilitated. Shortly after, he was arrested on charges of assaulting Julie J, and was released again upon demonstrating evidence of rehabilitation. In 1978, he secured a position at the LA Times. Through the indeterminate sentencing program in place at the time, poor judgment calls made by his parole officer, and the additional indiscretion of neglected background checks, Alcala was able to lead a relatively normal life between his stints in prison – traveling easily between coasts, enrolling in school, and landing substantial jobs.

The questions that will repeatedly weigh on the listener are: How was Rodney Alcala able to delay facing the reality of his crimes for so long? How did he manage to ‘slip through the legal cracks,’ not just once, but multiple times? (a phrase that is referenced constantly throughout the series). These questions are left unanswered, and take on an even more urgent and upsetting consequence when Alcala secures a place as a contestant on an episode of The Dating Game.

The Wondery segments make fine use of transitions from the scripted text to Alcala’s TV appearance, where, as one of the mystery contestants, he peppered his responses with uncomfortable sexual innuendos. Video footage of his episode can be found through a simple YouTube search, and while I won’t give away how the segment unfolds, I will say that the featured bachelorette was far luckier than many of the other young women he encountered. While Alcala’s motivations for appearing on the show may never be known, what we do know is that despite his largely unpunished criminal track record, he was somehow able to secure a public platform.

While a show like The Dating Game may seem outmoded to a young observer today, it attracted millions of weekly viewers in its time. Beyond entertainment value, the show had a theme that people could relate to: dating. The style of the game show seems to have foreshadowed the structure of contemporary dating apps, and online dating in general. Much like how Rodney Alcala appeared on national TV without a background check, modern social media platforms, dating apps, and other means of connecting people around the world still bear no real responsibility or legal liability when it comes to their users and their experiences. Wondery’s ominous telling of Alcala’s bid to fool the world may bring with it a deeper, underlying warning: that the apparatuses we rely on – be it the job process, our favorite TV programs, the apps we use, and, most importantly, the legal system – do not always act in ways that support the safety and protection of the people they represent.

The podcast can be accessed on Wondery’s website here.

If you enjoyed this post, you may be interested in the following FOLCS Events:

Beware the Slenderman: Screening and Conversation featuring filmmaker, Irene Brodsky, and professor, Abby Baird.

The Hunting Ground: Screening and Conversation featuring director, Kirby Dick, and activist, Sophie Karasek.

M: Screening and Conversation featuring screenwriter, Henry Bean, producer, Larry Gross, and author, Sarah Williams Goldhagen.


Olivia Simon
Producer, FOLCS

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