When I first became aware of the Showtime series Dexter, reading a rave review by TV Guide’s Matt Roush, an opinion I respect, I remember being utterly appalled at the idea of a TV show with a serial killer as protagonist. I couldn’t imagine anything in poorer taste, and TV Guide fell in my estimation for recommending it.
So here I am 2 years later writing a review recommending Dexter, albeit with some provisos and exceptions.
After 2 friends suggested Dexter to me and it made some critics’ top 10 lists, I became curious and intrigued, and so I obtained disk 1 of the DVD set, figuring I’d satisfy my curiosity and be able to say I had tried it. I could hardly wait for disk 2. I called one friend who’d recommended it and told her I’d just watched the series premiere of Dexter. “I really really liked it,” I told her, “and I feel really guilty about it.” “That’s how I felt after the first one too,” she admitted.
This ambivalence of feeling is part of Dexter’s appeal. Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) is a serial killer by night, blood spatter analyst for the Miami police by day, and this type of macabre irony pervades the series. Dexter narrates the series with shocking and often hilarious self awareness, but the humor is not conscious. Though his voice overs are brimming with insightful sarcasm, he doesn’t have a sense of humor nor many other personality facets we take for granted. Dexter is broken and he knows it. His sharp awareness of his own abnormality is at the series’ core. He is desperate to seem normal, to fit in, even though he knows he never really will.
Dexter is emotionally detached. Harry (James Remar, seen via flashback), the foster father who raised him was a cop who recognized the boy’s failings as a basic human being. In a burst of misguided unconditional love, Harry saw emotionless Dex’s coming predilections, and rather than getting the boy psychological help, he gave Dex a code to live by, including the edict to make certain that someone deserves to die before killing him (i.e., a child molester or a murderer of illegal immigrants).
Adult Dexter follows the Code of Harry in all his vigilante activities, and Michael C. Hall’s effortless switching back and forth between the 2 faces of Dexter is an impressive acting feat. The show’s theme is that we never truly know what lies beneath the surface of another person. This is reflected in the Emmy- winning masterpiece of a title sequence, in which, thanks to skillful editing and playful music, Dexter simply making breakfast becomes a sinister activity.
The 2 main connections in Dex’s life are clueless about his extracurricular activities. They are his cop sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) and his sweet girlfriend Rita (Julie Benz, vamp[ire] Darla of Buffy/Angel fame). Dex isn’t interested in sex, but he believes that having a girlfriend lends him normalcy, so he has one. Rita, too, is shell-shocked, having been badly abused by her ex. “In her own way, she’s as damaged as I am,” Dex muses.
Dex considers himself emotionless so the times that he has genuine feelings take him and the viewer off guard and are all the more powerful for it. “If I could feel anything, I’d feel it for her,” he says of his sister, Deb, and yet he proves himself a brother to count on. “If I had a heart, it would be breaking right now,” he muses while hugging Rita’s daughter, Astor. In one moment at Rita’s, he reacts to something in such a primitively macho way that he himself is stunned and I laughed out loud.
The show isn’t perfect. While I can’t imagine better acting than Michael C. Hall’s Dexter, the rest of the cast is a bit uneven. I love David Zayas’ Angel Batista, the fedora-wearing, ultra-honest cop who, to Dex’s consternation, considers Dex a close friend. Jennifer Carpenter’s Deb grew on me over the season. In the beginning, she comes across as whiny and annoying, but by the end her combination of clingy insecurity and tough bravado completely fit with where plot developments took her. C.S. Lee takes the small part of Vince Masuka, the crude co-analyst in Dex’s lab, and does a memorable turn here, far more so than as Chuck’s Harry Tang. I also like Julie Benz’ slowly empowered Rita. The weaker links are Lauren Velez (Lt. Maria Laguardia) and Erik King (James Doakes). Velez is a competent actress, but her character is hard to like, from her attempts to flirt with uncomfortable Dexter to her dismissal of any ideas of Deb’s to find the Ice Truck Killer, Laguardia is in many ways a stereotypical power-hungry woman. Why are such women always portrayed in such unflattering ways? Attempts later in the season to soften her character are only partially successful.
The least successful cast member is Erik King. Doakes is the lone character who gets a creepy vibe from Dexter, and much could be done with this inconvenience. Instead, Doakes has all the subtlety of a mack truck and is so in-your-face about absolutely everything that he is often difficult to watch. This could be deliberate on the part of the writers, to make the only regular character who suspects Dex so unlikeable that you like Dex even more, and if that is the plan, it works. All of the lesser characters except Masuka get some sort of side-plot during the season to flesh out their characters, with varying success. Again, I was unconvinced by Doakes’ contrived scenes, especially those with his family.
“The FBI estimates that there are less than 50 serial killers active in the United States today,” Dex tells us. One is dubbed “The Ice Truck Killer” and Dex is a fan of this killer’s fearlessness and cleverness, even as he does his job for Miami’s finest to help track his fellow killer down. This becomes more complicated as the Ice Truck Killer seems to take a particular interest in the intrigued Dexter, but Dex is truly good at his job. “Blood is my life,” he muses. Dex figures Miami’s a good location for him because the homicide department has a 20% solve rate. Still, he acknowledges that most serial killers are eventually caught.
Therein lies the central struggle of the viewer. Dex has many likeable qualities. He is plucky, clever, intelligent, charming, reads people well, and he’s a reliable boyfriend and brother. But he kills people. Bad people, yes, but he does murder them and he feels no regret nor remorse. Yet he is so likeable and fascinating to watch that part of you roots for him to get away with it.
Dexter Season One is based on the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay. I understand that season 2 sharply diverges from plots and characters in the book’s sequels, and the books and the series are now completely separate continuums. The season 1 set includes 2 commentaries, 1 by the cast (almost all of them except for Michael C. Hall himself) and 1 by the writers/executive producers. The cast commentary is largely a love letter to Michael C. Hall as they all sing his praises, and they also give away, seemingly unintentionally, a plot point from season 2. The writers/executive producers give an interesting explanation of how and even why some of their plots are different than the book’s.
Dexter is certainly not a show to be enjoyed by the whole family. It is a bloody and sometimes profane Showtime series with that premise, and even the slightly scrubbed CBS reruns now airing on Sundays (with a parental warning) won’t be palatable to those who can’t get beyond the central concept.
However, if you can get beyond it, buckle up for intense, intelligent plots, surprise revelations, shocking cliffhangers, and yes, killer humor. Sorry.