There has been much discussion in the last few years about the renaissance of television, where drama and comedy have improved to a point where their quality and ambition is outstripping most motion pictures, etc etc. Yours truly has perpetuated this truth, ad nauseum, as well. But it would be easy to fall into an adulatory trap and all agree on the Great New Shows (because they’re on cable, because they’ve subversive, et al), to the point where they all blur together with no standouts. To avoid this, we need to point out the praised shows that are overpraised, where the balloon must be burst so we can remind each other that in some cases, we are still putting up with samey garbage in the guise of something more distinctive.
Which brings me to Dexter.
Michael C. Hall has followed his terrific turn as David in Six Feet Under with a rich and challenging part that he unsurprisingly nails – a serial killer with a conscience. Based on Jeff Lindsay’s novels, Dexter follows a police forensic expert, liked by many with a good relationship with his sister, Deb (Jennifer Carpenter). He also moonlights as a serial killing vigilante, putting his unstoppable urges to ‘better’ use thanks to the counsel of his late foster father (James Remar), a detective whom we meet in flashback in each episode. Dexter knows that what he does is wrong, but since he can’t stop himself, he has decided to punish those who do not exercise such conscience whom he believes have escaped justice. His father has taught him how to cover his tracks, and so Dexter’s precision methods have never been uncovered. He only remotely unsettles one person: Detective Dokes (Erik King), who is convinced Dexter is wrong somehow, but can’t figure out why.
The premise is far-fetched but terrific, a platform for an exploration of moral relativism using a fairly extreme scenario. Shades are added in Dexter’s apparent lack of emotional connection, which he conceals by entering into a relationship with Rita (Julie Benz), mother of two and recovering from an abusive marriage to the now-incarcerated Paul (Mark Pellegrino). It’s all for show, to maintain his image as a likeable joe, but the ethics instilled in him by his father make him protective of her and her children.
For such a person to be the protagonist of a TV show is bold and rewarding, especially since Dexter does not flinch from showing just how disturbed its title character is. The overarching storyline of season one tracks the emergence of another serial killer in Miami, dubbed the Ice Truck Killer, who completely drains his victims of blood. Dexter is fascinated by this new arrival and feels a kinship. Although he qualifies as an evildoer that Dexter should punish, the reverence they share for their ‘art’ leads Dexter to seek him out for solace rather than justice. Thus Dexter becomes a multiple inversion of the police procedural – the investigator is a criminal, but not the criminal in question, who punishes other criminals but can’t bring himself to catch this one.
Unfortunately, this richness does not extend to the rest of the show. Since the creators have chosen to make this an ongoing rather than limited series, Dexter is sadly let down by its need to service other characters. But they belong in a standard police procedural, not this one, and have storylines appropriate to those shows. It’s hard to care about Dokes’ military background impacting a case, or Lieutenant LaGuerta (Lauren Velez) sleeping with her replacement’s husband in order to drive her out of the job. I mean, please. These aspects of the show are an utter disservice to Hall and the reason the show exists – a different approach to the crime series. The two sides of Dexter never mesh.
Other supporting characters are integrated into the series more organically due to their emotional connection to Dexter, namely Rita and Deb. But their stories rely on Dexter having an attachment to them that he’s not supposed to have. Dexter is a sociopath, plain and simple, and to have him heroically save Deb and stand by Rita through tough times is to mold him into a noble protagonist when he should just be engaging. The character is softened in order to sustain him, and this is mistaken for complexity in the vein of a Tony Soprano or Al Swearengen. Such extreme character traits as serial killing do not lend themselves to nuanced portrayals because that is not what they’re useful for. Dexter is far more interesting when exploring the ethical hall of mirrors that the character’s actions lead us into rather than Dexter trying to maintain a home life.
But subtlety is not even the order of the day in these sequences. Dexter is burdened with a cumbersome voiceover that spells out every nuance we can readily grasp for ourselves and outlines the moral quandaries, which are naturally deflated once expounded upon by the character experiencing them. Considering they are still present halfway through the second season – which is when I gave up on the series – means they were clearly not a growing pain. They are just part of how this show has come to work.
The show certainly excels conceptually. The second season begins with the discovery of the bodies that Dexter routinely dumps at the bottom of Miami Harbour, prompting a manhunt that he must thwart from the inside, since his job demands him to help further the investigation. But this is rendered inert by a sequence of repetitive episodes where nothing is achieved, replete with a dreary femme fatale plotline that proves that despite its inventive concept, Dexter primarily deals in clichés (even if that subplot develops into something unexpected, that doesn’t affect the road to it being dreary). Hall’s tremendous performance keeps the whole enterprise afloat. He’s compulsively watchable, erasing all memory of David Fisher, but even he couldn’t keep me going past one-and-a-half seasons.
That number of episodes is really how long Dexter should have run. Many American TV writers are publicly longing for the British model of programming these days, where short, high-quality runs are the norm. Dexter would have benefited from such brevity, but instead has been shoehorned into the long-running series model that few American shows have eluded despite prestige. I would be curious to see the British take on the same concept; their television’s more realistic and immediate milieu would probably yield a far scarier series, and the format would allow a single summation of the theme rather than an endless elaboration on the same ideas.
So don’t always believe that all the supposedly great shows are actually great. Sure, some won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but as Dexter proves, some are actually not very good. I say that with regret though. I persisted with it because there were a number of strong elements, but too much superfluity sink a potentially great piece of crime television.
SHOULD I BOTHER? No.