Saturday, October 14, 2006

TV REVIEW: Dexter: Series Premiere

Showtime's new series, Dexter, is a humdinger. Based on a novel "Darkly Dreaming Dexter" by Jeff Lindsay, this hour-long drama follows the life and pursuits of Dexter Morgan, (Six Feet Under's Michael C. Hall), a blood-spatter forensic analyst living in Miami.

Sounds like some variation on CSI or the like, right? A crime scene investigator working in a major American metropolis? Well, here's the first twist: the charming, handsome and well-liked Dexter also happens to be a sociopath...and a serial killer too. He readily admits this in the series premiere (in a well-written voice over); that he has no feelings whatsoever for anyone in his life. Instead, he feels nothing at all. Dexter can almost feel emotions for his sister, Debra, but otherwise...there's just an overwhelming void in his heart. "You can't get emotionally invested," he warns Debra - a cop - during her investigation of a serial killer who drains the blood from his sliced-and-diced victims.

When Dexter says that, he's speaking from experience...

Again, people reading this review might say "ho hum," another TV show about a serial killer. What's the big deal? Well, first of all, here the killer is the protagonist; not a villain to be hunted and caught by well-dressed (but ultimately interchangeable...) stock cop characters.

Even more impressively, Dexter adopts a wonderful narrative twist and central conceit. You see, Dexter's Dad (James Remar), also a cop, discovered that his (adopted) son Dex was a sociopath when Dexter was still very young. When he learned this fact, Dexter's Dad decided that his boy's urge to kill could be co-opted and re-directed for good, positive purposes. He realized that Dexter could exercise his urge to be "bad..." on bad people...murdering the perpetrators the police simply couldn't catch because of legalistic loopholes. Then Dexter's father taught his son how to hide his own sociopathic tendencies while spotting them (or targeting them...) in others. Flash forward to today: Dexter tortures and kills menaces like Mike Donovan, a child murderer who has evaded the police and gotten away scot free. While killing Donovan, Dexter notes his repulsion for the serial killer, and moreso for the murder of children. "I have standards," he notes; defining the difference between himself and his brethren.

The first episode of Dexter is filled with clever observations (again, usually in voice over) from Dexter about the normal populace he interacts with and hides from. Thus, in the time honored tradition of science fiction programs such as Star Trek, he is essentially the "resident alien" or "observant outsider." Lacking a conscience and lacking any emotions whatsoever, Dexter is a character who can look coolly and distantly at us. He has a perspective on humanity that comes from outside it. "Normal people are so hostile," he trenchantly notes at one point. "I'm a very neat monster," he realizes at another point, proving that he is also able to turn the microscope on himself.

Can a sociopathic serial killer utilize his "handicap" or "disease" (or whatever you call it...) productively for society at large? That's the central question of Dexter, and it's the most original idea for a TV series I've seen in some time. You watch this show and you're immediately drawn into Dexter's world view. You see things how he sees things: without passion or prejudice; without love or bias. He is a monster, and yet he's human through and through. Still, he lacks the essential trait that makes us all what we are (that being feelings...) and yet - thanks to his Dad's teaching - he boasts a moral code of sorts. Sure it isn't legal; but vigilantism never is.

Michael C. Hall is terrific as Dexter Morgan, and it's awesome how funny - and truth be told, how deep - this series is. For instance, there's a subplot involving Dexter's inability to understand "mating rituals" and sex. In fact, part of his plan to hide his sociopathic tendencies from the rest of the world involves a girlfriend named Rita (Angel's Julie Benz). She was raped some time back and now vehemently distrusts men. This means she doesn't want to have sex, and that suits Dexter just fine. He finds intercourse "undignified." Unfortunately, Rita realizes how much she trusts and likes Dexter, meaning that is ready to have sex with him...an idea Dexter can't stomach.

Dexter Morgan is an unusual and highly unconventional protagonist, and it looks like many episodes will involve his cat & mouse hunt of the serial killer also preying on the population of Miami. His new nemesis carves up bodies...but leaves no blood at the crime scene. Dexter is impressed by his opposite's skill, and learns that he manages this feat courtesy of a refrigeration truck. In the first episode, Dexter hunts him by night, and interestingly, the as-yet unseen serial killer is also aware of what Dexter "is," and thus throws down the gauntlet: he dumps a decapitated head on Dexter's car during their first night-time encounter.

Fascinating and boasting a distinct point of view, Dexter is already appointment television. It's an inventive series, splendidly acted and written, but what I like about it most so far is the high quotient of black humor. For instance, Dexter keeps a sail boat. Not because he likes sailing so much as because it is handy for body disposal. The boat is named "Slice of Life..."

4 comments:

  1. BQueen2:00 PM

    I've been telling anyone who will listen about this show. I love it so much. I'm dying to read the books but I don't want to be spoiled.
    So great to see Julie Benz playing the complete opposite of Darla.

    Michael C. Hall is brilliant. He conveys so much with just a look.

    I don't think I'd consider Dexter a vigilante. I think vigilantes do what they do out of a sense of justice. I think Dexter would be a sociopathic killer no matter what. He's just had his urges channeled into going after scum. Just my opinion and I'm probably not explaining it well either.

    Sorry this is so long! As you can tell I feel strongly about this show! :-)

    And congrats to you and your wife on the birth of your baby!

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  2. "Flash forward to today: Dexter tortures and kills menaces like Mike Donovan, a child murderer who has evaded the police and gotten away scot free."

    Are we sure that Dexter isn't really a Visitor or former member of the Visitor Youth, especially if he gets his kicks from killing Mike Donovan? Did Marc Singer reprise his role?

    Sorry, couldn't resist.

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  3. Howard! Only a true genre expert could have made that connection to Mike Donovan on "V". You rock!

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  4. Anonymous12:03 PM

    I'm so glad you ran into Dexter and have mentioned it here. I'm the one who loaned SFU to Kathryn, and so far I'm loving Dexter as well!

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