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 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..."

Friday, October 13, 2006

Happy Friday the 13th

Chi-chi-chi-chi, haah-haah-haah...

(That's horror-ese for: Don't Go In The Woods. Or: don't have pre-marital sex at Crystal Lake, and don't smoke weed either...)

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Bionic Woman Gets "Re-Imagined"...and I Get a Headache

My good friend Fred - who always has his ear to the ground on genre news - sent me this interesting item. The next sci-fi series to get the Hollywood Special and suffer through a "re-imagination" (a la Battlestar Galactica or Night Stalker...) is the 1970s Lindsay Wagner classic, The Bionic Woman. And guess what? It's from the producer of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica too!

Here's the skinny according to author Josef Adalian:

"Battlestar Galactica
exec producer David Eick is teaming with feature scribe Laeta Kalogridis to reinvent "The Bionic Woman" for NBC. Eick and Kalogridis will exec produce a new take on "Bionic," a 1970s spin-off of "The Six Million Dollar Man" in which Lindsay Wagner played tennis pro-turned-superwoman Jamie [sic] Sommers. Skein aired for two seasons on ABC before shifting to NBC in 1977 for its final year.

"It's a complete reconceptualization of the title," Eick told Daily Variety. "We're using the title as a starting point, and that's all."

Sounds familiar (and arrogant...) doesn't it? Because, what fans of the original Bionic Woman really liked was not the story; not the was just the brand name, right? So that's all that's going to be used in the re-do. What genius! I'm glad there are clever producers out there who realize storyline and characterization don't wins hearts and minds of fans; only franchise titles do. These producers could create memorable new, artistic shows (with memorable new titles), but instead, they feast on the bones of fan nostalgia and craft GREAT new product like The Wild Wild West (1998) or the movie version of Lost in Space (1998). We all want more of that magic, don't we?

And by the way, did I tell you, I'm remaking Star Trek, but my version also just takes the brand name, not the concept or characters. The series is actually about running (or trekking...) around Hollywood chasing celebrities (or stars...), thus a Star Trek. I'm sure Star Trek fans (who just love the name of the original show, not the characters or storylines...) would appreciate that. Wouldn't they?

What makes this news even worse is that Kalogridis is the talent behind the WB crapfest that was known as Birds of Prey. In case you forgot, that was the short-lived re-imagination that cast Batman as an absentee father, whose reign of crime fighting was remembered by Gothamites only as a myth. Because people really only liked the title Birds of Prey (it was a comic...), not the actual content.

Sarcasm aside, it's sad that these bean counting vultures are the people re-making our favorite shows. People who see marketable titles, and then decide to "re-invent" them not according to the property's inherent value, but according to their infinite personal wisdom instead. .But I'm sure there will be fans who eat up the new Bionic Woman and say it will be superior to the "cheesy" and "old" original. Because if there's any ruling edict of Hollywood remakes it is this: anything that came about in the 1970s is cheesy, and everything that is old, sucks. Right?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Happiest Day...

Monday, October 9th was truly one of the happiest days of my life. My beautiful and incredibly strong wife, Kathryn gave birth to our first child, a son named Joel. He's the most adorable and sweet baby you've ever seen. We just got home from the hospital this afternoon, and so I missed blogging this week's Heroes and Friday Night Lights. Trust you'll all forgive the interruption in the blog on this occasion...

I guess I just wanted to share with all my readers the deep emotional joy and euphoria I feel at having this blessed, healthy son in our midst. In a silly way, I had hoped he'd arrive on a special day for me (Friday the 13th...), but seeing him here in my office nursing with Kathryn (right next to a cardboard stand-up of Captain James T. Kirk...) , I realize every day for the rest of my life will be very special indeed, and filled with love.

Don't worry, I won't blog here about breast-feeding or diaper changes - at least not often - but for today at least, I just couldn't keep this joy to myself...

New Column up at Far Sector

My monthly column is now up at Far Sector. It's called "The End of the World as We Know it (On Network Television), and looks at some of the early episodes of this season's sci-fi shows.

Here's a sample:

Last season (2005-2006), network television acknowledged the startling success of ABC’s Lost with a slew of imitators: serialized science fiction TV series that combined mystery and soap opera elements. All of them—NBC’s Surface, CBS’s Threshold, ABC’s double-hitter: Invasion and Night Stalker — bit the dust. None survived to see a second season (and in the case of Surface and Invasion, that’s a shame, as they both had a lot of promise.)

This season, the networks are at it again, attempting to blend science fiction 'high concepts' with soap opera character melodrama. The aliens and sea monsters of last year are absent, replaced by an entirely more fascinating breed of 'what if' set-ups. The trend has skewed from the fantastic and the extra-terrestrial this year to the dark. Real dark.

In particular, CBS’s Jericho is television’s first post-apocalyptic series since Planet of the Apes and Logan’s Run came along in the Cold War 1970s, and NBC’s Heroes gazes lugubriously at the next evolution of humanity. Yes, it’s a superhero show…but also something darker and more mysterious; something with a portentous sense of gravitas. In particular, both series appear obsessed with a change in the nature of humanity and our world; the end of man’s 21st century civilization as we know it. I can only account for this new mini-trend by noting that it’s surely a sign of the times. With Christian fundamentalists populating the White House and Islamic fundamentalists leading Iran, how long is it before this so-called global 'clash of civilizations' ends badly for all of us? Which breed of religious zealot will push the button first? Both sides want to initiate the “End of Days,” so it’s a toss-up, especially given our reckless new policy of pre-emptive war.

So — as always — television capitalizes on the cultural Zeitgeist, and in this case, predicts a 'shift' in our world that could be catastrophic.

You can read more of these observations, and the rest of the column,