Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Dexter (Season 1)


I really like this show.  Or at least, what I've seen of it.  We'll see how I feel after seeing later seasons. 

The show combines several popular tropes (serial killers, detectives, noir, and vigilantism) to great effect. For those who are unfamiliar with the series, the show centers around (you guessed it) Dexter, a blood spatter analyst with the Miami-Dade Police Department. He also happens to be a serial killer.  His foster father Harry, a police officer, noticed Dexter's violent tendencies early on, and instilled in him a Code: only kill people who deserve it.  Specifically, killers who have somehow escaped the system.  The credit for this creative idea goes to author Jeff Lindsay, who penned the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter.  Lindsay's book focuses exclusively on Dexter and his relationship with another serial killer in the area who seems to be trying to communicate with him.  There is no room for in-depth treatment of the other characters, and as a result, the stakes are much lower when the big crisis arrives.   

But a television show has more time for character development.  Dexter divides his time among his own private investigations into possible future victims, his day job as a forensic expert, and his relationships with his girlfriend Rita (and her two kids) and his foster sister Debra (who is, coincidentally enough, a cop). This allows for both episode-long conflicts (Dexter's murder of the week, or some work investigation) and season long conflicts (the investigation of the Ice Truck Killer).  Along the way, viewers get to spend time with Rita and her kids, Debra and her romantic misadventures, and other Miami cops.  These characters get to be actual people and not mere cardboard props in Dexter's life, and the audience ends up feeling an affection for them that the book simply does not allow.

Then, too, there is more time to flesh out Dexter's relationships with those characters.  From the beginning, Dexter paints himself as an inhuman monster, dead inside, with no real connection to anyone or anything.  As the audience watches him play with Rita's kids or sees him fight with his sister, or even observes his unflinching adherence to the Code of Harry, it gives the lie to Dexter's own assertion that he is "hollow" and only pretending human emotions.  Dexter claims to be fooling others into thinking he cares; perhaps he's only fooled himself into thinking he doesn't. 

Dexter is, in many ways, a quintessential noir antihero.  He is unashamedly a murderer--a bad guy.  Yet he restricts his violent activities to those who deserve it.  Those like himself.  This makes him significantly more sympathetic.  His aversion to inflicting violence on children, his loathing of domestic violence, and his indignation at the crimes perpetrated by others imply the existence of a moral code not too far removed from the viewer's own.  If you ignore the part where he actively enjoys chopping up these killers.  But there is a hint of Robin Hood, of Simon Templar (The Saint) about him, because he camouflages his thirst for blood in a misguided but not wholly baseless quest for "justice."  And after all, he can't help what he is . . . right?

This idea of inevitability--the tension between fate and freedom--haunts the borders of this excellent show.  Harry recognizes the warning signs in young Dexter, and sees as inevitable his ascent (or descent) into serial murder.  So he tries to mitigate the outcome by directing Dexter at those most worthy of death--other killers.  He also teaches Dexter how to avoid apprehension.  Yet, by so doing, he gives Dexter permission to escalate to the killing of humans.  Would Dexter have become a killer if Harry had insisted that murder is wrong, rather than teaching Dexter that he would inevitably become a murderer?  Could he have fought his violent tendencies?  After all, Dexter was able to control himself enough to adhere to the Code of Harry--perhaps he could have resisted the urge to kill completely.  There is no way of knowing.  And how does one parent a child who seems doomed to take the lives of others?  I confess, Harry's dilemma fascinates me.  But the issue of inevitability is not limited to Harry's parenting choices; it lurks in the shadows of Dexter's own insistence that he feels nothing and is incapable of emotion (despite several indications to the contrary).  After all, if he's just a heartless monster, then he can't really be blamed for what he does.  If he does care, and he's not just a monster, then maybe, just maybe, he's a real human and he had a choice . . .

All in all, the show takes a good idea and makes it great by creating full-fledged, honest characters for the larger-than-life Dexter to rub up against.  There are real consequences for his choices, and life is more complicated than he would like it to be. 

NOTE:  This is a Showtime series, which means more sex and violence than would be shown on a standard cable show.  This includes some nudity and a great deal of blood, though it's highly stylized and thus somehow less upsetting (to me, anyway).

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