Sunday, October 31, 2010

TV on DVD: Dexter (Season One, Disc One)

Episodes covered:  Dexter, Crocodile, Popping Cherry, Let's Give the Boy a Hand

For years I've heard nothing but good things about Dexter.  (Well, almost only good things:  I know that season three has its detractors).  The show is not merely a critical sensation or cult hit, but a ratings sensation by premium cable standards, and the most popular of Showtime's original series to date.  It even did well when CBS, the #1 network in The United States, broadcast edited versions of the episodes to fill time during the 2007-2008 Writer's Guild strike.  It's won multiple Emmys and a Peabody award.

So when does Dexter start getting good?

Don't get me wrong.  There is a lot to like in these first four episodes.  Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), a bloodstain pattern analyst by day and a serial killer by night, is an interesting character to build a show around. James Manos, Jr. and his writing staff oversell the idea that Dexter doesn't have normal human emotions, but Hall's magnetic performance conveys a dead-on-the-inside quality without making the character seem robotic.  The show makes fantastic use of its Miami location, and the rich cinematography marks a striking contrast to the drab look of the average crime show's grim East or West coast locations.  And the flashbacks to Dexter's past, with his adoptive father Harry (James Remar) teaching him to act like a normal human being despite his being a sociopath, play out like a compelling superhero origin story (one that is actually progressing a lot faster than the show's present-day storylines).  There is a lot of potential in a show about the ways that various personal relationships could threaten to unravel Dexter's double-life.

But the other characters are so uninteresting.  I couldn't care less about whether Dexter's adoptive sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter) earns her lieutenant's (Lauren Velez) respect, or whether detective Angel Batista (David Zayas) gets back together with his estranged wife, or whether detective James Doakes (Erik King) settles his personal vendetta with a local mafia kingpin (though this last plot seems to mercifully come to a conclusion in "Let's Give the Boy a Hand").  Since each episode's narrative is propelled by Dexter's voiceover narration, it tends to be painfully awkward when the show occasionally leaves his side to follow these generic cop show storylines.  I haven't read Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the Jeff Lindsay novel that Dexter is adapted from, but I'm guessing that these subplots were added by the show's writers as a way to fill time.  The season's overarching storyline - about Dexter's pursuit of the "Ice Truck Killer," who dissects his victims so neatly that he rarely leaves any blood or bone exposed - is developing at such a glacial pace that it hardly seems worth mentioning at this point.

Dexter also has a girlfriend, Rita (Julie Benz), whose past as a victim of domestic abuse has caused a deep-seated fear of even the most benign expressions of sexuality (which is perfect for Dexter, who claims to lack sexual desire and romantic feelings).  I could see Rita being an interesting foil for Dexter in the future, assuming that she ever starts snooping around and learning about his murderous tendencies.  But at this point their relationship is far too cutesy-quirky.  This aspect of the show seems phoned in from one of those annoying indie film romances.

The overly quirky tone is one of Dexter's biggest problems so far.  If the show is ever going to get into the moral implications of what Dexter does - murdering "bad guys" - then it is going to need to go to some dark places that the goofy feel of these early episodes can't sustain.  Granted, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, which are perhaps the two bleakest show's ever to air on television, started off with wacky high-concepts before settling into their explorations of the most uncomfortable aspects of humanity, and the early episodes of any show need viewers to get on their protagonists' side before they can pick them apart.  But so far Dexter has stacked the deck too far in the titular character's favor.  He kills a child molester early on in the pilot, an unrepentant serial drunk driver in "Crocodile," and a hateful nurse who poisons her patients in "Popping Cherry."  "Popping Cherry" does have a nice moment where Dexter realizes at the last moment that he is about to murder a kid who has only killed as a form of self defense, but for the show to fully get into Dexter's twisted form of morality, I think it is going to have to incorporate a storyline where Dexter either mistakenly murders an innocent, or where his violent desires cause him to intentionally kill someone who is at least somewhat sympathetic.

Considering its subject matter, Dexter is fairly squeamish when it comes to actually portraying violence.  Sure, there is a certain amount of blood each week, from the (terrific) opening credits to the final scenes of any given episode, but the murders themselves are not as disturbing as they should be.  Dexter always covers his victim's genitalia with saran wrap, and the camera tends to cut away whenever he's doing any actual cutting.  Granted, a series of grisly, graphic murder scenes would be hard for most viewers to stomach week-to-week, but whitewashing what the hero is actually doing seems like a cop-out.  This is one case where depictions of graphic violence might make a show more ethical rather than less, even though going that route would probably sacrifice the show's hit status.  Which makes me wonder if the concept of Dexter as a weekly TV series is even artistically viable.

Quick Thoughts

- Despite the "TV on DVD" tag, my wife and I are actually watching episodes of Dexter through Netflix's Instant Streaming service.

- The wig that Michael C. Hall wears during the flashbacks to Dexter's almost-adult years is the best thing about this show so far.  I'm not saying that as a knock against the show; it's just a really awesome wig.

- I'll stick through the first season of this show just out of curiosity, but at this early point I'm not hooked enough to commit to watching the entire series.

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