Here I sit, trying to imagine the pitch meeting for Dexter…
“We’ve got this cop, working for the forensics department of the Miami Police Dept.”
“Go on, I’m loving it…”
“His specialty is hunting serial killers that he feels are especially deserving.”
“Serial killers, too?!? That’s fantastic, I think we’re gold. What about babes?”
“Well, he’s a sociopath, so he really doesn’t like girls all that much. Plus, being a serial killer himself, there isn’t much time for dating. Hello? Hello?”
Dexter is certainly the best television show to ever celebrate murderous anti-social behavior. With HBO still paying off karmic debt for pulling the plug on Rome and Deadwood, Dexter has dramatically raised Showtime’s decidedly sketchy history in the world of premium cable original series. We rolled our eyes back in 2006 at the thought of yet another serial killer-themed entertainment clogging the cultural zeitgeist, but Dexter is a very different animal indeed, and makes us think that network television may have forever given up the quality program mantle to cable. Dexter is based on a series of books by Jeff Lindsay dealing with the most prolific serial killer in Miami – who also happens to be the police forensics expert – and was brought to Showtime as a series in October 2006. It’s been one of the few times we can recall a film or television show feel somehow truer than the source material on which it was based. We started reading Lindsay’s “Darkly Dreaming Dexter” after first being immersed in the show, and were amazed to find that the series actually had more depth than the books. What seemed too much like a cold, dramatic invention on the page is made into a fully-formed, flesh and blood character on television thanks to excellent writing, slick location photography, and a truly amazing lead performance.
Dexter (Michael C Hall) was adopted as a small child by patrolman Harry Morgan (James Remar) after finding him in the midst of a brutal crime scene – literally bathed in the blood of his deceased mother – who was dismembered by a chainsaw in front of his eyes. After catching Dexter killing small animals, Harry soon realizes that his son was exhibiting the textbook early warning signs of Antisocial Personality Disorder. Realizing that there’s little that he can do to prevent Dexter from becoming a killer, he instead trains him in police methods so that he’ll never leave a trace; but more importantly, Harry imparts a code in Dexter to only kill people who are murderers themselves and may otherwise escape justice.
As Season One began, both Dexter and adoptive sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter) had joined the Miami Police Force, with Dexter’s deadly talents having helped him excel at his work in blood spatter analysis. Dexter still feels disconnected to the people around him, but his father’s advice about “fitting in and looking normal” convinces him to date Rita (Julie Benz), a victim of domestic abuse with two children and a threatening ex-husband, Paul (Mark Pellegrino) looking for more time with the children. At first, Rita seems like the perfect girl for Dexter, as her pervious relationship has left her distrustful of men and unable to be physically intimate. But things change when another serial killer begins stalking Miami’s sun-bleached streets, a cold, methodical murderer dubbed the ‘Ice Truck Killer’ for his preferred method of transporting the bodies of his victims. Dexter marvels at the cleanliness of the crime scenes, with the victim’s bodies neatly wrapped and tied and not a drop of blood to be found (forcing the ‘blood spatter’ expert to come up with increasingly flimsy excuses for being at the scenes.) Dexter’s relationship with the Ice Truck Killer takes an unusual turn when he begins to leave messages for Dexter in his own apartment, suggesting a connection between them. Dexter’s familiarity with the Ice Truck Killer creates suspicion on the part of lead detective Doakes (Erik King), who regards Dexter as a freak and suspects that he knows quite a bit more about serial killing than he lets on. Meanwhile, Debra begins dating Rudy (Christian Camargo) a designer of prosthetic limbs who also happens to have a dark secret of his own.
In deference to those not yet familiar with events of Dexter‘s first season, we’ll end the discussion there. Suffices to say that the show manages to miraculously tie up the various plot threads without compromising the dark side of its lead character’s nature. Season 2 opens with Doakes more convinced than ever that Dexter is hiding a more lethal side. He tails Dexter everywhere while off-duty, making it impossible for Dexter to apply his trade. Adding to Dexter’s stress on the home front is his distraught sister’s decision to move in with him following her entanglement with the Ice Truck Killer. Rita’s ex (set up by Dexter and returned to jail on a drug charge in the previous season) is killed in prison, but not before planting the seeds of doubt in Rita, repeatedly telling her that Dexter planted the heroin on him that got him locked away. Rita confronts Dexter, but instead of guessing at his true nature, she mistakenly assumes him to be a drug addict, and tells him to get help or get out. But rehab isn’t all bad as Doakes tails him to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting and assumes that Dexter had been merely hiding a drug addiction from his fellow officers. It’s at a NA meeting that Dexter hooks up with a sponsor, the raven-haired Lila (Jamie Murray), a metal sculptor, recovering meth addict, and sometime pyromaniac. Lila thinks she’s found a kindred spirit in Dexter’s dark side, and even Dexter thinks that he may have found a soul mate, but his attentions have turned to a new serial killer gripping the Miami area – dubbed the Bay Harbor Butcher by the newspapers. The area in the bay where the Butcher had been dumping his victims has been discovered by divers; the neatly wrapped parts of dozens and dozens of victims cause a ripple of fear to run throughout the city in everyone but Dexter – because those pieces happen to belong to his victims! The FBI bring in Special Agent Lundy (Keith Carradine) to catch the Butcher, who promptly recruits Debra for his joint task force.
The above events compromise roughly the first half of the season, and once again, we’re loath to discuss anymore because of the large number of people without Showtime that catch up with the show on video. As with the first season, Dexter continues the difficult juggling act of keeping the main character psychologically true while maintaining audience sympathy. Credit for that goes largely to Michael C. Hall, whose wickedly smart portrayal is simply astonishing.
For three seasons Hall has successfully played a character who has to fake connections to the people and world around him and all the while wearing a thin, occasionally shaky mask of sanity that hides a ruthless killer. Whatever else the show is, it would have failed utterly had the central performance leaned too far into the overly campy, Hannibal Lecktor territory, or simply uninteresting; but after watching our first episode of Dexter last year, it was instantly unimaginable to have anyone else in the title role. The second season gives Hall much more to play off of, having to deal with issues of paternal betrayal that force him to question his cherished “Harry’s code” imparted to him by his father.
The second season also gave supporting cast member Erik King more to chew on as well; Doakes’ hatred and suspicion of Dexter was the only through line in the first season that we found ourselves losing patience with, but that obsession reached a necessarily brutal conclusion here that we found very satisfying. Jennifer Carpenter’s Debra is also put to more interesting use here, her close call with the Ice Truck Killer driving her deeper into Dexter’s life. She also begins an unlikely romance with guest star Carradine, in magnificent form as the dedicated FBI agent. Their April-October romance seems unusually organic, and Carpenter’s game is raised considerably when she shares the screen with him.
Miami, too, plays a distinctive role in Dexter, as much a part of the fiber of the show as New York is to Law & Order. It will be interesting in later years to compare Dexter with Miami Viceto chart the changes that the city has gone through. The show is shot on digital video, but the vagaries of cable broadcast mean that the show is invariably compressed to a degree (at least as it flows into our house), so the Blu-Ray release gives us the opportunity to see the show as it was originally shot. There are some occasionally heavy filtering effects used, but this does appear to be an accurate representation of the filmmaker’s intent. Even those accustomed to Showtime’s HD broadcast will be wowed by the 1080p picture here, wringing out heretofore unseen details. We only hope that Showtime/CBS see fit to release the 3rd season Blu-Ray day-and-date with the SD-DVD; for a show as visually stimulating as Dexter, it’s frustrating to have to wait this long for the HD version.
Extras are as follows:
- Tools of the Trade video game
- Blood Fountains Featurette
- Dark Defender – Season 2 Short Films
- Michael C. Hall Podcasts
- First 2 Episodes of United States of Tara
While this looks impressive, be warned that with the exception of the silly trivia game and the trailers, the rest of the bonus features have to be downloaded via the BD Live service (a process that our PS3 doesn’t seem to like at all).