Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Dexter (TV)

Grade : A- Year : 2006-2013 Director : James Manos Jr. (Creator) Running Time : 5088min Genre : , , ,
Movie review score

**The following review contains spoilers to some key events in the show’s first five seasons. Read at your own peril. :)**

If you really boil down Showtime’s acclaimed hit show “Dexter” to its essence, a big part of the show’s artistic success is how it has portrayed Dexter Morgan (played by Michael C. Hall). True, the show’s producers have taken their cues from Jeff Lindsay’s series of novels about the blood spatter analyst/serial killer, but part of the reason I feel the show has succeeded the way it has through its first five seasons is the way it’s structured less as a crime show and more like a superhero saga.

Before you accuse me of temporary insanity, here me out. There are two sides of darkly delightful Dexter: on the one hand there’s mild-mannered Dexter, Miami Metro PD blood spatter analyst and forensic genius who’s a supportive brother to stepsister Debra (played by Jennifer Carpenter) and caring boyfriend/husband to Rita (Julie Benz) and her two kids Astor and Cody. On the other hand, there’s lone wolf Dexter, who was instilled by his police legend stepfather Harry Morgan (James Remar) with a “Code” of ethics in order to curb the impulses of his “dark passenger,” the impulse to kill that dug deep into him when he witnessed his mother brutally murdered by drug enforcers, who left him in a shipping container covered in blood for two days before Harry found him and adopted him. Right away, I think you can see the parallels fall into place. Like Bruce Wayne, he was scarred by tragedy at an early age that led him to dole out brutal retribution in adulthood. Like Peter Parker, he had a parental figure who gave him a moral road map that would help keep him on the path. And like pretty much every superhero in the history of the world, he must keep his “true identity” secret for fear of not only being exposed for his “vigilantism” (and since Harry’s Code only calls for criminals the justice system let’s fall through the cracks, this is an appropriate term for what Dexter does), but for the safety (and emotional well-being) of those around him, who would not only be crushed by such a revelation but also be put in harm’s way were Dexter to be discovered by one of his “victims.”

I began watching “Dexter” this summer as Showtime reran the series’s acclaimed fourth season in preparation for the new season. My mom had already been hooked after Julie Benz was asked about “Dexter” at 2009’s Dragon*Con; as I watched season four unfold (and caught up with seasons one-three via Netflix), I became even more hooked. The show turns the television crime genre on its head with a blend of dark humor (largely from Hall’s tone-perfect voiceover) and a deep supporting cast that gives Dexter a lot of chances to “play act” with human emotions and interactions. You see, Dexter was so traumatized by the events of his youth that he ran the risk of being an emotional shell… which is what made Harry (who himself has had some secrets revealed over the years) such a good mentor for young Dexter. As a cop, he had a way of reading human behavior, and he is able to instruct Dexter on ways he can seem “more human.”

The concept of Dexter’s humanity, and his ability to fit in with those around him, has always been front-and-center in the show (with each season seemingly exploring another aspect of that idea), but for me, season five (while not quite reaching the riveting highs of tension and storytelling of the previous two seasons) has seemed to be more about this idea than any other. It started right off the bat as Dexter dealt with the aftermath of finding Rita dead. For the 50 minutes that follows this revelation, Dexter not only is forced to handle things like planning a funeral and telling Astor and Cody, but also has to figure out what Rita meant to him in his life. Originally intended as a relationship of “convenience” (Rita was an emotionally-scarred single mother who had an abusive, drug-using husband, who was Astor and Cody’s father), as the seasons went along his connection with Rita felt more palpable, with him being the type of emotionally-reserved and kind boyfriend she needed, and her frailty meaning he wouldn’t have to become too invested in the emotional (and physical) part of relationships. I wouldn’t go as far as to call them “soulmates” (Rita never discovered the truth about Dexter), but to say they ended up right for one another is an understatement. This is what Dexter realizes by the end of season five’s first episode, making his eulogy genuine and resonate about the effect Rita had on his life, giving him hope that he could possibly have a normal life. Season five has explored that notion in a few intriguing ways, namely in Dexter’s befriending of Lumen (Julia Stiles), a young woman he finds as a captive of one of his “victims,” and whom also sees him kill her captor in his ritualistic way. This moment comes to define their relationship: the risks it means for Dexter (even Harry, when confronted by Dexter’s true nature, couldn’t handle what he’d created); the trust they must give the other; and the questions and uncertainty it means for their lives, especially Dexter’s, so soon after Rita’s death. How the writers have managed to tie the Lumen story in with Dexter’s dealing with Rita’s death has been inspired and fascinating, and after the season finale (which not only had surprises in store with Deb and others in addition to the closure of Lumen’s story… for now), I honestly can’t imagine what they have in store for us in season six.

Admittedly, the show is less interesting when it zeroes in on the supporting characters. Like the songs and Daniel Licht underscore that provide a gripping musical roadmap for the show to follow, they add a lot of flavor to the brew (who doesn’t love the vulgarity of C.S. Lee’s fellow forensic expert Masuka, David Zayas’s all-too-human Batista, or the suspicions of first Erik King’s Sgt. Doakes, then Desmond Harrington’s Det. Quinn?), but the storylines that run opposite Dexter don’t always work. True, Deb’s romantic trainwrecks are interesting and add depth to Dex’s profanity-prone stepsister, but the coupling of Batista and Miami Metro Homicide’s politically-driven Lt. Laguerta (Lauren Velez) has gone nowhere the past couple of seasons. Basically, the closer a storyline is to Dexter, the more interesting it is. That’s why the most compelling supporting characters have always been (in my opinion) Harry (first seen in flashbacks, then as a ghostly projection of his conscience); Deb (Dexter’s most consistent human connection); Rita (whose strength and worldly wisdom grew more evident as the series went on); and the show’s main season-long “guest stars,” from season one’s odd Rudy (Christian Camargo); season two’s bitchy Lila (Jaime Murray); season three’s hardened ADA Miguel Prado (Jimmy Smits); season four’s vicious “Trinity killer” Arthur Mitchell (John Lithgow); and Stiles’s Lumen and Peter Weller’s great sleazy cop Stan Liddy this season.

But don’t take my word for it– “Dexter” is a show well worth digging into (and the first two seasons are available via Netflix Streaming as of this writing). I’d say it’s to die for, but that just sounds cheesy.

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