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"Dexter," "Crocodile," "The Popping Cherry," "Let's Give the Boy a Hand," "Love American Style," "Return to Sender," "Circle of Friends," "Shrink Wrap," "Father Knows Best," "Seeing Red," "Truth Be Told," "Born Free"
by Walter Chaw "Dexter" sucks in that special Showtime way. It has nothing for the soul--not because it's nihilistic, but because it isn't. It's "The Facts of Life" crossed with "Matlock" starring a good-hearted serial killer; a superhero melodrama along the lines of "The Incredible Hulk" whose self-contained mysteries are held together ever so loosely by a season-long thread involving a manhunt. What I'm trying to say is that it's unbelievably patronizing. It's not nuanced, not laden with depth--it's a quirk machine, facile and shallow. See, a serial killer with heart isn't "deep," it's a sketch. It's the black guy who thinks he's white, the horny old lady, the hooker with a heart of gold. What begins as a really fun-seeming premise is undone utterly by a succession of weak scripts and, with the exception of Michael C. Hall's virtuoso turn as a sociopath working as a blood-spatter expert in Miami, slack performances. He's a lot better than the material deserves, it goes without saying, but like Mary-Louise Parker in the similarly pandering, similarly terrible Showtime series "Weeds", he's just good enough to prolong the show's already-lamentable existence. Maybe the real argument pertains to the wisdom of creating a series about something so heinous in such a way that it trips no sensitivity meters. It's a time bomb hidden in a teddy bear--and then the bomb doesn't go off.
Even Hall can only do so much with scripts that demand he arch his eyebrows facetiously at nearly every opportunity to the accompaniment of a dreadful score and frequent director Michael Cuesta's fatuous direction. Set your watch by the number of times someone says something like, "I wish I had a son like you, Dexter," or, "I think we're really a lot alike, Dexter," and watch Hall waggle his brow towards the camera. Yeah, I get it. "Dexter" is forced through the eye of a needle: desperate, unlikely, the model of a collection of not-very-smart people getting their jollies off on playing naughty but pulling out before arriving at any moments of truth. I wonder if it chafes to create a cast-iron bitch only to write an episode in which a briefly-orphaned child melts her heart. ("He's a very special boy," says his grateful tío. "I know he is... I know," she says over a melody that reminds of Bruce Banner trying to hitch a ride.) It's sometimes briefly entertaining on purpose because of its high concept and because of Hall--but should I cheer this kindly vigilante freak, it doesn't expose my heart of darkness; in general, it plays on the universal desire for cheap, comforting resolutions for exactly the kinds of topics you should be careful about exploiting in this manner. In that pursuit, "Dexter" addresses evil husband & wife immigration mules and pedophiles in the public eye, while in flashback, it tackles euthanasia angels prowling the hospice where Dexter's sainted foster father (James Remar) once spent a few frock-frocked hours.
As good as Hall is, Jennifer Carpenter is bad. Like that classic Harold & Kumar bit about Katie Holmes' breasts being the opposite of the Holocaust, Carpenter is the opposite of Hall, and their scenes together (she plays his retarded cop sister, Debra) are relentless in their awfulness. Listening to her attempt her lines is a lot like having someone bore a hole in your head with an unsharpened pencil--and lucky for us, she's in every episode of the first season. Lucky again, the dimwits responsible for the show have this evergreen belief that every single character needs an uplifting arc, and so Debra gets hers as a beat cop who becomes a homicide dick through the sort of promotion that proves the Peter Principle. I don't know what equal-opportunity job fair got her hired into a position that requires reading, but when it's revealed that she's central to the running joke of a brilliant serial killer whom Dexter admires, it struck me that this is the one area where it makes any sense that a character this dumb and poorly-performed would be front-and-centre in a weekly series. You have to be just this ridiculous in order for the storyline to work. Given that, the storyline is actually somehow more ridiculous than that: what's the point of establishing a genius killer with Byzantine methods if all you're going to do with it is contrive a stupefying, soap-opera resolution? In truth, I have a strong suspicion that how the first season wraps up is the very best they could do.
Equally frustrating is tough sergeant Doakes (Erik King), set up as the one cop in the joint who doubts Dexter's fitness for law enforcement yet quickly reduced to the guy who insults Dexter while Dexter fails to react one way or the other. Or take Dexter's girlfriend Rita (Julie Benz), the victim of horrific domestic abuse at the hands of her ex--so damaged by life that she's emotionally distant enough to be a perfect fit for our lovable android. Most damning is the fourth-episode revelation that maybe Dexter isn't emotionless so much as in need of longer flashbacks to his childhood, the better to exorcise the nihilistic proposition that some people are born as sharks. I don't know a thing about the second season of this craptavaganza, but I'm willing to bet that sooner or later the show is going to find Dexter investigating the extraordinary events that birthed him ideologically. The voiceover reassures that "Maybe I'm not a monster! I'm unique!"--the type of affirmation you give to slow children discovered with a cache of dead neighbourhood cats stashed under the porch. The trouble with "Dexter" is that it wants to be adored and so shears itself of its thorns. It's not subversive (even its occasional grue is often tamer than that which you'd see on network television in any "CSI"-style procedural), it's a happy-go-lucky, broadly-appealing drama that pulls you to its breast and demands you suckle at its flavourless teat. It's suppository-smooth and it offers the same expulsive relief; funny how the analogy is to something I shove up my ass.
Paramount/Showtime's DVD release of Dexter spreads twelve episodes across four discs individually packaged in two thinpaks housed in a cardboard slipcover. Disc 2's "Return to Sender" (1.6) sports an audio commentary with cast members David Zayas, Lauren Vélez, Carpenter, and King that spends a lot of time fawning over Hall's performance; meanwhile, Tony Goldwyn, on board to direct this selection, is identified as an "actor's director." Too, it's pointed out that the episode consists of flashbacks and silent moments where Hall holds for the narration that is...wait for it...unheard on set! Useless? At least useless. Every platter, it bears mentioning, opens with a forced contemplation of the Showtime show trailer reel. Their programming looks to be uniformly garbage--especially David Duchovny's continued descent into Bart Freundlich's navel. Another commentary adorns the final episode of the season, this one featuring producers Sara Colleton, Clyde Phillips, and Daniel Cerone. Cuesta is identified as a brilliant director, apparently exclusively on the basis of his work on "Dexter" and not on his pretty-good L.I.E.. The three perpetuate the hagiography by praising themselves overmuch in terms of how they've "delivered" in the finale. Puzzling stretches of silence mar the track to the extent that that's possible--worse, though, is the midway point when all three, at a loss for what to say anymore, content themselves with extended plot narration and reveries on what the characters are thinking and feeling.
"Witnessed In Blood: A True Murder Investigation" (12 mins.) is what it sounds like as a real crime scene's blood patterns are examined in the same happy-go-spanky way they are on "Dexter". This might've been fascinating twenty years or so ago, before (successfully) dramatized versions of it became a staple of primetime. Two free episodes of "Brotherhood" are included in addition to directions for streaming "The Tudors" and the videogame "CSI: Hard Evidence". You can also read the first two chapters of Dexter In The Dark by Jeff Lindsay if you want. Previews for seasons of "Sleeper Cell", "The L Word", and "The Tudors" as well as the CBS-DVD trailer reel prolong the torture; seven text-based biographies mercifully end it. The series proper is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer with progressive issues and some smearing due to overcompression, but the overall impression it makes is a good one. For what it's worth, the pilot's sultry opening shots of Miami nightlife highlight how drab are the rest of the show's settings. While the DD 5.1 audio is surprisingly nuanced, occasionally bombastic, and always logical, it's not the default listening option, necessitating a switch from the feeble Dolby 2.0 alternative at the start of each episode or via the language menu. Ultimately, the A/V style is as slick and lulling as the rest of the series. Originally published: September 18, 2007.