Image A Sound A Extras D+
"Living the Dream," "Remains to be Seen," "Blinded by the Light," "Dex Takes a Holiday," "Dirty Harry," "If I Had a Hammer," "Slack Tide," "Road Kill," "Hungry Man," "Lost Boys," "Hello, Dexter Morgan," "The Getaway"
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Previously on "Dexter": Jimmy Smits set the Latin-American image back 100 years; Dexter married his stepsister* (*may have only happened offscreen); and the show ran out of flashbacks, forcing James Remar into the present-day narrative as the ghost of Hamlet's father. And now, the continuing misadventures of America's cuddliest serial killer.
- I, erm, tweeted the other day that "Dexter" is the very definition of a TV series I enjoy but don't respect. "Meaning the banal soap-operatics, idiotic plotting, and literalminded narration wreck its strangely intoxicating mood," I subsequently clarified. And honestly, that's my review of "Dexter" right there, be it any individual episode/season or the series as a whole. I think, too, that while we can haggle over the toll of those shortcomings on one's estimation of the show, in and of themselves they are indisputable.
- I suppose I'm jumping through verbal hoops to avoid labelling "Dexter" a guilty pleasure--a term I abhor for introducing shame into matters of personal taste.
- Nevertheless, I eagerly awaited the fourth season of "Dexter", for the simple reason that it promised a villainous turn from John Lithgow and that is a gift horse you do not look in the mouth. A noticeable uptick in quality from the dismal third season suggests that Lithgow inspired everybody to bring their "A" game (which is really a good show's "B" game), and makes me wonder whether "Dexter", when all's said and done, will prove analogous to the Star Trek movies in being at its best during the even-numbered seasons. Season Two, after all, was a significant improvement on Season One.
- Season Four is also better than Season Three because of Lithgow himself, natch. In middle-school math terms, John Lithgow > Jimmy Smits.
- Each season of "Dexter" so far has had Dexter (Michael C. Hall, irreproachable) encountering someone whose damaged psyche mirrors his own and excitedly rushing towards him--or, in the case of distaff Dexter Lila, her--like the Munchkins who were enthralled to learn there were other little people in the world on the set of The Wizard of Oz, only for that person to prove too immoral to pass his litmus test of "Harry's Code." In Lithgow's Arthur Mitchell, née the Trinity Killer, he sees the Ghost of Christmas Future. A new father and husband haplessly juggling his responsibilities and his homicidal compulsions, Dexter feels he can't put Trinity on the slab until he learns how sixtysomething Arthur--teacher, pastor (it took a while, but the show finally portrays religious hypocrisy in one of its villains), husband, father, mass murderer--has been able to maintain a façade of normalcy for some thirty years, the length of Trinity's reign of terror. He actually hasn't, but that warrants a separate bullet point:
- Arthur, in a twist on the unassuming serial killer, looms as a tyrant of Great Santini proportions. (In a creepy moment from the entertainingly grim Thanksgiving episode (4.9, "Hungry Man"), Dexter asks if Arthur locked his 15-year-old daughter Rebecca (the ubiquitous Vanessa Marano) in her room because she's grounded and is told, in no uncertain terms, "No.") While at first this seemed to me to violate not just a dramatic convention but also a prevalent historical irony, there are certainly precedents: neither Henry Lee Lucas nor Jeffrey Dahmer exuded surface saintliness, for example. Still, one wonders exactly what sort of cathartic relief his murders provide, since he's always at the very least testy--even with sweet coffee-shop waitress Pam (Olivia Burnette).
- That's right, Olivia Burnette, the diminutive dynamo once poised to have Reese Witherspoon's career, almost sadistically squandered in a two-line role herein. Similarly better than his blink-and-miss cameo? Christine's Keith Gordon--although as a periodic director on the show (he helmed the episode in which Burnette appears (4.5, "Dirty Harry")), he's there mainly as an in-joke, with Hall getting his presumed Actor's Revenge by sticking Gordon's neck with a needle.
- But back to Arthur. The real problem with him, conceptually speaking, is that he confirms both Dexter and the show see serial-killing as a lifelong occupation, despite compelling evidence pointing to the psychopathic urge drying up like the libido in middle age. Would this season have lost urgency by pursuing psychological veracity? I'm personally doubtful that a for-all-intents-and-purposes retired Trinity would make for a less effective antagonist, any more than an alcoholic needs to relapse now and again to maintain credibility. Dexter and cartoonish retired FBI agent Frank Lundy (Keith Carradine, who dies the most convincing onscreen death--that I've seen, anyway--since Kevin Spacey in L.A. Confidential) alike could still want to bring him to justice as the big fish that got away; Arthur could still engage in cat-and-mouse hijinks in the interest of self-preservation; and Arthur's daughter Christine (Claire Forlani-esque Courtney Ford) could still try to win Daddy's approval by liquidating Lundy as she does. I suppose you'd have to sacrifice Lithgow's memorable entrance and its attendant salacious imagery (Arthur is introduced in high giallo style strangling a woman in a bathtub while waiting for her slit thigh to bleed out; I must confess to chuckling during this sequence, knowing that Lithgow released an album of children's music called "Singin' in the Bathtub"), but it's a small price to pay for a little verisimilitude. Of course, this is "Dexter", the kind of show where the characters use fake search engines that instantly materialize perfect digital scans of newspaper articles no matter how esoteric the subject--that's like asking for the moon.
- Would it surprise you to learn that "Dexter"'s head writer is the superintendent of the Twilight films? Furthermore, would it surprise you to learn that "Dexter" is from the creator of "Suddenly Susan" and "Parker Lewis Can't Lose"? Neither, frankly, surprised me enough. Indeed, though Dexter's supernatural lucky streak--he has God or the deus ex machina on cosmic speed-dial--comes to a crashing end with this season's gratifyingly uncompromising coda, the series could reasonably be titled "Dexter Morgan Can't Lose".
- Lithgow's pretty awesome, however, in an Emmy-winning role that makes canny use of his imposing frame, his Silly Putty face (when he tries to get an abducted boy to play trains and eat ice cream with him, he's like a clown out of makeup), and that nimble voice of his, here fluctuating between venom and self-pity. (He's an actor who relishes emotional dissonances, as the unfailing gusto with which he played mercurial Dick Solomon on "3rd Rock from the Sun" will attest.) A great foil for Hall, who at last faces a sparring partner in his weight class, Lithgow has the compulsive watchability of the great hams, which keeps you persevering through "Grey's Anatomy"-isms like the crew of Miami Metro Homicide constantly advising each other to take a personal day more or less to sort out their love-lives--even though Trinity's on the loose, someone else is offing tourists, and a third suspect has shot one of their own, Deb (the singularly abrasive Jennifer Carpenter).
- If Lithgow seems to be struggling to find pathos in Trinity (his death scene gets most of its gravity from Frankie Avalon crooning "Venus" on the soundtrack in a cheaply haunting juxtaposition), blame a series that, somewhat ironically, has never had much sympathy for the devil. Blame, too, a BigBad who starts out Thomas Harris difficult with that tub business and ends up Michael Connelly arcane: Arthur caused the accidental death of his sister as a child, thus he cyclically kills four people--a preteen boy, a younger and older woman, and a middle-aged man--in effigy to his consequently fractured family. Oh, brother.
- Other endurance tests: the trickling speed with which dirty cop Quinn (Desmond Harrington) is set up as the successor to Principal Blackman--er, Doakes (the sub-drama of Harrington's brush-cut filling in over the course of these twelve episodes has more entertainment value); the pointless busywork of the aforementioned "vactation murders" subplot; and the fanfic romance that blossoms between boring Laguerta (Lauren Vélez) and dopey Batista (David Zayas). That last one climaxes in a wedding to which not merely Dexter but Hall himself looks displeased to have been roped into attending--it's a waste of resources all around. On the other hand, I appreciated the tentative steps towards humanizing the perpetually horny Masuka (C.S. Lee), because that shit's starting to get old and racist, and let's be honest, Ford's oft-unclothed breasts deserve a little credit for maintaining heterosexual interest in this chapter of the saga.
- They're real, and they're spectacular...on Blu-ray. Through distributor Paramount, Showtime splays "The Fourth Season" of "Dexter" across three discs, four episodes to a platter. Shot, for the most part, using Sony's CineAlta F23 24p camera, the show's HD origins are better obscured by the vagaries of cable, yet this 1.78:1, 1080p image is unquestionably superior to the broadcast alternative. The colours of Miami splash across the monitor like wet paint and the blood, so pivotal, is particularly sanguine. Meanwhile, the residue of the city frequently registers in a tactile nightscum on faces or clothing. There's your verisimilitude, I guess. Par for the course, whites sometimes run unintentionally hot (Dexter's imaginary interactions with his father are purposefully blown-out in the vein of Robert Richardson), while Julie Benz suffers from Dawn Wells Syndrome in a few mercilessly clear close-ups--although Rita's such a pathetic creature that the painted-on obviousness of her tan is curiously poignant. Matching the video pound-for-pound is a 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track of pinprick clarity; Daniel Licht's bewitching score, a critical component of the show's charm, has a warm, "live" sound in hi-res audio. For what it's worth, there are current TV series with flashier mixes ("True Blood" comes to mind), but not many endeavour as successfully as "Dexter" to emulate the acoustical properties of a given location.
- Extras are limited to BD-Live ephemera: the first two episodes of "Californication" Season Three; the first two episodes of "The Tudors" Season Four; the pilot episode of something called, um, "Episodes"; and interviews with Carpenter, Hall, Lithgow, Lee, Benz, Remar, Zayas, Vélez, and producer Clyde Phillips. Additionally, MovieIQ is enabled for each episode; didn't/couldn't access any of it. Note that Disc Three utilizes a heretofore-unseen type of BD-Java that allows one to resume after stopping. With luck, this will become the new industry standard. Originally published: August 24, 2010.