In 10 Words or Less
Meet the serial killer next door
Loves: Serial killer stories, dark comedy
Likes: Michael C. Hall, forensics
I got a copy of Darkly Dreaming Dexter when it came out several years ago, and though I never finished it (I'm an awful reader) I was fascinated by the concept of a serial killer working for the police; understanding how to murder someone and get away with it. That the whole thing is presented with a wickedly dark sense of humor just made it that much more attractive to me. Obviously, the announcement of a TV series based on the Dexter's books excited the awful reader in me, even if I didn't know how it would end.
Once I caught the series though, it was quickly clear to me that I would never go back to the printed page for my Dexter fill, as it's impossible to think that there could be a better interpretation of the character than the one delivered by Michael C. Hall as part of this outstanding Showtime series.
The basic story is a simple one. By day, Dexter (Hall) is a forensics expert, specializing in blood spatter analysis, for the Miami Metro police department. By night, he preys upon criminals who have slipped through justice's fingers, using his skills to kill and dispose of evil people. Why? Well that's the not-so-simple part of the tale, as Dexter's past is revealed in bits and pieces, building a more complete picture of a soulless killer who wants to funnel his urges into a positive direction. Flashbacks and small clues build to a revelation that not only explains who he is, but which ties together everything.
As Dexter slaughters his victims and works his day job, a main story emerges involving the Ice Truck Killer, whose distinct and exacting style impresses Dexter and draws him into a dance of contemporaries that involves his coworkers, his girlfriend Rita (Julie Benz) and his only remaining family member, his police-office sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter.) Though Dexter murders people, it's easy to let a sense of vigilantism overtake you, giving you a chance to cheer for the bad guy. It's freeing to side with someone who does the wrong thing, mainly because he does it for the right reasons, but also because he's played by Hall.
As Dexter, Hall is stunning, switching from suburban everyguy to cold-blooded assassin like you would flip a switch, revealing the lack of soul inside though his face, never overplaying into a scowl, or underplaying with a goofy grin. A slight manipulation of his voice reveals a cloaked demon, where was once a concerned boyfriend. It's the kind of subtle performance that was needed to sell the series' main concept: the truth that lies beneath the surface. Hall is the prototypical homicidal maniac with a heart of gold. Just try not smiling from ear to ear as he slides a knife in a similar manner, or feel your heart break as his does. You will never once doubt that he is Dexter.
The perverse love/hate relationship between Dexter and the killer, which ties into Dexter's battles with his own reasons for being, is just one of several threads in the show's deep plot, including corrupt cops, departmental politics, family drama and sociology. Surprisingly, the drama in the police department, which, for the most part, doesn't include Dexter, is just as interesting as the serial killer story. The same goes for story of Rita, who moves from an abusive ex-husband to a serial killer boyfriend, and gives the audience someone to relate to. The series does a great job at juggling a cast of seven "main" characters, interweaving their stories and not letting one fall off for any length of time. It also has the style and production value of a feature film, following the tone set by pilot director Michael Cuesta (L.I.E.) The gorgeous look of the episode "Seeing Red" needs to be seen to understand how beautiful horror can be. This is a different look at Miami for those used to the flashy city seen in "C.S.I.: Miami."
Though each episode is basically self-contained, you'd have a tough time watching one here or there, as the overarching storyline is the most entertaining aspect of the series, with the mystery of the Ice Truck Killer unfolding over the 12 hour-long episodes, mirroring the mystery inside of Dexter. Utilizing a very witty, noir-like internal dialogue by Dexter, the show delivers a mix of detective story and primer on serial killing, as if Sam Spade was a sociopath. It's the rare serial killer story that let's you see the slayer's world unravel the way Dexter's does, as he evolves and grows, while learning about himself and why he kills. His origin story is handled gracefully and meticulously and above all organically, fitting perfectly with the progression of the story. Nothing about it feels forced or out of place.
Admittedly, the series finale is a bit by-the-book in its construction, and the villain is easy to surmise if you pay attention, but it's done so well that you won't care. You'll just want more. This is the first time in recent memory where I actually struggled to open up the cases and get each disc into the DVD player due to sheer excitement, dying to see the next chapter of the story. Partially it was the momentum of the story, but mostly it was simply an infatuation with the characters, whose personalities are fleshed out in detail, pulling you into their lives. When I realized that I cared deeply about not only the lead characters, but the 5th or 6th supporting character, I realized just how good this show is.
And amazingly, there's plenty of story left to tell when season two starts.
The 12 first-season episodes are spread across four DVDs oddly, with four on each of the first two discs, three on the third and one on the fourth (where the extras live as well.) The four discs are packaged in a pair of clear ThinPaks, each with a dual-sided cover with episode descriptions (if this is your first viewing, don't read them), which are themselves packed in a nicely-designed slipcase. The discs feature an animated, anamorphic widescreen menu, with 3-D computer animation that's disappointing for a quality show like this, offering a play-all option, episode selections and audio set-up. Annoyingly, the "Previously on "Dexter"..." prologues are included on each episode, so have your remote handy to skip ahead. Audio options include English Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0, and Spanish 1.0 tracks, but there are no subtitles, only closed captioning.
The video quality on these anamorphic widescreen transfers is extremely high, but you don't need to even look at the show to see that. All you need to look at is the series' opening titles, which are gruesomely detailed (and incredibly smart.) The level of detail is fantastic for standard-definition DVD, while the color is spot-on, and there are no digital artifacts to be found. The video is close to flawless, without a speck of dirt or damage in the video.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks on these episodes are clear and crisp, with distortion-free dialogue and strong music presentation, with some heavy bass effects. Some atmospheric effects are present in the mix, including one on Dexter's voice that's particularly effective, but for the most part, the side and rear speakers are there simply to enhance the audio, and they do that well.
Two audio commentaries are included, on "Return to Sender," with Carpenter, David Zayas, Lauren Velez and Erik King, and "Born Free" with producers Sara Colleton, Clyde Phillips and Daniel Cerone. Not having Hall or Cuesta involved is a bit of a downer, but the tracks are very nice, especially the producers' chat, which covers almost all aspects of the production, including discussion of how the book was altered in bringing it to TV.
A 12-minute featurette, "Witnessed in Blood - A True Murder Investigation," looks at how blood spatter analysis helped solved a real murder. Though the voiceover is a bit too peppy for the subject, and the claim that "Dexter" introduced the world to blood spatter analysis ("C.S.I." anyone?) is a bit boastful, it's an interesting piece that relates nicely to the show. The box lists another featurette, "The Academy of Blood - A Killer Course" but if it's here, I can't find it.
Instead of providing more content about Dexter, or related to the series, you get two episodes of "Brotherhood," another Showtime series. While I understand synergy, and welcome the chance to check out something new as a bonus, when that promotional material seems to come at the expense of material related to the series I intended to check out, it's nothing but a disappointment. Add in the fact that the episodes are presented in letterboxed full-frame and you have to wonder what Showtime was thinking. The series isn't anything I'd be interested in seeing more of, but it's got some buzz, so if you're into stories about thugs and organized crime, you might enjoy this. Of course, with no Emmy nominations and the similar series "The Black Donnellys" dying a quick death, you may not.
The rest of the extras are a blend of oddities, including a link to watch two episodes of "The Tudors," online, two pdf chapters of the new Dexter novel, a sweepstakes link to win a TV, four Showtime/CBS previews, a $25 rebate on Showtime subscriptions, and a "C.S.I." game demo download, along with some text bios. Wonderfully though, I couldn't access this content, as my disc wouldn't authenticate. It also won't work on a Mac. In looking at the overall package though, it seems like Showtime was more interested in selling other Showtime product than supplementing this series. Combine this with the missing extra, and this is a weak DVD package for such a great series.
The Bottom Line
A great concept is one thing. A great concept played out to chilling effect with a talented cast is another thing. Make that concept work in what is essentially an 11-hour movie, and you have something akin to pure genius. That's exactly what you get with "Dexter." A complex mystery, an arsenal of intriguing characters and true artistic style all add up to a mini-series that manages to make every episode enthralling while building an overall story that doesn't disappoint or, incredibly, drag. The DVDs match the show in terms of quality, with gorgeous visuals and solid sound, though most of the extras are more about promoting Showtime than serving "Dexter" fans. If you like shows like "C.S.I." and anti-heroes who don't follow the rules, you will love this series, and will find it hard to watch just one episode, wanting to follow Dexter along the trail of blood.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.