A few years ago my wife and I were suffering from terrible colds. I was sent on the medication run to the store and, armed with a pile of coupons I had saved, bought us a bunch of DVD's for bargain basement prices. One of those was the first season boxed set of Dexter. Friends of mine had been raving about the series, and I thought it might be a pleasant enough time killer (no pun intended, considering the subject matter) that we could intersperse with other, lighter fare as we hacked and coughed our way through several days. Little did I know that within seconds of starting the first episode, we were completely and irrevocably hooked, watching the entire first season over the course of the rest of that day and the next.
Based on a series of novels by Jeff Lindsay, Dexter might at first glance be just another crime procedural series made in the wake of the success of the CSI franchise. We have the inner workings of a police department (in this case, CSI's own spin-off territory Miami), with a focus on blood splatter expert Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall). Dexter is surrounded by a coterie of eccentric cops, including his sister Debra (played by Hall's real wife, Jennifer Carpenter), C.O. Lieutenant Detective Maria LaGuerta (Lauren Vélez), Detective Angel Batista (David Zayas), and lab tech Vince (C.S. Lee). We are shown both the professional and personal lives, including a lot of cross-relationships, between all of these people, all played out against some very, very grisly murder scenes. So what is it exactly that sets Dexter severed head and shoulders apart from its procedural brethren? Did I forget to mention that Dexter is a serial killer? Oh, but not that kind--Dexter uses his ignominious powers only for good, or something approaching it, bringing justice to those who have otherwise escaped from the long arm of the law.
The first season of Dexter set up this intriguing premise, positing Dexter against another serial killer (the evil kind, of course) who drove an Ice Truck around in a sort of menacing, Stephen King Christine on steroids kind of way. The premiere season also gave us tantalizing clues about Dexter's background, revealing a childhood wrapped around the traumatic murder of Dexter's mother and his subsequent adoption (along with "sister" Debra) by the man who would for all intents and purposes not only be his father but also his mentor, policeman Harry (James Remar), a man who quickly notices Dexter's penchant for killing and attempts to channel it into something guided by a rigorous code of ethics. The first season ended with Dexter's secret life about to get revealed by snooping cop Doakes (Erik King), a plotline that played out for most of the subsequent second season. Suffice it to say, by season's end Dexter's secret is more or less safe, especially after our blood splatter expert creates a few splatters of his own to keep it that way.
The third year of Dexter takes a more bifurcated (or even trifurcated, if that's a word) approach, playing a season long cat and mouse game between Dexter and yet another serial killer, this time dubbed The Skinner, while on a personal level Dexter gets more seriously involved with his longtime girlfriend Rita (Julie Benz). Playing out against these two strands is the third wheel, so to speak, as Dexter gets involved both personally and professionally (in both senses for this character--as a detective and a serial killer) with Assistant District Attorney Miguel Prado (Jimmy Smits), a man whose brother Dexter inadvertently murders in the first episode, but who then comes to see Miguel as a sort of comrade in arms, if one who learns a bit too much (and too well) about Dexter's insatiable need to off bad guys.
Dexter has always walked an extremely fine line between near absurdity and riveting, gut wrenching character drama. This is a show that can veer wildly from hilarity to horror within the blink of an eye. Dexter can experience a "breakthrough" with a shady therapist, and then murder the unsuspecting soul, experiencing only a hint of remorse because he won't have an analyst with whom to share his torments any longer. If the third season occasionally veers a couple of times too far toward the patently unbelievable side of things (Smits' character, while fascinating, is simply kind of silly when you start thinking about him too much--so don't), the show still is managing to stay on the tightrope rather than falling into the grisly nets below.
Hall is a disturbingly appealing presence in the role, with Dexter's darkness residing almost entirely in the actor's sometimes feral eyes. Carpenter finds a lot of nuance in Debra's lack of confidence and resultant inappropriate bravado. While the rest of the series regulars continue to do fine work, Benz' Rita has a lot of superb, quieter moments this season that make her more engaging than ever, and the relationship between this slightly dysfunctional, if relatively "normal," woman, and the man with whom she is convinced she has finally found a stable life, makes for some surprisingly emotional repartee. The entire series takes delight in the sort of pastel, carousel madness that seems to paint a lot of Miami, mixed in with grainy, gory crimson and plastic murderous moments that seem to play out like the unseemly underbelly of a bizarre carnival.
John Lithgow is set to be Dexter's new guest serial killer, and it will be interesting to see if his sometimes schtick-heavy performance style will blend with Dexter's unusual mixture of hilarity and horror. Lithgow does have that underlying sense of menace that Hall also brings to his character, so we may be in for some delicious (and disturbing) fireworks. Even without Lithgow, however, as long as Dexter's creative forces, both in front of and behind the camera, can continue to explore a character whose motives may be honorable, but whose actions are frankly horrifying (if often darkly funny), the show may end up "killing" for years to come.