Remember the first print ads for Dexter where he's holding a cadaverous arm with its hand propping up his chin? My kneejerk reaction to that campaign peddling Showtime's new series was one of intrigue, but ultimately doom and gloom: "There's no way a show about a serial killer working in a police department, essentially living a normal life, could garner enough of a following to stay on the air." Then, the show revealed the tricks up its sleeve: dark noir-like narration, a sick sense of humor, and a deft grasp on its characters. The writers have also shown that they have a keen eye for evolving the central character to keep these elements fresh, shifting Dexter from a bachelor blood spatter analyst who dices up crooks to satisfy his murderous urges, to a man who acknowledges his burden as an addiction of sorts, and then to a still-active killer discovering real love and a need for friendship. Alas, Dexter's fourth season -- though still ravishing entertainment that lives up to the series' class -- hits a wall in the growth department, mostly because it seems like the components currently at-play have maxed out their willingness to grow.
Early in the premiere episode, with a crying baby in the background, we watch a spoof on the show's title cards that features our serial killer (Michael C. Hall) droopy-eyed, stained, sloppy, and thoroughly exhausted. Naturally, he should be all these things as a new father, as he's holding down a draining job at the Miami Metro Police Department along with staying up late to take care of his child -- not to mention sneaking in time for his lethal urges, often unsuccessfully. It's a far cry from the "very neat monster" featured in the first season, now striving to please his wife Rita (Julie Benz) and his kids-by-marriage to a greater extent than just as a cover. In short, Dexter's coming dangerously close to, well, normalcy, even transparency as Rita calls for him to open up in their marriage. That, naturally, would go against the teachings of his father Harry (James Remar), who now populates his mind like an odd apparition of his conscience. His presence replaces the flashbacks that adorned earlier seasons, a welcome substitution considering the forced nature that they took on later down the line.
To spice things up, the show rapidly introduces us to a tall, balding man whom we soon learn to be The Trinity Killer (John Lithgow) by dropping us in the midst of a violent kill in a person's home. At first, upon hearing Lithgow's involvement, my initial thoughts led me to believe that they were going to conceal the identity of the killer until an opportune time, similar to the Ice Truck Killer; however, the writers go straight for the throat in the first episode, showing us Trinity point blank as he indulges in his fondness for bleeding out unmarried women in bathtubs. His killing pattern further stirs the already-busy Miami Metro Police department, currently abuzz due to a string of homicidal robberies being labeled the work of the "Vacation Murderers". The pattern-riddled bathtub murder lures FBI agent Frank Lundy (Keith Carradine) back to Miami to investigate, though it's an off-the-clock curiosity of a personal nature for the recently-retired agent. Of course, his presence sends Dexter's sister Debra Morgan (Jennifer Carpenter), Lundy's old flame, into a fury of emotion, all while another inter-office connection between Lt. Maria Laguerta (Lauren Vélez) and Detective Angel Batista (David Zayas) develops.
If any of that sounds familiar -- the under-their-nose serial killer, the cloak-and-dagger office romance, Lundy's investigating -- don't worry, you're justified in that thought. Dexter's fourth season proves to be something of a salad spinner for the show's once-used plot devices, slinging them around with its consistently strong writing to make them appear fresh. And it does work, mostly, but it also shows a stunted growth in the series' novelty. Lundy's convenient investigation in Miami feels rehashed, the secretive banter between Maria and Angel sounds an awful lot like Deb and Lundy's from a few seasons ago, and the festering mistrust that Deb's semi-crooked partner Quinn (Desmond Harrington) has for Dexter plays out similarly to James Doakes' brawny caution. These similarities become their most frustrating, though, when Dexter delves deeper into Lithgow's Trinity, which plays out like a combo between his link to the Ice Truck Killer and his association with Miguel Prado from last season. We've seen a lot of this before.
That lingering been-there, done-that sensation never completely shakes free from this season, but the precision behind the show's consistently bleak humor, unyielding suspense, and the sturdy performances assures us it's still the same ole', invigorating Dexter -- gaps in logic notwithstanding. It does take a few episodes, though; at first, all this familiarity just seems somewhat underneath what the folks at Showtime have concocted for this extremely novel character, and for the Miami landscape. However, like clockwork, the momentum begins to churn after its introduction, taking the narrative firecrackers that it's ignited amid a persistent focus on family turmoil and sprinting as hard and fast as previous seasons. Dexter's sweaty maneuvering behind-the-scenes still bustles along on pins 'n needles, though little of it actually gyrates around his personal kills. He does find the time in his busy schedule to plot out a couple of victims this time around, including one featuring "Blood Ties" and "Defying Gravity" star Christina Cox as a female police officer with similar family "issues" to Dexter's, yet it still doesn't seem like enough to gratify his "dark passenger". Most of it revolves around the mystery of The Trinity Killer, as well as Dexter's lengthy predatory hunt for him.
Instead, Dexter takes an intimate turn towards abstract, edgy drama incorporated within its consistent thrust of suspense, tinkering with the components of both good and bad parenting along with the show's vigilant theme of past demons. Dexter struggles with everyday issues, like finding distracting hobbies for Rita's kids and dealing with the need for a rotating town watch to hunt down a persistent vandal in their neighborhood, which naturally detracts from his ability to plot out his own extracurricular activities. Each episode becomes step after step inching Dexter closer to striking a balance between his many lives, his many faces; in that, and considering his dwindling kills, it suggests a question: can Dexter actually control this thing, permanently? Is there such a thing as Dexter without his murderous pursuits? His internal monologue with Harry, which grows more compelling and conflicted, focuses on this possibility -- or, at least, Dexter's ability to continue controlling both a family life and his sporadic killing -- as Harry offers very little optimism to the situation. Though the idea of the "daddy serial killer" has been stretched out like taffy for two seasons, the intrinsic turmoil that Dexter endures becomes more potent than expected within these family-centered plot points.
It's sure to be a bit unsurprising to hear that the crooked eyebrows and piercing glances from Michael C. Hall's torn serial killer dominate our attention, but the complexity of his character reaches new heights with this season. As he wrestles with the concept of endangering his family, along with the impending threat of what his eminent "capture" will do to them, he digs deep into his satchel of dramatic delivery and rustles up some first class demon-driven moments. Likewise, Jennifer Carpenter takes the passé love triangle Deb's surrounded with and gives it life, also digging deep into the character's inner turmoil for a handful of gripping scenes. They both share an exquisite exchange in the episode "Dirty Harry", where Deb and Dexter mince words over being "broken" humans. Though Michael C. Hall more than earns his Golden Globe recognition for this run, Jennifer Carpenter's talent deserves equal kudos for the blasts of dramatic potency she offers.
Then, there's John Lithgow as The Trinity Killer. I've already addressed that he's a bit of an amalgamation between The Ice Truck Killer and Miguel Prado when he interacts with Dexter, but naturally there's more to the character than that -- a lot more, actually. Most will recognize Lithgow from his time on 3rd Rock From the Sun, while others might reminisce on his less-animated turns in Footloose and his Oscar-nominated performance from Terms of Endearment. Here, somewhat astonishingly, he's completely stripped of humor when creating Trinity, crafting a dark and conflicted maniac with a haunting past. Watching him stalk his prey early on will likely send chills down your spine, as will his manic shifts in attitude later in the story. Themes involving abuse, family imprisonment, contortion of religion, and fear of one's father slowly seep into Trinity's storyline, and Lithgow carries him with chilling, legitimate poise, likely the most deliberately terrifying thing to come out of Dexter.
A combination of the fear that The Trinity Killer generates and Dexter's wavering yet gradually solidifying relationship with his family becomes the driving factors behind this season, powering forward without abandon -- and veering far from the status quo -- to a landmark conclusion that makes up for any earlier misgivings. Every single season up until this point has been wrapped up nicely, with a conclusion that could ultimately be seen as an end-all, be-all if the series was cancelled. Not the case with this fourth season, ending with one of the gutsier, confident wraps imaginable. It's also one of the smartest conclusions they could've cooked up, though the aggressive nature of its repercussions will likely off-put some viewers. You'll see what I mean, and see how the next installments of Dexter could easily steer characters in starkly different directions while busting through the wall of growth that this season encountered.
Video and Audio:
Dexter offers an unusual visual experience, flip-flopping between crisp detail with natural colors to grainy, hazy shots with oftentimes garish color palettes. Encapsulated within this series of 1.78:1 widescreen images, enhanced for 16x9 televisions, Paramount's DVD largely supports the look -- but with some pretty aggressive issues littering some of them. Roughly half of the episodes look about on-par with the previous season, but the other half have glaring instances of aliasing, moire shimmering, and an odd jerkiness as the image moves from frame to frame. It's visible against the stripes in polo shirts, against the brim of Lundy's hat, and other moderately thin contours. All the episodes, however, handle the blistering palette with as much grace as can be expected, while also sneaking in a handful of impressively-detailed sequences in close-ups and the production design.
Similarly to the other season, audio arrives in both Dolby 5.1 and 2.0 English tracks. Again, the disc defaults to the two-channel track instead of the full surround option, so plan accordingly before screening the seasons. Comparing the two also offers a similar experience to that of previous seasons, with the five-channel track finding a firmer hold on the center channel, the sound balance mixed on a bit of a low, solid level, and the music traveling more to the rears. Dialogue stays audible as Dexter's narration pummels the mid-to-low range items, while a few sound effects like the clank of a shovel, the humming of an engine, sounds of a model train and the slam of a hammer against a mannequin head piece the sound stage. It's a firm, serviceable sound design that supports the natural atmosphere of the lively Miami locales. Only English Closed-captioned text has been made available as a subtitle option.
Fans of Dexter have grown use to the lack of special features on Paramount's home video presentation, and this set doesn't sway from that. Sadly, this time around, all that's available on the discs themselves are some Biographies and Photo Galleries. In order to view a series of Cast Interviews, you've got to pop the disc into the computer drive and have access to the internet. The pathos and psychoses lurking behind the series haven't been explored to a deep extent, and it's a real shame. Instead, we've got a handful of episodes from other Showtime series to round out the on-disc features -- two from season three of "Californication", one from season four of "The Tudors", and one from the series premiere for "Lock and Load".
Though not as strong or innovative as the previous installments of Dexter, this fourth season finds a familiar balance between edgy suspense, dark humor, and a slate of consistently firm performances that maintains the same addictive energy that's carried it from day one. It finds twists and turns within its recognizable boundaries, simmering all the way to a finale that redeems its familiarity by delivering a game-changing sucker punch. To say the least, it's yet another thrillride that leaves us wanting even more at the end of its brisk, blurred jolt through roughly ten hours of content. Though the visual properties could be a bit better and the lack of much in the special feature department disappoints, the breakneck content and its sturdy-enough presentation earns this set a High Recommendation.