[13 February 2008]
Portraying something does not equal glorifying it.
Repeat this repeatedly. Lather, rinse, repeat.
It’s a fair point to stress and re-stress as CBS prepares to debut Showtime’s acclaimed adult drama “Dexter” (Sunday at 10 p.m. EST on CBS), which features as its lead character a vigilante serial killer of serial killers.
This is cause for alarm in the excitable realm of sanitize-TV campaigners, who screamed when Showtime debuted this superb series in 2006, and again when CBS announced writers’-strike plans to broadcast its corporate cable sibling’s hit to a wider audience.
This event is also cause for gratitude among discerning mature viewers, because “Dexter” is not only dramatically exciting but morally provocative. Michael C. Hall (“Six Feet Under”) subtly creates an indelible character in Dexter, the clean-cut police-employed forensic-specialist murderer, taking us into his confidence with revealing, often witty narration and turning us into a type of accomplice to his extralegal servings of “justice.”
Do we cheer for him to take down the bad guys? Isn’t Dexter a “bad” guy? Do we want him to get away with it? To get caught? To just keep us enthralled?
Yes, “Dexter” is disturbing. That’s the point. It’s a study of one weird, twisted dude that’s slick enough to mess with our heads, and - imagine the horror - make us think. The one thing it doesn’t allow is “indifference,” one of the accusations in the activist Parents Television Council’s anti-“Dexter” news release, which alleges the show glorifies “vigilante justice by celebrating graphic, premeditated murder.”
There’s no “celebrating” here. We’re meant to be horrified by what Dexter does, despite his victims’ well-detailed villainy, and despite his determined efforts to stalk, torture, dismember and neatly dispose of uncaught killers. (Usually depicted less luridly than the misogyny central to CBS’ “Criminal Minds” or “CSI”).
Sunday’s pilot episode introduces Dexter in the midst of the act, then explores why he might be the way he is. Flashbacks are used to show his bloodlust youth where his police officer father (James Remar) taught his “damaged” foster son to “channel” his urge to kill, to “use it for good.” But Dexter knows he’s not “good.” He’s mesmerizingly self-aware. “I’m a very neat monster,” he calmly confides, wondering why of all the Miami cops he encounters as the department’s blood-spatter specialist, only the snarlingly suspicious Sgt. Doakes (Erik King) “gets the creeps from me.” Dexter is eerily dispassionate - not indifferent - simply ill-equipped to “have feelings” the way others do.
He tries to help his hapless cop sister (Jennifer Carpenter) out of a sense of familial responsibility. He dates an abused woman (Julie Benz) because she’s “as damaged as me” and equally uninterested in sex.
Yet the sharp scripts and the sharper Emmy-nominated star never let us forget that Dexter is indeed a monster, who toys with his quarry for kicks. Much of that torturous intensity remains despite the editing translation from Showtime, with no ads and more adult content leeway, to CBS, with commercial breaks and stricter content standards. What the sanitizers may see as laxity is actually a strength, because we need to grasp Dexter’s monstrousness. The edits in CBS’ first two episodes appear most obviously in the absurdly tidied language, and in nip/tucked time-trimming. The show seems to lose a bit of its stylized Miami-heat languor, as well as its sinuous, Emmy-winning credits sequence. It still looks gorgeous, though, thanks to director-producer Michael Cuesta (“Six Feet Under,” “L.I.E.”) and cinematographer Romeo Tirone (who shot “L.I.E.” and hails from Dix Hills).
The compulsion of ritual remains visceral, too, in both Dexter’s meticulous “hobby” and in his season-long game of tag with another, colder slayer who comes to be known as “the ice truck killer.” Their seeming rivalry, set to climax during May sweeps, reveals additional layers of Dexter’s psychology/back story.
We’ll see if a politically vulnerable network of federally licensed affiliates like CBS can manage to co-opt the sort of morally thorny protagonist now powering the ascent of adult cable drama - the conflicted antihero/villain about whom we’re not sure what to think, except that he/she is spellbinding. From groundbreakers like HBO’s “The Sopranos” and FX’s “The Shield,” to current gems like FX’s “Damages” and AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” we can’t seem to get enough of these twisted brothers and sisters.
Which doesn’t mean we admire them. Or what they do. We just like to watch. And ponder.