I’m quite content to go about my life believing in nothing, with no fear there’s something more out there.
— Dexter (Michael C. Hall)
The sixth season premiere of Dexter is a frustrating experience, and not in a pleasurable way. The show has long maintained a tenuous balance. Much like Dexter (Michael C. Hall) himself, it wants to be both coolly detached and emotionally affecting. Instead it is often campy or melodramatic. It’s like watching a dithering friend who’d be so much more interesting if he’d just get his act together and make a decision.
This season has Dexter again trying to balance his so-called normal life with his avocation as a serial killer. Following the events of last season, that life has been distilled down to his child, Harrison. His friends and family, especially his consistently annoying sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), are still trying to help the damaged man they imagine him to be. And so: the new season begins as a coworker’s sister babysits, while Dexter’s out dispatching two ambulance drivers. (This occurs after a too clever bit of audience misdirection.)
For whatever reason, this season’s theme is “religion.” The trailer, set to Marilyn Manson’s cover of “Personal Jesus,” makes this thuddingly obvious, as does the emergence of Colin Hanks and Edward James Olmos as religious-minded serial killers. Dexter, as one might imagine, is a natural born atheist. When he explains to Debra that he has his own code to keep out of trouble, she says it sounds like “something you’d teach a puppy.” Of course, it’s actually something you’d teach a predator and control freak like Dexter. It’s obvious that they’ve never had this conversation: for all her insistence on how close they are, she doesn’t really know Dexter at all.
As Debra remains oblivious, we might ponder what we do and don’t know. A serial killer confronting the mysteries of faith: that could be a compelling premise. But Dexter’s religious interlocutors leave something to be desired. When he discovers that his latest victim has a Jesus tattoo, Dexter begins to quiz him on Christian doctrine. “What would Jesus have done?” he asks. The man — currently strapped down and wrapped in plastic — doesn’t exactly quote Aquinas in his own defense, Instead, he gibbers on about the blood of the lamb, about a god who smites with thunder (Zeus?), and about God being “a mighty fortress.” Dexter ends the discussion with a hammer, presumably in sly allusion to Nietzsche.
Should the audience take this scene seriously? Did Dexter truly expect a persuasive deathbed monologue? Was he just toying with his victim? It seems the latter, suggesting that for him the question was closed before it was ever really examined. The rest of the premiere bears that out, with Dexter reaffirming his own atheism but enrolling his son in Catholic school because, “Who knows, maybe he’ll grow up to be someone who wants to think about those kinds of things.” I’m not sure that argument holds water, Dex.
Heavy-handed dealings with religion aside, the show has other problems with realism. In order to get close to his prey, Dexter attends his 20th high school reunion, where he’s surprisingly well known. Two women literally yell, “Dexter! So sorry about your wife!” — that would be his horribly murdered wife. Another former classmate remarks, “Now you’re some hotshot blood-spatter guy.” Blood-spatter guys, if you did not know, are “the modern American cowboys.” Is this a satire of vapid reunion-talk? Are viewers meant to sympathize with Dexter and realize reunions are stupid, stupid things? In what world does this show take place?
The answer, we learn, is a Panglossian one, in which if you let the prom queen cheat off you in high school, 20 years later she’ll perform no-strings-attached fellatio on you in the high school chemistry lab.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether Dexter is dumb, or simply thinks its audience is. “You’ve had a personal tragedy. Unlike everybody else, you look better than you did 20 years ago; and you’ve got a cool job,” his ever-present, imaginary father (James Remar) explains. “Put all those things together, and it makes you…” “Popular,” Dexter concludes, via a rather unconvincing calculus. “I’m used to flying under the radar,” he says. “So you’re flying a little higher,” asserts his dad, the ostensible voice of reason.
If you’re actually listening to this exchange, you might feel vexed. The point of Dexter’s analogy isn’t about figurative altitude. The radar is the point. His father’s response is fundamentally nonsensical: it contributes nothing to the conversation. This is another facet of Dexter‘s melodramatic world: no one ever listens too closely to one another, unless they need to in order to advance the plot. (You could argue that this is all too realistic.) In this world, plot is king; though schematic, it still reigns over precise language or character development. It’s as though the show imagines that if can just cut from one event to another fast enough, no one will notice how shallow it all is.