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'Dexter' eludes detection, for now

Maureen Ryan
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

As viewers saw on the Sept. 30 Season 2 premiere of "Dexter" (Sundays, 9 p.m. EDT on Showtime), Dexter Morgan is a changed man.

This terrific Showtime series is giving us a much more tentative serial killer this year. Before you exclaim, "Serial killer! Why would I watch a show about someone like that?" consider this: Dexter is one of the more compelling men on TV.

This clever series, which sprang from a series of mystery novels by Jeffrey Lindsay, turns the notion of "innocence" on its head. The wide-eyed Dexter (Michael C. Hall) doesn't consider himself human, but he's often as mystified and sweetly clueless as the most naive ingenue. He's confused by people around him, and he struggles mightily to seem normal - that's the source of much of the show's black comedy - but he always wonders if his performance is up to snuff.

To satisfy his darkest urges, which spring from his very troubled past, this Miami crime-scene tech hunts for victims, but he only slays perps that the police can't catch or that the justice system fails to convict.

The disposal of the bodies must be flawless, because Dexter can't risk exposure as Miami's most prolific serial killer. That's where his problems arise in the show's second season: The bodies that Dexter stowed in the ocean begin to surface. While working with a team trying to catch the "Bay Harbor Butcher," he's got to cover his tracks.

This show, which is a dense, canny mixture of droll commentary on human behavior and tautly woven cat-and-mouse storytelling, wouldn't work without Hall's masterful performance in the lead role. He's brilliant at the tiny reactions that give "Dexter" such a darkly funny flavor. Witness the slight widening of Dexter's eyes when a car salesman extols the virtues of a mini-van's large storage area. Thanks to Hall's subtle smirk, the viewer knows exactly what Dexter plans to do .

Hall also brilliantly captures Dexter's surprisingly moving emotional pain. The events of the first season of "Dexter," in which he met his long-lost brother and learned more about their past, ripped him wide open, and he's still not quite himself.

"Where is the orderly, controlled, effective Dexter?" he asks himself in Season 2. "How did I lose him? How can I find him again?"

In an interview a few months ago in Los Angeles, the soft-spoken Hall said he approaches the character "not from a place of coldness (but) from place of real innocence."

"Just as children sometimes play-act their idea of what a real grown-up person might do, I think sometimes Dexter approaches some grown-up dynamics ... with a sense of wonder."

Season 1 "was all about the desire for connection. And the emergence of this Ice Truck Killer (whom the police hunted) really shone a light on that very real desire that Dexter had, and maybe never really recognized in himself," Hall said.

In Season 2, Dexter's need for emotional connection is only more pronounced.

"He has these gaping wounds that can't really close, and ... things start stirring up for him almost immediately," Hall said.

"We decided to turn our biggest card up ... what if Dexter's bodies were discovered?" executive producer Daniel Cerone said. A task force headed by a perceptive FBI agent ( Keith Carradine) is formed, and Dexter is soon part of it.

As Dexter's bodies begin surfacing, he faces suspicions from a colleague, Sgt. James Doakes (Erik King), and from Rita's mother, who's played by JoBeth Williams.

As the entire Miami police department is mobilized to search for the Bay Harbor Butcher - who begins to have some fans once it emerges that he only murders bad people - the show's creators say they'll remain focused on Dexter's inner turmoil as well.

"There's a whole other journey that goes on this season that we haven't talked about. But it involves a love triangle," Cerone said.

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