Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Taking out the garbage

I've been really excited about Dexter, the Showtime series that came out last year about the brilliant Miami forensics investigator who doubles as a serial killer in his spare time. The twist, of course, is that he only kills "bad guys," the other serial killers that prey on children; mutilate prostitutes and create internet rape sites; awful people who have fallen through the cracks or been freed on technicalities. As the voiceover in the pilot episode explains, with a murder solving rate of only 25% in Miami, it makes his job incredibly easy.

Based on the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay, the show seems built on a gimmick that it doesn't know how to stretch over a whole season. After having watched only the first 4 episodes, I'm ready to write it off. We learn through a series of painfully contructed flashbacks that Dexter Morgan was a foster kid taken in a by a grisly cop who noticed something sinister about the boy at a young age: he loved to kill. He had an insatiable urge to take life. But being a cop, this father didn't freak out, but did his best to try to get his adopted son to channel his impulses into something "positive." He tells him there are a lot of poeple in this world that get away with a lot of very bad things.

As an adult, Dexter claims to feel no emotion, and to be utterly perplexed by human feeling and interaction. He does the best he can to fake it with his family and new girlfriend (who, because of an abusive ex-husband, has no interest in sex and has serious intimacy problems, which suits Dexter just fine), but constantly feels his facade cracking. In the excrutiatingly pretentious voiceover that accompanies each episode, such as episode 4, which takes place over Halloween, he says things like, "People like to pretend that they're monsters. I do my best to pretend that I'm not one." He strikes me as vaguely atutistic in this way: socially retarded in a lot of ways (though very successful in his career), but methodical and obsessive when it comes to his work, and one of the best in his field (in his legitimate and non-legitimate endeavors). But he's clearly not autistic, and I think this is part of the problem with the show; there's no real reason or explanation for his behavior. It just is. But maybe that's enough, or maybe they'll get into that later, I don't know. Though the tension arising in the relationship with his girlfriend, who is starting to warm up to Dexter and wants to take their relationship to the next level, is somewhat engaging, it turns out that having a lead character that's admittedly dead inside, just doesn't do much to create drama. The voceover reveals too much most of the time, and acts, at least in my opinion, as a tradeoff for true development. Granted, I had this problem with Sex and the City when I started watching that show too, and I got over it. But at least Sex and the City was funny and came in satisfying, bite-sized 27-minute morsels. Dexter thinks people yelling a lot and having filthy mouths is proof of depth, but how can a character develop when there's clearly no growth inside? Other than that, it just becomes a not incredibly engaging cop drama, which I have pretty little interest in.

Maybe not watching past 4 episodes isn't giving it a fair shake, but that's a third of the season, and if it hasn't grabbed me by now, I figure it probably won't get a whole lot more interesting. I suppose it could go in some interesting directions by asking provocative questions about morality and situational ethics (moral relativism verus absolutism), but to accept the premise, I think you have to toss that aside a little bit. Having a lead character who perhaps feels a little conflict about his murderous urges, even though he's only taking out people that most people would agree probably deserve it, might add some desperately needed dramatic tension. As it is, he coldly tortures and kills each person in the same way (strapping them naked to a table, tightly mummified in Saran Wrap, while he hacks off body parts and saves one blood sample from a slice on their cheek for his personal collection), but literally thinks nothing of it.

I'm not sure what about this Dexter role would appeal to someone like Michael C. Hall, who so embodied the quasi-closeted, uptight emotional disaster that was David on Six Feet Under (keyword being emotional), it's hard to imagine him as much of anything else. I know that's unfair, but even in this stoney character of Dexter, I see hints of David. Like, if David Fisher had finally fucking lost his shit and gone ape-shit crazy (like he almost did in season 5), I could see Dexter emerging from that. In some strange way. Hall is an utterly watchable and compelling actor, and that's probably the only way I even got as far as I did in this series. It's too bad. I'd really like to see him in another role that's as complex, nuanced, flawed, and magnetic as David Fisher was.

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