Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Best TV Crime Drama Openers, #19

Series Title: Dexter | Years: 2006-2013, Showtime | Starring: Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter, Julie Benz, C.S. Lee, Christina Robinson, Lauren Vélez | Theme Music: Rolfe Kent

When I began writing this series of posts last month, I predicted that every once in a while I’d highlight a TV show I don’t/didn’t usually watch, but whose main title sequence I definitely admire. Dexter is one such program. Yeah, I know: Plenty of good, smart folks can’t get enough of this show; Michael C. Hall (formerly of Six Feet Under) has picked up a Golden Globe nomination and won a Television Critics Association Award for his starring role; and the second season of episodes has been nominated for an Emmy (and was recently released as a DVD set). But ... well, I just can’t stay interested in a series about a blood-spatter analyst working in forensics for the Miami-Dade Police Department who, on the side, happens to be a prolific serial killer. It doesn’t matter that he acts out his psychopathic proclivities only to destroy “people who deserve it,” or that he has some sympathetic elements to his character. He just isn’t somebody I care to associate with on an ongoing basis.

Call me narrow-minded, if you must ...

Despite my reservations, there are a number of things worth applauding about this two-year-old Showtime series. The most important, of course, is the choice to combine criminal and crime fighter in a single protagonist--not a new idea, but extremely well executed here. Inspired by the 2004 novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter, by Florida writer Jeff Lindsay (né Jeffry P. Freundlich), the concept goes something like this: Dexter Moser was adopted at age 3 by a Miami cop, Harry Morgan (played in the series by character actor James Remar, and not to be confused with the veteran crime-drama actor of that same name), who found him at the scene of his mother’s brutal slaying. After Dexter started dismembering a few neighborhood pets, Morgan recognized the tyke’s homicidal proclivities and sought to channel them down some more or less “constructive” avenue--which is why the renamed Dexter Morgan now kills only malefactors who’ve somehow slipped through the cracks in America’s judicial system, the people his adoptive dad found offensive. In the twisted world of Dexter’s mind, he’s taking out the trash--people who are as awful as he is, if not significantly worse. Boston Globe TV critic Matthew Gilbert wrote in 2006 that Dexter
is an intelligent and sustained exercise in moral irony. Dexter may be an obsessive murderer, but he’s also a hero of sorts.

He’s Hannibal Lecter, but he’s also Clarice Starling.

By day, Dexter helps the Miami police as a CSI expert. By night, he’s stalking killers, gathering proof against them, and lecturing them about their sins before chopping them up. “I have standards,” he screams at a child killer before finishing him off. And he does have standards, which he calls “The Code of Harry” after his father, who taught him to kill only those who’ll kill again. In flashbacks that play like mythology scenes in a superhero comic, we see Harry mentoring young Dexter in murder as if he were teaching him to shave.

By episode two, I’m betting you will not hate Dexter, despite his vigilantism and his slippery personality. And that is one of the many miracles of “Dexter,” as well as of Hall’s grand performance. TV anti-heroes have been popular since Tony Soprano showed us how a two-timing mobster could somehow be an everyman. The fact that Hall makes Dexter likable is even more impressive, since Dexter is so profoundly controlled, with none of Tony’s passion. He can only mimic human warmth--bringing doughnuts to co-workers, courting the mother of two kids--because he is a shell of a man.
Around that shell, Dexter has constructed an artifice of normality. He has a respectable occupation, has friends at work, and even claims a girlfriend, though he has no interest in sex. (The fact that the woman, Rita Bennett [Benz], was seriously abused by her ex-husband and therefore has no wish to engage in sex, either, works out perfectly for him.) And there are few people who can see behind his façade, though his first-season boss, Sergeant James Doakes (Erik King), was pretty sure Dexter was hiding something--he just couldn’t identify what it was. The tension between those two characters made season one intriguing, and the way Dexter put an end to their conflict in the second season was ... well, dramatic, if far from socially acceptable. (I’ll say no more.)

The complication of his being a double man, both investigator and murderer, offers some intriguing dimensions to the cases Dexter Morgan works. As it did last season, when his growing underwater cache of bodies was accidentally discovered by treasure hunters. Our anti-hero had then to go about his daily business, while simultaneously trying to conceal his history of gruesome activities and watch a cult of admirers build up around the “killer of killers” he so assiduously conceals inside himself--The Dark Defender, as one comic-book writer imagined the slayer.

TV critics have been no less mesmerized by Hall’s nuanced portrayal of Dexter. As The Guardian’s James Donaghy opined last year:
There’s no question that Dexter has a gift for slaughter. Not for him the frenzied bloodlust of the slice-and-dice merchant. His is the skill of the surgeon combined with the aesthetic eye of the taxidermist. This is no simple murder hack. He gets a profound sense of peace from the ritualised capture, dismemberment and classification of his victims. Once he is through with them all that is left is the blood smear on a slide he takes from each victim and he’s built up quite a collection over the years (these serial killers do love a good memento). His victims include a child killer, a black widow and a murderer-rapist--you can see why many Dexter viewers find themselves cheering their boy on.
But when CBS-TV chose to repeat the first Showtime season of Dexter in the spring of this year, as a way to beef up its broadcast schedule during the Writers Guild of America strike, conservative moralizers--always a fun bunch--objected. This, even though most of the graphic stuff had been severely edited, and the language stripped of profanity. The Parents Television Council denounced the network’s decision to broadcast on public airwaves “material that effectively celebrates murder.” They went into a special froth when CBS decided to combine the last two episodes of Dexter into a two-hour presentation that, at least in the Midwest time zone, began during the supposed “family hour” of 8-9 p.m.

Again, I’m not a big follower of Dexter, and for the most part find serial-killer yarns repetitious and uninteresting. But that sort of criticism is stupid and out of touch. Even I would prefer that we, as Americans, be exposed to less violence on television (which would also require ending the takeover of Iraq that George W. Bush began and John “100 Years War” McCain seeks to continue). But that ship has already sailed. Exposure to bloodshed has become part of our everyday life--we have invited it in and become largely inured to its constant presentation. Today’s video games, played primarily by children, are no less violent than this Showtime series, and nowhere near as stylishly presented.

That stylishness, by the way, begins with Dexter’s main title sequence--an Emmy Award-winning masterpiece of mood-setting (embedded at the top of this post). In choosing the Dexter opening as one of its own five (mostly) current favorites, a writer for the TV criticism Web site Pop Vultures remarked:
Imagine all the creepy possibilities for the opening of a show about a serial killer. You could include dark alleys, sharpened knives, breakfast food. No, really. The opening credits don’t contain a single dead body, opting instead to show Dexter eating breakfast and getting ready for his day--and a creepier breakfast you’ve never seen. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to view fried eggs with Tabasco in quite the same light.
There’s a homeliness about the Dexter opening, with its haunting but rather playful theme, composed by Brit Rolfe Kent (whose score for the 2004 film Sideways was nominated for a Golden Globe Award), that contrasts impressively with the darkness of the show’s action. U.S. cable-TV series are often distinguished by the quirkiness of their introductions (think Weeds), and Dexter continues that pattern. It’s memorable without being morbid. However, I must wonder at Dexter’s ability to grow a face full of stubble immediately after shaving. Those are some hormones you’ve got there, buddy.

Just writing about all of this here makes me think I ought to try watching Dexter again. Especially since Jimmy Smits--who I liked so much in NYPD Blue and The West Wing, and whose 2007-2008 series, Cane, was abruptly canceled--is set to join the Showtime show for its third season, which begins September 28. I supposed I could give the show a second chance. It wouldn’t kill me, right?

READ MORE:TV Shows I Really Wish Dexter Morgan Would Visit,” by Protoclown (I-Mockery); “Killer Serial,” by Matthew Gilbert (Slate).


Anonymous said...

Dexter is a great show, but it drives me nuts in the opening that he shaves and then leaves for his day with 5 O'Clock shadow

Anonymous said...

I've never watched the regards to the intro, I think it's a dud! Way too CSI hokey!

Melba said...

we love dexter, have bought the dvd set of first and second seasons. we are about 3 eps into the second season. i loved the opening sequences, but now we fast forward because while it's stylish and clever, it runs a little long. just as with six feet under, another show i adored, i got over the opening pretty quickly and would fast forward to the proper start.

you should try watching it again. if you are worried about his morals, just think that you are not voting for him, he is not real, you are not somehow compromising your own morals by allowing yourself to be entertained, and even finding the character likeable.

ps found your blog through a mention in the age today.