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DEXTER (Season One)
2006
Developed by James Manos, Jr.
60 Minutes
Rated TV-MA

I've had friends, a girlfriend, my cat...all telling me over and over again that I need to watch Dexter, that it would be up my proverbial alley. And while one friend swears I told her the show sounded like it would be too dark for me (bullshit, in 2006 I was still pretty hardcore), honestly I just never got around to it. You know how it is. When someone swears to you something is exactly the kind of thing you'd love, it's usually a complete turd and you feel offended at the suggestion. You'll watch it and then just go "what the fuck? What'd I do to you?"

This is not the case with Dexter. While most pilot episodes of even great shows are comparably awful, Dexter works out its kinks within the first half hour and generally hits the ground running. Important information is introduced as best it can and paced well, and the initial eyeroll that stemmed from hearing a voice over at the beginning slowly faded away as I began to understand that Dexter's thoughts and internal monologue are vital to understanding the character...and providing some much-appreciated levity. A lot of the black humor of the series stems from this, and it's the kind of thing even your grandmother might laugh at.

You're probably aware by now what the show is about: a serial killer, working for the police as a blood spatter analyst, murders other serial killers in his down time to satisfy his craving to...well...kill. In the meantime he pretends at a life of normalcy, with a girlfriend, a close relationship wtih his sister...the framework is there and taken at face value could at least provide an hour of pulpy entertainment.

Except that, whether the result of the source material (the novel by Jeff Lindsay), smart writing, excellent performances, or more likely an amalgam of all three, the series shows a surprising level of depth and complexity. Rather than just ride its gimmick from show to show, Dexter instead infuses all of its characters with strong and distinctive personalities. Everything here is handled smartly: race is handled as a means of coloring the environment the show takes place in rather than a shorthand for characterization, generally unlikable characters are imbued with dynamic personalities showcasing the insecurities behind their attitudes, and the female characters in particular are written very strong and across a gamut of strengths as opposed to just assigning masculine characteristics to one and calling it a day.

And it's on the wings of that characterization that the show soars, if I can be as cornball as humanly possible. Because the characters are complex, their reactions to situations become complex, and the world Dexter inhabits is fully realized and fleshed out. The show smartly exploits every opportunity for tension, doling out details only as needed. If anything, it makes elements of the last couple episodes of the season feel somewhat arbitrary by comparison, hence the half-star at the end. It's not that these episodes are bad by any stretch of the imagination, and the end of the final episode is a rollercoaster that makes up for the shortcomings that preceded it, but compared to what came before they're a little underwhelming. I guess it's like the lesser episodes in the middle seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation...they don't have the same gravitas as the other episodes in the series, but they're still miles ahead of just about anything else.

The impressive thing about Dexter is that it inhabits the space of science fiction in a way not immediately obvious. Science fiction has historically used the inhuman to define the human, and this show does the same with its protagonist. He identifies himself as empty, devoid of humanity and emotion, but as you follow the series you'll discover Dexter's humanity with him.

And finally, the sheer number of layers operating in the show ensure that there are always at least a couple of things going on in a given scene, rewarding the attentive viewer. This kind of substance is rarely found in any work, much less series television. When Dexter's girlfriend complains to him about how she wishes her ex-husband would just disappear, it works on the surface level, but is also blackly comic because we know that Dexter could probably make that happen and indeed he even says as much in voice over. We also know that she's in a situation where her wish is really the only option if she wants any peace.

I could go on and on. In spite of all this discussion about the quality of, well, everything in this show, I know you crazy American anti-intellectuals are just going to want to know if the show is actually entertaining. After all, thinking during a viewing experience is antithetical to actually enjoying the experience, and God help you if someone doesn't fart or a car doesn't explode. Well, while the show doesn't play out like a Michael Bay film, it is nonetheless damn compelling and involving entertainment. Again, it's pretty fucking funny in parts, and takes advantage of its central conceit for some great scenes.

When a serial killer is asking a married couple he's about to murder how they've made it work for so long, you know you're in a special place.

- Dustin Sklavos

All written content and colored rating system copyright Dustin Sklavos 2009. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.