It seems to be pretty much agreed upon that the first decade of the 21st century has been a bit of a golden age for US drama. Buoyed by the success of programmes like The Sopranos and Oz in the late 1990s, premium cable networks were more willing than ever to commission challenging grown-up fare, with programmes like Deadwood, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Breaking Bad and Mad Men proving to be hugely successful. These have also proved to make for a refreshing change from the increasingly flashy high-concept duffers like Flash Forward, or (and don’t pretend otherwise, you know we’re right) Heroes put out by the main networks clamouring for the next Lost. And yet, our favourite US drama of the decade has turned out to be a programme from a premium network. in this case Showtime, that could easily be dismissed as having a flashy novelty premise itself.
Based on novels from Jeff Lindsay, Dexter told the tale of Dexter Morgan, a blood splatter analyst for the Miami Metro Police Department, but who also happens to be… a serial killer. A further twist is added – Dexter only ever slays other murderers who have evaded justice, using his position to discover their identities or locations before the other employees of Miami Metro. So, he’s a kind of ‘cuddly serial killer’, if you will. Like Chucky.
All this does sound like the kind of concept a writer might blurt out off-the-cuff in a meeting with network executives, once all their actual ideas had been shot down (“Monkey Tennis?”), and indeed, when you try to explain how good the programme is to people completely unaware of it, you may tend to find yourself sounding like a bit of a berk. And yet, we found the show to be the finest drama series of the entire decade. (Reader’s voice: “What? So Battlestar Galactica isn’t on the list at all?”) No, it isn’t. Geek boy.
It is a fascinating premise for a series – really, while a serial killer who despatches Very Bad People might appeal to the inner vigilante that lurks inside each of us, Dexter goes about his, well, hobby with such cold uncaring professionalism, having appointed himself judge, jury and executioner, it’s a brave move of the producers hoping the audience will really get behind him. Michael C Hall certainly puts in a brilliant performance as the central character, going through his daily life, interacting with his family, colleagues, girlfriend and her children with his emotions barely cranking up any higher than a ‘three’, seemingly spaced out for most of his day, his mind always seemingly elsewhere. It’s only when working on blood splatter analysis that he permits anyone to see his emotions on a ‘six’ or a ‘seven’, with the only people ever to really see Dexter at his most alive tending to be strapped down to a table, with about three minutes to live. As taught by his adoptive father, Dexter operates by a strict moral code which means such encounters are rare, and Hall acts out such scenes with an unsettlingly plausible relish.
This premise alone would soon become a little formulaic (insert your own 50,000 word thesis on television desensitising us all to gruesome violence here), were it not for the way Dexter strives to fit in a (seemingly) normal life around his nocturnal proclivities. He forms a relationship with Rita (Julie Benz), a single mother of two still recovering from life with a drug-crazed shitbag of a husband, at first with the sole intent of providing a smokescreen for his darker side, but before long Dexter is prepared to take steps outside of his strict moral code to protect them. And yet, as Dexter gets more and more caught up in his darker side, the viewer can see his relationship falter, as he tells Rita lie after lie in order to carry out his dark duties, pushing the one person who could ‘save’ him further away, and leaving the viewer feeling as frustratingly helpless as one of Dexter’s victims. Yikes.
The show doesn’t centre entirely on Dexter, however. While it could be easy to surround Dex with an office full of one-dimensional conventional coppers, there are a number of entertainingly rounded personalities working at Miami Metro PD. First and foremost of which is Debra Morgan (played by the delightfully girl-next-doorish Jennifer Carpenter), Dexter’s younger foster sister, and the only other person Dexter has truly cared about throughout his life. At the start of season one, Debs is a uniformed officer armed with a quick mind and foul mouth, but slightly lacking in self-confidence. By the end of the first season she is working as a Homicide Detective, working in the same department as her big brother Dex, and soon becomes a major player in the investigations carried out by the department.
Detective Angel Batista (David Zayas) is a troubled divorcee who works closely with Dexter on a number of cases, and who goes though a number of existential crises before finally settling down with another character we’re not going to name in case you’ve not seen the series yet. Lieutenant Maria LaGuerta (Lauren Vélez) holds sway over the department, a tough, determined senior officer who will often prove to be fiercely protective of her subordinates should the need arise. The comic foil for the department proves to be Vince Masuka (C.S. Lee), the department’s lead forensic investigator, meaning he works more closely with Dexter than anyone. Perhaps overcompensating for his diminutive stature, Vince plays up to the role of overtly heterosexual male, often preoccupied with making smutty comments at inappropriate moments, or trying to flirt disastrously with Debra. As might be expected, Vince’s awkward charm rarely seems to work with members of the opposite sex, and when faced with socially awkward situations, his lack of life experience becomes abundantly clear.
It’s this combination of fully defined characters (and really, they are a lot more complex than our hamfisted descriptions here, plus we’ve only really covered about half of the main cast) that help the plot to flow so effortlessly around the events of each episode. Every season of Dexter broadly looks at one major case, and a shift in the life of Dexter himself. For example, the opening season sees the department try to track down a serial murderer who becomes known as ‘The Ice-Truck Killer’, as well as Dexter’s growing relationship with Rita. Often, this would lead to a fairly standard schedule for the episodes (i.e. episode 1. “There’s been a murder”, ep 2. “Oh, and another quite similar murder”, 3. “Hey, we’re getting a kind of pattern here”, 4. “Has anyone seen this ‘murderer’ guy?” 5. “We think we’ve got him!” 6. “No, it was the wrong guy”, 7. “Now we know who it is”, 8. “Ooh, nearly got him”, 9. “Oh no, he’s nearly got one of us”, 10, “Caught him, the end”), but Dexter (i.e. the show) is smarter than the average drama series. Much smarter.
Take a brilliant drama show like House. For most episodes, you know that someone will get really ill, the team will come up with about three incorrect diagnoses, and in the last ten minutes something slightly unexpected will happen so that House can save the day. It’s a bit ‘by the book’, but the enjoyment comes from the surrounding events of each episode, it’s as if the whole ‘medical drama’ thing is just a device to hang all the entertaining bits on. Similarly, an episode of Lost. You get to see a bit of someone’s back story, two big questions might be answered along the way, but along will come three new even bigger questions. Again, it doesn’t really matter, we knew what the destination would be, it was the journey that proved to be the most interesting part.
Right, now compared to those, Dexter is a bit like having a bag thrown over your head, being bundled into a boot, but having a surprisingly comfortable journey and you end up at Alton Towers or Disneyland. By which we mean, at the start of each episode you have absolutely no idea what is about to happen, all you really know for sure is that it’s going to be tremendously exciting and rewarding, and you very probably will be surprised by the ending.
And that’s pretty much why we love it so very bloody much. Just when you think you know what is about to happen, you’re spun around and shoved headfirst into an unexpected (but, with hindsight, wholly logical) plot twist. And, just to keep you on your toes, sometimes the obvious thing does happen, just when you were expecting it not to. It’s all a bit like being on a rollercoaster that is different each time you ride it, only with lots of blood and a bald Korean forensics guy making lots of titty jokes. In short: absolutely marvellous.
Criticisms of the show? Because you just know we’ve got to end on a relative downer, it’s what we do. Well, such is its finery, the only real complaint we’d have is the way each episode begins with the same lengthy quite-clever-first-time-you-see-it-less-so-the-fortieth title sequence where Dexter gets ready for work in a way that looks sinister but isn’t. We’d much rather it were kept shorter, leaving extra time for more swearing from Debra or smut from Vince, or even just letting us soak in a few extra ‘Previously on…’ moments from the preceding episode.
It was also a bit of a shame the way ITV managed to bollocks up their handling of the show in the UK. Despite being on at 11pm on Friday nights on ITV1, the ITV schedulers decided to run the main-network-friendly neutered version of the series, saving the ‘proper’ cuss-strewn, bloodier version for later in the week on ITV4. As a result, the impact of what is an enjoyably uncompromising show was limited, and the ITV audience never really took to it. A real shame, Dexter deserves to be remembered as fondly as dramatic big hitters like The Sopranos, but it seems destined to remain a cult hit hidden away on the FX channel and the DVD box set aisle of HMV.
Watch it now on: DVD. Seasons one and two can both be picked up for under £13 from Play.com, as well as in your local HMV or supermarket, we expect. The best price we can find for season three is at CD Wow, where it’s yours for £21.49, though you might prefer to do things properly and just buy the full set of seasons one to three for £39.99 from Play. Season four has yet to be released on DVD, which is a shame as it’s the best of the lot, but expect to see it soon.TWO TO GO.