Jun 3, 2013

The Brilliance of Dexter

During his job interview for Saturday Night Live, John Belushi told Lorne Michaels, “My television has spit all over it.”

Belushi was not a fan of 1970s TV. Which is why he took the SNL job, so that he could help change the medium.

I never thought the TV was worth spitting on.

Then I was listening to Fresh Air With Terry Gross and the TV critic David Bianculli reviewed Dexter. Way back in 2007. The dramatic device sounded interesting, but it was a review I filed and forgot.

The premise and some of the machinery of the story is taken from Jeff Lindsay’s novel, Darkly Dreaming Dexter. A serial killer is raised by a cop to live by a Code: Only kill the bad guys. His whole life is orchestrated and focused around this single goal, including his choice of career, blood splatter analyst for Miami Metro. His job allows him access to forensic data and departmental scoop without being a featured player, a suitably low profile job.

It sounded like the show had combined The Silence of the Lambs with For All The Rude People. I’ve written elsewhere how masterful The Silence of the Lambs is. For All The Rude People is Jack Ritchie’s brilliant short story about a man who has just learned he is about to die so he begins to kill off rude people, leaving a note behind explaining why they were murdered. Delicious.

Netflix finally arrived in the UK in January of 2012. (I recently vacated the UK to return, permanently, to the Wasatch Mountains). My Netflix UK find was the first three seasons of Dexter. I binged.

Season One was like nothing I’ve ever seen on TV, before or after.

Each season of Dexter is a long form story that spins characters, scenes and plots into a narrative fabric with more depth than movies are capable. (For insight into why movies are no longer doing it for me, I found one in Ty Burr’s Gods Like Us.) The writing is superb.

I could write a book about the ins and outs of characters (how does James Remar age so well?) and actors and plots, but it is infinitely more gratifying to see for yourself. Take Michael C. Hall for example. It took him two or three episodes to get the hollow serial killer down, one that is only really feeling a range of emotions in the kill room, but his slow seepage into the role in some ways makes the central theme of Dexter even more plausible. Dexter is painfully healing from the wounds that make him a serial killer and in the process transforming from a monster to a human.

This is the glue of the series. One man tries to fill the hole in himself. He tries to cure the modern malaise, and, like a dream, he does it in a hyperbolic setting with actions and consequences that are truly attention-getting. And it is all done in such a way as to seem normal. The themes of addiction and its underlying causes are in every episode.

(My plug: A different flavor of the modern malaise is explored in my novel, Powder Dreams).

The very last scene of Season One ends with Dexter revisiting one of his crime scenes, where he killed a terrorising serial killer. I cannot explain why his final murder of Season One is so important without some melodramatic summarising, which would be unbelievable. Dexter makes the implausible plausible through very good scene management.

In the scene, he imagines himself being cheered on by the crowds for killing the bad guys, for “taking out the trash.” His lines that follow resonate, the most perfect closure:

“This is what it must feel like to walk in full sunlight.

My darkness revealed

My shadow self embraced.

Yeah, they see me. I'm one of them. In their darkest dreams.”

How else can you explain Dexter’s large and dedicated fan base?

Dexter’s final season begins at the end of June. There have been seasons where I wondered if some of the actors used cue cards because their performances were so tired, but always Dexter has been absorbing. Seasons One and Four still stand out as the most brilliant TV series I’ve ever seen, but you can tell it is time for them to end Dexter’s spree. I’m predicting he’ll die a hero’s death. How else can you wrap up so many loose strings and still maintain sympathy for Dexter?

I’ll miss Dexter, at least until the complete series comes out on Blue Ray.