Showtime’s Dexter – one of the five or ten best series on television comes to CBS [Sundays, 10/9C] in a somewhat different, but equally effective form. The series, which features a serial killer who only targets other serial killers – and lives by a code instilled in him by his late adoptive father – does not glorify the character but, rather, seeks to understand what kind of circumstances can lead to the creation of a psychopathic personality, while tackling a truly bizarre myster!.
Dexter Morgan [Michael C. Hall] is a nice guy. He brings doughnuts to his workplace – he works as a blood spatter expert for the Miami Police Department; he has a lovely, if somewhat damaged girlfriend [the lovely Rita, played by Julie Benz, who was a victim of spousal abuse before she got a divorce]. His sister, Debra, [ Jennifer Carpenter] is a tough cop with a vulnerable center – and is quick to use Dex’s “hunches” about a new serial killer on the loose in Miami in order to get reassigned from Vice to Homicide. Then there’s Lt. Laguerta [Lauren Velez], the head of Homicide, who finds Dexter intriguing and is constantly flirting with him – and Sergeant Doakes [Erik King] about whom Dexter says it best when he wonders why, out of all the trained, allegedly observant professionals in the department, Doakes is “the only one I give the creeps.”
In the pilot, Dexter is confronted by something new – a bloodless corpse. His response – “Why didn’t I think of that?” – is not quite what you’d expect from a blood spatter expert, but it feeds in nicely to the “monster” he thinks himself to be. Of course, as he puts it, “I’m a very neat monster” – after he captures and eliminates a serial killer who has preyed on young boys. [“I could never do that,” he says. “I have standards”]
In flashbacks through out each episode, Dexter recalls how his adoptive father, Harry Morgan [James Remar], a cop, figured out how that he was different and trained him to go after serial killers whom the law could not find, or couldn’t prosecute. I have to wonder if Harry was named after the actor Harry Morgan who once played a detective on the classic Dragnet – Morgan’s fatherly onscreen persona could well have been a fit for Dexter’s dad.
The series begins with Dex taking care of the killer of young boys, but before long he is confronted by the bloodless corpse of a murdered prostitute. There is clearly a new guy in town, and he’s very, very good at what he does.
When Debra overhears a conversation about one victim’s autopsy and the phrase cell crystallization comes up, she asks Dex what that means. The answer gives the killer his official nickname, The Ice Truck Killer and gets Debra her shot at playing with the big boys of homicide.
Dexter was based on Jeff Lindsay’s novels about the character. The first closely follows the first novel, Darkly Dreaming Dexter, though there are a number of changes that enable the show to take its own direction – away from the books – in its second season. Like the books, the series is incredibly smart and darkly humorous, as well as occasionally shocking.
The use of sunny, hot Miami as the location for Dexter’s exploits is a good idea. The contrast between the sunny surface of Dexter’s world, and the dark places in his life makes more apparent his struggle to understand where he came from and why he is what he is. These themes run through the entire season, but are only just beginning to occur to him in these early eps.
The first two episodes of the CBS version of Dexter are, it turns out, not as badly cut as it might have seemed. According to Julie Benz, alternative takes were shot of scenes with excessive language and nudity in case the series was syndicated to basic cable or independent over-air stations. There are one or two places in the two eps where the outbursts of “friggin’” and/or frikkin’” seem a bit more humorous than dramatic, but overall, nothing essential is lost with the cutting of the worst of the language.
The big surprise should be in how little of the blood and gore is edited out. The reason it’s not that big a deal is that anyone who watches forensic procedurals like CSI, NCIS and Bones has seen worse. The result is that the episodes of Dexter that were made available for review run pretty much as long as they did when they aired on Showtime.
There’s a lot at stake for Dexter as it airs in primetime. On Showtime, its audience is under two million, so it can’t sustain itself for too many more seasons without a ratings bump on its home venue. On CBS, it also needs to prove that it’s a better draw than the reruns on the other networks that it plays against – especially since its length means fewer commercials spots to sell.
On the plus side, the writing direction and performances on Dexter have made it a critical darling – and even with the editing necessary to make it work on commercial television, it remains startlingly original and extremely entertaining.
Beginning Sunday, this is a chance for everyone who doesn’t have Showtime to see one of the best shows on TV. If you love a good procedural – and love your procedurals to be at least partially character-driven, then you owe it to yourself to check out Dexter.
Final Grade: A-