Dexter: Season 1 Review
"It's how you fit in...remember how we talked about that? This is how you do it. When somebody takes your picture you smile. It doesn't matter if you're happy or not. You just do it...to fit in!"...Harry Morgan
That little talk comes in episode four of Dexter, Let's Give The Boy A Hand and contains the very essence of the show. A cop/comedy in which Dexter (Michael C Hall) is actually employed as a blood spatter analyst for the Miami PD, Dexter is the kind of serial killer that, if we had his same taste for blood, we would all like to be. Adopted by Harry Morgan, who recognised his son's passion for murder and killing at an early age, Dexter has been taught to kill only those deserving of his own brand of justice, the child molesters, drunk drivers and hitmen who escape the courts. And to fit in, obviously.
Fitting in is what Dexter does very well. When somebody takes his picture, he smiles. He buys doughnuts en route to work and offers them around. He massages his girlfriend Rita's (Julie Benz) feet when she's tired after a day's work, he pours her a glass of wine and kisses her gently. He does the whole loving brother thing with his adopted sister Deborah (Jennifer Carpenter) and he makes idle chit-chat on his way around the office. But he doesn't really understand any of it. He smiles when someone pushes a camera in his face but doesn't really want to. His conversations draw to a close with long silences. When Rita gives him a blowjob when he's occupied with police business, he tries to return the favour by going down on her as she cries during the end credits of Terms Of Endearment. So emotionally blank is Dexter that he doesn't see there are many different kinds of tears. He doesn't understand people. What Dexter does understand, though, is how best to kill them.
This twelve-part series introduces Dexter and roughly follows the same plot as Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the Jeff Lindsay novel that forms the basis of the show. In both, Dexter Morgan is fascinated by one particular crime scene, one in which the body of a prostitute has been drained of all blood and neatly chopped into a dozen or so parts. Photos from Dexter's albums are referenced in crime scenes, smiling faces are scratched into the blood samples of his victims that he keeps as souvenirs and he faintly remembers a woman who painted each fingernail a different colour. Dexter marvels at the body of a woman whose fingernails are painted in that exact same way then cut from her hand and neatly frozen into a block of ice. One body follows another with the Ice Truck Killer apparently knowing more about dearly devoted Dexter than does Dexter himself.
Following an ice truck into the harbour, the killer throws a severed head at Dexter's car. The next day, Dexter finds a chopped-up Barbie doll within his fridge. "First he throws a severed head at me...then he leaves me these doll parts...like pieces of a puzzle. I like puzzles!" Dexter, with the confidence that comes from experience with murder and brutality, plays the game. "I suppose I should be upset, even feel violated, but I'm not. No, in fact, I think this is a friendly message, like "Hey, wanna play?" and yes I want to play. I really really do!" Dexter has little to fear. Other than finding out who he really is.
It's easier to admire Dexter than to like it outright. It never shies away from the actual horror, actually being somewhat subversive in bringing a serial killer and the blunt talk of killing to television. Dexter is a likeable lead character in spite of, or perhaps due to, his liking for murder. He avoids chance killings, preferring to have understood the reasons why someone must be murdered from within the framework of a strict moral code. And he's funny and smart with there being knowing glances to camera by Dexter, most often as he wipes some brain matter or somesuch into a drain to quickly avoid being discovered. He is post-modern in his riffing on serial killers, "There’s something strange and disarming about looking at a homicide scene in the daylight of Miami. It makes the most grotesque killings look staged...like you're in a new and daring section of Disney World...Dahmerland!" Asked why the Ice Truck Killer would have been keeping a severed head with him, Dexter replies, "I don't know...so he could use a carpool lane?"
For that, it's not entirely successful. Dexter has his moments but his lines are often too knowing, as if we were seeing only a writer's fantasy of a witty, urbane and very moral serial killer. Which is, after all, what Dexter really is. To deny him that would be to deny him a rather wonderful ending that's as funny a moment as anything else in the show. Also it takes a strong stomach to want to watch Dexter, particularly the torture scenes. This is a show that would have been unthinkable a few years ago but post-Hostel, Cube and Saw, a serial killer cutting the throat of his victim or his taking pleasure in his readying himself to slaughter a rapist would not, even on the minority channels, have seemed a likely candidate for production.
A bigger problem comes with the very dull cases that creep along in the background. A wrongful killing by a police officer drags in Internal Affairs but it has little to do with Dexter and, as an audience, there's a tendency to want to shoo away such stories in favour of yet more grisly killings. All well and good to have such episodes in a Boomtown or a Homicide: Life On The Streets, where they would be a natural fit, but they're poor stopovers in Dexter. They don't serve Dexter particularly well and are a poor diversion from the shadow boxing between Dexter and the Ice Truck Killer. Same with the captain shouting at an inept lieutenant. Granted, it can't be easy to create an ensemble piece when the lead stands out so easily - the blood stains on his shoes are a giveaway - but it's not called Dexter without good reason. Much like Harry telling Dexter to smile just to fit in, these stories are the cop show equivalent, doing what they do because that's what an audience expects of a cop show. It's essential that Dexter smiles for the camera, less so for a cop show that's all about killing.
Each episode of Dexter runs very close to being an hour long and with two of the four discs containing four episodes, it does push beyond its limit with the problems coming with some clear artefacting on episodes one through eight. However, that's really the only problem with Dexter as it generally doesn't look that bad. Colours are the typical bright wash of Florida as seen in CSI: Miami and if it's a touch dark at times, what else ought to be expected of such a dark drama. It can look ordinary but, again, that appears to be a decision made in the show's production with it being suggested that Dexter is an out-of-the-ordinary killer in a very ordinary world, leaving it a reasonable set let down by a small amount of artefacts.
The default audio track is DD2.0 but there is a DD5.1 track available on all twelve episodes. Both options are very good ones with the action, dialogue and sound of saw-on-skin-and-bone standing out from one another. There's very little background noise, certainly not enough to complain about, and, on the surround track, some very good use of the rear channels. On the other hand, there is very little use of low frequencies, which leaves Dexter sounding a little on the thin side. Finally, there are no subtitles.
Very little of the bonus material in this set actually has anything to do with Dexter. In terms of time, the biggest chunk of bonus material goes to episodes one and two of Brotherhood, a new Showtime drama set within the Irish-American Caffee family, specifically the actions of local politician Tommy (Jason Clarke) and ex-con Michael (Jason Isaacs). Racist, violent and crooked, they're not a strong advert for the Irish abroad and what with their prepared-to-bend-the-rules-on-everything-but-family-and-church, could only be any more cliched if they dressed in green, carried a pint of Guinness in one hand and greeted each other with a, "Top o' the mornin' to you!"
Almost having as little to do with Dexter is a true-life episode of Witnessed In Blood (12m28s). In essence, Dexter is a killer so here's another show about a killer. There's much talk of things being gruesome, arterial spurting and blood spatter patterns. A re-enactment gees things along but as one who's not into such things, I only wanted to know the identity of the killer. However, getting back on track, there are a couple of Audio Commentaries in the set, the first with actors Jennifer Carpenter, David Zayas, Lauren Velez and Erik King on Return To Sender. This is, unlike the show, a light affair that, while it won't satisfy anyone who wants to learn about the making of the show, offers plenty of behind-the-scenes anecdotes, bits of trivia and the odd comment on the episode they're actually watching. The second, on Born Free, features producers Sara Colleton, Clyde Phillips and Daniel Cerone and does much more than describe the making of that one episode. Instead, the producers describe the making of the show, their getting the rights to produce it and their bringing it to the screen. Though dry at times, much more so than the other commentary, this is still fairly interesting.
As well as previews for The L Word, The Tudors and Sleeper Cell and Biographies for the major cast there is, via a weblink, a chance to win a HDTV, which is of little use to those of us who import R1 releases. Also available via the Internet is a free episode of The Tudors to download and the first two chapters of Dexter In The Dark, the latest Dexter novel.