Dexter (Season One) Review
I have often wondered what the purpose of ITV is. Perhaps the channel needs to convince me it's worthwhile because I'm a snob and don't understand the attraction of the soaps, "news entertainment" and movies cut into 12 minute pieces. All I know is that in the last couple of years, terrestial viewers have been less taken with the channel and that they got the stripy shirted Michael Grade in to pep it up a bit. I had noticed little difference until very recently when ITV made its first decent drama series in ages with He Kills Coppers, and actually started showing the wonderfully dark and novel Showtime import Dexter. Now I can quite imagine the old Channel Four showing this series or even Five, but ITV showing a series with lopped off limbs and a hero who is a serial killer, I don't think so.
Dexter is the kind of series that reminds you that the Americans make great television because they have got very, very good at it. Bar a couple of episodes which gravitate rather too closely to generic situational drama, the first season of Dexter is a bloodthirsty delight of black humour, character acting and a rather telling central point about the human beast. The series is served by the central performance of Michael C. Hall as the sociopath we'd all like to be and the blood expert for the Miami police department. Most weeks, he solves mysteries and acts as an unusual sleuth come vigilante as he punishes the guilty to quench the terrible thirst for murder inside of him. He is in constant contact with the viewer through his monologue narration which serves to explain his peculiar motivations, and how he manages to survive the world of normal people in terms of office politics, friendships he can't understand and a romance he becomes very astute at perpetuating through fakery. Even though he is seen by nearly everyone as an ordinary man, the viewer never forgets just what is going on in his head.
This relationship between the amoral narrator and the complicit audience would deserve praise in itself, but the series surrounds Dexter with the behaviours and rituals of the real world which we call civilised. Rather than set the characters around him to be cyphers or single dimensional, sub plots are regularly offered to flesh out the people Dexter knows and works with, and through these devices we learn more and more about just how they survive the competitiveness of the modern world whilst meeting their needs as physical beings. The whole nonsense of mating rituals, family traditions, professional success and sexual expression is laid bare in order to show that whilst Dexter may not "get" other people, he is not quite as different from them as we may initially think.
The supporting cast get chance to shine in these complex roles, and, over the space of 12 episodes, the picture they paint is admirably detailed and rich. Dexter's adopted sister wants to get ahead to finally get her father's approval, but her achilles heal is the desire to be loved at any cost; Lieutenant Laguerta's political astuteness got her where she is, but takes her in the wrong direction in cases and eventually lets her down in terms of her ambition; Sergeant Doakes' gung ho machismo hides his domineering sisters and his personal secrets; and Dexter's girlfriend Rita is still living in the home of the husband who raped and assaulted her whilst seeking refuge in the man she sees as the antidote to her felonious husband. This attempt to look underneath the veneers of the everyday is what makes Dexter so damn impressive - we are not only complicit with a serial killer, but we are forced to see how like us he is. One of the very totems of our normalcy is to say that we aren't like the monsters of killers and criminals, but Dexter proves how close to the surface those same urges are in the rest of us.
The basic structure of the show is a whodunnit which follows the single heinous case of the ice truck killer chased by the Miami PD, whilst illustrating Dexter's growing understanding of what has made him what he is. This other killer is inventive and develops a playful interaction with Dexter which mirrors the viewer's complicity with him, and Dexter's appreciation of his contemporary's work follows our own joy when Dexter punishes the wicked who have always got away it. As the inventiveness of the killings increases, Dexter's own nature becomes known to the killer and, horrifically, his knowledge of Dexter's origins seems far beyond Dexter's own. Through the complicit narration and the mirroring between Dexter, the ice truck killer, and the audience, the programme reveals our collective basic natures as closer to beast than we would admit, but it also explores how human it really is to become like Dexter himself.
There are a couple of moments where the slow burn plot seems over extended and episode nine's revelations are somewhat undermined by unimaginative and falsely created situations, which lead to a plethora of borrowed dialogue and cliched premises. Similarly, it is quite daring to reveal the ice truck killer's identity to the audience as early as it is done because they can then fear for the characters they have grown to understand, but this also leads to a sense that obvious clues are ignored, and that motivations are altered in order to extend the story over the full season. The best episodes are those directed by Michael Cuesta or those written by James Mano jr, as the voice of Dexter is best realised and the grip on character is strongest, and it is noticeable that those episodes where character is less compelling are the ones without either man closely involved.
Still in a 12 episode series, Dexter manages to maintain its very good standards throughout in all departments of writing, directing and performing. There isn't a bum note in the whole cast, and the wit of the scripts is often replicated in the direction. Several of the episodes are so beautifully constructed that you may find yourself noticing uses of dramatic unity and symmetrical form, and just loving the amount of irony dropped here and there to remind you that Dexter is a serial killing hero in a world of humans just as carnivorous as he. The second season has already finished in the states and I assume an R1 set can't be too long away, I hope it is half as good as season one, but for now you'd be a fool to miss this.
Season one is presented on 4 dual layer discs with three episodes on each. The episodes have been transferred at the anamorphic ratio of 1.78:1, and the transfer is strong if not perfect with good saturation and excellent contract, but a few issues with aliasing and softness. Anyone watching the broadcast series will be getting better quality but the image could have been sharper and more detailed.
The audio is provided through surround and 5.1 mixes in both English and French and menus are available in these two languages as well as Northern European options. The English tracks are very well mixed with nothing too noticeable in the way of mastering issues or source difficulties, and the difference between the surround and 5.1 tracks is marginal. The rear speakers are obviously used more for directional effects on the 5.1 track, and the subwoofer channel is seriously impressive at times, but I didn't notice a lot of change in the ambience or atmosphere of some of the settings or the processing of the action moments. Both tracks are solid and unsurprising.
The special features are very spare indeed. Two commentaries are offered for episode six and episode twelve, and these involve the executive producers. Both tracks are dull and prosaic, with a lack of spontaneity and warmth to involve the listener, and I learn little from either track that I could even feel is noteworthy. Some interviews would have been nice or information on the original novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter but extras are rather light....
One of the best things on TV at the mo, this boxset will street as the series comes to an end on ITV and the quality is so good in the writing that even without the revelations and the plot surprises, Dexter will most definitely be worth another look.