Dexter - The Second Season Review

If you've seen the first season of Dexter (and if you haven't, you shouldn't be reading any further), you already know that the protagonist Dexter Morgan, thrillingly played by Michael C. Hall, likes to kill people. It's a compulsion he's learned to cope with by eliminating only those who have murdered without penalty. Dexter's meticulous ways of stalking, killing, and disposing of his victims allow him to continue along this path uncaught, aided by the rules taught to him by his adopted father Harry. His job as a blood spatter specialist with the Miami Police Department lets him further indulge a taste for the macabre, while also giving him access to various serial killer accoutrements. In those initial episodes of the programme, the struggle for Dexter was less how to keep killing in peace than the daily grind of assimilating like a normal person with those around him, including cop sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter), other co-workers, and his girlfriend Rita (Julie Benz). However, by the end of season one and the revelation that the Ice Truck Killer was his previously unknown brother, the paradigm shifted so that Dexter was forced to face his past and try to make sense of who, or what, he was.

The second season picks up about six weeks after the events in the season one finale occurred. Dexter has yet to kill again, while Deb is, understandably, having difficulty moving on from her murderous fiance. Sergeant Doakes, convinced there's something not right about Dexter, has been watching his every move and inspired Dex into joining a bowling league. Clearly, things are out of balance. As the twelve episodes progress, Dexter finds himself trying to come to terms with the things Harry had concealed from him and whether he might possibly be able to function without the need to kill. This initially leads him into Narcotics Anonymous, where he gains a sponsor in Lila (Jaime Murray), someone Dex thinks may actually understand the demons he carries inside himself. Less promising is the discovery of several trash bags full of Dexter's victims, leading to a full-on search for our killer hero, now dubbed the "Bay Harbor Butcher," by his own office and an outside FBI agent (Keith Carradine) brought in to supervise the case.

How all this plays out, and the attention to these main threads, is, aside from a persistent use of neatly convenient coincidence, a significant improvement over the previous batch of episodes. Though that first season was always interesting and carried the compelling Ice Truck Killer storyline the full distance, it did get bogged down in side plots from episode to episode that were of far lower dramatic quality. Season two wisely drops most of these detours to maintain the focus where it belongs - on Dexter. Hall's performance and his character are so fascinating as to make any time he's not on screen feel like something's missing. It's not too far of a stretch to say the show owes its entire success to a protagonist we root for despite his extreme vices. This simply shouldn't be a regular procedural type of programme. Several episodes even turn those conventions upside down by having the main character investigate his victim throughout, and then killing him at the end, a total contrast to the usual murder and manhunt format used for decades now on television.

In fact, the small screen really isn't accustomed to a character like Dexter. He's what might be considered a bit of a hard sell to most viewers. There's the thirst for taking human life, which could put some people off, but he's also a strict example of someone who doesn't fit in or enjoy the company of others, qualities society generally frowns upon. If there's any one reason for the show's relative popularity, it may be because of how easily Dexter is to identify with among those constantly in search of an alternative to popular schools of thought and behaviour. He lives by his own rules, does things his own way, and still manages to function in the world. In some strange way, Dexter serves as an inspiration, not for those trying to get into the vigilante game, but as a pillar of successful awkwardness. His is taken to the extreme, to be sure, but that aspect of the character seems so absurd as to make it almost forgivable. If you can't get past his bloodlust then you're unlikely to really enjoy the show at all. For those unbothered, Dexter is hardly worse than an R-rated Batman. Take away the wealth, the costume and the moral code, eliminate the judge, jury, executioner middlemen, and you've got Dexter, someone essentially performing the same sanitation duties as our beloved dark knight.

Whether this is his fate or his choice becomes a question of overwhelming importance for Dexter in this season. His preconceptions are shaken and the vital core of an entire rationalisation becomes troubling for him. An inevitable love triangle develops as a result, with Dexter seeing one side as his normal, accepted mode of adjustment and the other as holding a new opportunity for the possible slaying of his demons. Which one he wants to win seems to get brushed off a little. There's an indication that the angel and devil incarnations have been somewhat reversed. The choice that's best for him is entirely subjective, with "best" taking on a different meaning from more traditional use of the word.

(season specific spoilers)

As mentioned above, season two works best while keeping Dexter as its primary subject. Treatment of other characters, especially the chronically unstable females, remains shallow and brings the show down immeasurably. How the writers can consistently make Dexter so intriguing and everyone else trite stick figures is a mystery to us all. The potential for an equal to our perpetually pragmatic protagonist found its form in Jaime Murray's turn as Lila, Narcotics Anonymous sponsor/serial arsonist. Dex sees in Lila someone who might actually be able to silence his dark passenger. The trouble is that the chosen direction of her character is to become exceedingly and dangerously crazy. I found this to be a disappointing and far too tidy way of dealing with such a tremendous opportunity for Dexter. It also conspicuously parallels the previous season, when the Ice Truck Killer got personal with everyone's preferred serial killer and ended up similarly fated as Lila. Simply having an off-balance character serve as Dexter's source of contemplation prior to him deciding he's indeed supposed to kill society's dregs already feels a bit lazy and repetitive. It may be personal bias, as I quite liked Murray's performance and enjoyed the character before she became a raving lunatic out of nowhere, but Lila doesn't seem to have gotten a fair shake.

When the show faces conflict, it has a tendency to take the easiest, most coincidental, least complicated way out. Dexter's secret identity is as well-guarded and absurdly maintained as most comic book superheroes. Sure the audience doesn't want him to be caught, but springing the Bay Harbor Butcher plot on us and then using it as an excuse to eventually kill off Doakes leans toward being anticlimactic. Allowing Dexter to not break his code with Doakes' death and then subsequently rationalising Lila's murder in the process feels even cheaper. These convenient devices may be of less concern to those looking for disposable timewasting, which Dexter excels at, but Hall and his character always seem to deserve a little better. Season two does get right some of the things that had been fumbled previously, and it's hard to deny how compulsively fixated you may feel in the process to race through these episodes. (You might even want to give yourself a couple of days where there's nothing else planned except devouring these twelve episodes.) Nonetheless, the potential is there for an even better effort. For a show with a serial killer as its sympathetic lead character, Dexter surprisingly seems content to stay within the viewer's comfort zone. A little more risk and uncertainty would be welcome.

The Discs

The second season of Dexter is released onto R1 DVD by Showtime via CBS DVD and Paramount. All things considered, I found the four-disc set to be a lacklustre effort.

The drama's premium cable roots allow for longer running times than network television, and episodes tend to run at least 50 minutes, usually longer. Discs 2 and 3 contain a quartet of episodes, totaling well over 200 minutes for each disc. It's most likely not a coincidence that several instances of compression issues arise on these discs. Detail becomes blocky and unstable in close-ups. The shaky pixels aren't constant or even frequent, but it they are, unfortunately, noticeable. Darker scenes also tend to look worse than one might expect, murky even, and digital noise is abundant. The 1.78:1 widescreen-friendly image looks intermittently good otherwise, with varying sharpness and colour quality. The opening titles sequence appears deceptively brilliant, but the video quality throughout the rest of the show is more modest. The transfers are also interlaced, and sport visible combing.

Audio doesn't really play much of a factor in the show and the corresponding English Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 tracks seem appropriately adequate. The DD 5.1 effort obviously sounds more full, but the differences are otherwise small. Dexter doesn't really use pounding music or pop songs on its soundtrack, opting instead for Miami-flavoured cuts and an atmospheric score. Gunshots or similar noises aren't here, either, and the audio, on both tracks, only goes as far as it needs to without ever being a distraction. Volume levels are consistent and appropriate. A Spanish mono dub is also provided, though there are no subtitles. The show is closed captioned, but nothing is accessible directly from the disc. A lack of real subtitles on a popular television show like this is indefensible.

Though there are "special features" listed on the back of the DVD box, when you look closer it's revealed that absolutely nothing of Dexter-related interest is here. A couple of episodes from another Showtime series, Brotherhood, are directly on disc 4, joined by an incredibly lame photo gallery that barely even qualifies as such and short cast biographies. It's like 1998 here. Clicking on what's labeled as "Dexter Season 3 Sneak Peek!" takes you to a text screen advertising the upcoming release of Brotherhood, Season 2 in October, which is set to contain the first episode of Dexter's next season. Cruel joke Showtime. The other "fun bonus features," including the first couple of episodes of both Californication and season two of The Tudors, are only available through "E-Bridge Technology" after inserting the disc into a computer. An interview and podcast with Michael C. Hall are supposed to be accessible through here, but it didn't seem receptive to my computer so I'm unsure how worthwhile those are.

It's not just the disappointing video quality and laughably unsatisfying extras that put a sour taste in your mouth with this release. There are little annoyances, as well. Upon loading, the discs all play a nonskippable, animated Showtime logo that then takes you into another Showtime promo, which can at least be advanced past, before settling on the also-slow main menu. Episodes can be selected individually or played back-to-back nonstop, but if you choose the former, a description page comes up with information on the episode you're about to watch. Depending on each individual definition of a spoiler, there will probably be things here you'd rather discover on your own, as opposed to reading about mere seconds before watching. This is completely unnecessary because those same episode synopses are available on the inside cover and viewable through the transparent slim cases. To top things off, a disclaimer is buried in tiny print on the back of the case. "Some episodes may be edited from their original network versions." I couldn't say whether this is merely a legal protection measure, or if something (hopefully small) may have actually been altered.

With no real bonus material and unimpressive image quality, this release begs to be rented. That obviously won't be an option for everyone, but I do encourage caution and patience, as only the show itself really bears a recommendation.

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