On…Dexter (TV)

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It’s a show about a serial killer who kills other serial killers. Regardless of your moral intuitions on such an individual, what I do think is that Dexter, the TV show, is one of the better dramas. It certainly has gotten worse in recent seasons than its early ones, but boy some of those early seasons are just fantastic. It’s well-written, sinfully funny and thoroughly entertaining. It has a cast of fairly interesting characters though like a lot of shows, it can fall victim to ‘stereotype-syndrome’ where certain characters just become caricatures of themselves. Still, a huge part of the appeal for me, is the slightly zany world that Dexter resides in. In this crazy world, Miami police’s best homicide detective is actually a serial killer who works as a blood spatter analyst in the forensic lab. It’s a world where serial killers seem to crop up every week with a new M.O. and unsolved cases due to Dexter’s interference are surprisingly routine. It certainly isn’t a show if you want police driven realism, but then again, there really are no shows like that on TV currently. Even The Wire had to take dramatic liberties to create an entertaining show. Overall, Dexter is in one my top ten TV shows to watch, and though it is flawed in numerous ways, it manages to entertain me and keep me engaged even after 8 seasons.

I’ve pretty much already covered what Dexter is about story-wise. The general structure is there is a new serial killer in Miami and Dexter must work out who it is and find him before the Miami police does. The reason he does this is because he’s a sociopath with a compulsion to kill. However, fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your perspective), his adoptive father taught him a kind of moral ‘code’ which he must abide by. Firstly, he must not get caught. Secondly, Dexter must only kill other people who have killed and only if they’re likely to continue killing. Thirdly, Dexter must be assured of their guilt, and this is where his forensic and police knowledge comes in. The code is a prevalent motif throughout the show, and is held up by Dexter as an unbreakable, morally absolute code which was designed to keep him safe whilst allowing him to indulge in his compulsions.

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Meanwhile, Dexter also lives a double life as a blood spatter analyst in the forensic lab of Miami police. During the day, he works a variety of cases in addition to his main serial killer ones. In the office of Miami metro, Dexter comes off as the affable, very likeable man to his fellow police officers. Coming around with an assortment of doughnuts every so often seems to do a lot towards his reputation as a ‘nice guy’. But dubbed over this friendly veneer is Dexter’s real thoughts and a lot of the time, he really is socially clueless. As a sociopath, his lack of empathy often makes him rather socially awkward and he cares little about the sort of things ‘normal’ people care about. For me, this is one of the more brilliant aspects of the show. The double-life that Dexter leads and his conflicts between staging a murder versus say, meeting his sister for dinner, are an endless source of drama and hilarity. Plus, being able to understand Dexter’s thought processes throughout are a wonderfully insightful way of getting to know the character.

As the show has gone on, they’ve somewhat suppressed these inner dialogue sections, in some sense to reflect Dexter’s character development; he may start off as an emotion-less sociopath, but as the show progresses, they are hints to him developing strong attachments to certain people. Personally, I’m less of a fan of new Dexter and I think that’s a huge part of why I feel the newer seasons are not as good as the earlier ones. Perhaps I’m just a sadistic horrible person myself but I enjoyed the show a lot more when Dexter was just a sociopath with no one else to depend on  and he could freely kill without getting totally embroiled into consequences with those around him.

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Anyway, as far as storylines for the show go, they range from somewhat clever to astoundingly contrived and stupid. It’s not high praise, I know, but if you’re expecting clever plot lines then you’ll be disappointed. What’s good about Dexter however, is the way in which these somewhat mediocre plots are presented. The strength of the show lies in the characters and how they react to these somewhat ridiculous circumstances. From Debra, Dexter’s rude-mouthed sister to La Guerta, a stuck up career-driven bitch, Dexter’s surrounding cast are all likeable in their own ways. They provide a lot of comedy as well as character exposition.

Unfortunately, some of the characters do suffer from being caricatures. Masuka, Dexter’s colleague in the lab, is particularly guilty of this as he’s a character who exists solely for making misogynistic jokes and being a bit of a creep. Whilst he does provide some comedy, I really wish the show writers would develop him as a character a bit more. Other than Masuka though, the majority of characters are fairly well written, believable and relatable.

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Furthermore, the show is excellently choreographed and shot. The crime scenes of serial killers are suitably elaborate, for example, with one season focusing on a serial killer who recreates Biblical references in bloody and gory ways. There is a lot of blood featured in the show, and like Dexter, we come to see that blood as a kind of art form which tells a story. The way the blood spatters about a scene, we learn through Dexter, often reveals exactly how a person was killed. All of this is done in the setting of beautiful, sunny Miami which is a refreshing change from a lot of more urban, steel cities of American dramas like New York.

Of course, I have to comment on the moral quandary that Dexter provides. It is a show which compels you to sympathise with a serial killer, albeit one with a strong sense of absolute morality. From the internal monologue to the constant shots of Dexter’s life, the audience has little choice but to see things from Dexter’s perspective. Does this mean the show is asking us to sympathise with a serial killer? Not exactly, though it does come into it. I think it’s a show which provokes us into thinking about the kinds of media we consume. Violence and horror permeates our social culture and we are for the most part, very desensitised to it. Dexter is no different, and I definitely think that it’s a show that could only exist in a culture which has desensitised us to murder and violence.

It’s also a show which emphasises the morally grey areas. Firstly, he only kills other people who have killed, and therefore Dexter is a sort of vigilante judge and executioner with some sense of moral absolutes. Secondly, he does so because he can’t help it; he’s mentally ill, a sociopath, and his ‘dark passenger’ compels him to kill even when it’s against his better nature.

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I think these two aspects definitely make him more understanding to the audience as a character. He is not clearly a bad guy. He is a sick guy who does a lot of horrific things. The show isn’t asking us to sympathise with a murderer; it’s much more on par with asking us to sympathise with someone who is trying his best to be ‘normal’ but can’t be. It’s also not a show which glorifies Dexter’s life. It’s not asking us to all go out and take up arms against common criminals and killers in our neighbourhoods. The show very much emphasises what a terrible situation Dexter is in, how much he struggles with his affliction, and how it’s not a lifestyle that anyone should want to pursue.

I mean, I have to give a big kudos to Michael C. Hall, the actor who portrays Dexter. His performance as Dexter is brilliant, and he manages to pull off an amiable serial killer with so much charisma, it’s hard not to like him. The way he seamlessly transitions from killing someone on a table wrapped in clingfilm to cuddling with his baby boy, is sometimes chilling to watch yet electrifying.

Overall, Dexter is a fantastic show with an interesting premise and brilliant characters who live in a slightly crazy but still believable world. It’s thoroughly entertaining, with moments of comic genius as well as moments of genuine human sentiment. Whilst the plot lines aren’t always flawless, the show is engaging enough to ignore some of the weaker plots.

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