All entries for Friday 06 April 2007

April 06, 2007

Shows You Should Be Watching Number 2: Dexter

Let’s get one thing out of the way before we get started. If you’re a Buffy/Angel fan you should know that this show stars Julie Benz. If you’re a bloke you should also know that this show features Julie Benz dressed as Lara Croft, and Julie Benz dressed in nothing at all. For some of my readers that will be enough and they’ll go and watch it now, for the rest of you, read on.

Dexter is a show that almost passed me by. It airs on Showtime in the US, which is basically HBO’s uglier but easier cousin. Both being subscription cable channels they’re not subject to the draconian censorship that pervades US network television, and as subscription channels they’re not totally shackled to ratings when it comes to what shows they keep and what they cancel. But while HBO take this as an opportunity to commission and air challenging dramas with adult elements, such as Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and Deadwood; Showtime instead airs stuff with lots of blood and boobies. Meanwhile the odd stab at doing something interesting gets cancelled after the first series or two: see Dead Like Me, Odyssey 5 and Jeremiah.

But something is changing. HBO recently went a bit mental in the head and started cancelling shows left and right, with Deadwood, Carnivale, and most recently Rome facing the axe. Now this isn’t something that’s surprising, until you consider that prior to the cancellation of Carnivale, HBO hadn’t cancelled a TV show in about a decade – it let them all run to their natural conclusion. One wonders exactly how HBO plans to fill it’s schedules when The Sopranos airs it’s last episode in eight weeks time.

Meanwhile Showtime have been putting out the brilliant Sleeper Cell, recently commissioned a second series of Brotherhood and have also renewed the subject of this article, Dexter, for a second year. While in the past I’d always given every show HBO put out a go (even Sex And The City) just because it has their logo on, it’s seeming like Showtime is increasingly becoming a network to watch. What really started me watching Dexter though, was the cast. The star and title character is played by Six Feet Under’s Michael C. Hall, his girlfriend the aforementioned Julie Benz, and three members of the cast appeared in the brilliantly bleak HBO prison drama Oz. With so many familiar names involved I couldn’t help but give it a go.

It’s based heavily on the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay, and the set-up is quite similar. Dexter, our star and hero, is a serial killer. He also works as a blood-spatter specialist for police forensics. As the show progresses we also learn through flashbacks about his childhood, and how his adoptive father taught him to channel his compulsions into his own macabre form of justice. Dexter’s code is quite simple: he only kills ‘people who deserve it’. As the series continues Dexter finds himself on the trail of another serial killer, one who he discovers he has more in common with than he first thought.

What truly makes Dexter work is the first person narration from the titular character: we see right inside the head of the killer, a device used in many a movie and book but rarely (if ever?) in a TV show. It’s a brilliant stroke that’s so refreshing in a world of TV full of CSI and such that only ever show things from the perspective of the people hunting the killers. But of course, the reason it hasn’t been done like this before is simple: how can you hope to get the audience to sympathise with a serial killer? I’ve said before that Dexter only kills those who deserve it, but the show in no way takes the easy road out. This isn’t ‘Dexter the friendly neighbourhood serial killer’, fighting for justice in his own way. Dex is a genuine pathological maniac, he has no feelings (though he’s learned to fake them), and he can’t resist the compunction to kill. So instead he channels it in a way that does the most ‘good’. And even though to him the notions of good and evil are but academic constructs beyond his own emotional comprehension, he follows the ‘good’ path as that was how he was raised. He’s not made to be easy to like, and although the viewer eventually ends up siding with him, it’s not a comfortable choice to make. He’s a brilliantly complex character and is what truly makes the show.

The b-plots aren’t exactly brilliant: political drama at the police station, Dex’s girlfriend’s ex (and father of her kids) causing trouble, and Dex’s sisters love-life are very much par for the course – except of course they all have a psychopathic killer hanging around with them.

And that’s why Dexter is great. It’s utterly unique in what it does, there isn’t a single other show out there like it, and I’m not sure there ever has been. Oh and it also has the single most disturbing title sequence I’ve seen in a show ever:

Unsurprisingly, Dexter has yet to be picked up for broadcast in the UK.

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