Sunday, September 16, 2007
Review :: Dexter: The First Season
(I've been meaning to write this for a while but every time I started I got scared. It's intimidating to write about something truly great and I really wanted to do the series justice. With season two looming just overheard, though, I figured if I was going to write something about it than it was now or never so I finally gathered my thoughts about the series and wrote them down.)
Last year, Showtime produced one of the most interesting and daring television series ever. Dexter, based on the Jeff Lindsay novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter and starring Michael C. Hall as the eponymous character, is a twelve episode serialized crime drama that focuses upon one Dexter Morgan, a Miami police department forensic scientist specializing in blood spatter analysis - and a serial killer.
Unable to feel human emotion and experiencing irrepressible urges to kill since he was very young, Dexter (the almost too talented Michael C. Hall) was guided and shaped by Harry Morgan (the stalwart James Remar), the cop and adoptive father who rescued the damaged child from a crime scene; Harry taught him to channel his impulses and to blend in with normal society, to hide the monster in plain sight. Recognizing Dexter for what he was, and loving him nonetheless, Harry conditioned his murderous adopted son to target only the worst of society - the murderers and rapists who, for whatever reason, had escaped society's more conventional forms of punishment. As the series begins, the now adult Dexter has been comfortably living two lives, as both man and monster, as a member of society and as the flaw within it. But a bizarre encounter with another serial killer threatens to shatter his ideas of identity and forces him to confront who and what he really is.
No other series on television has embraced irony as a narrative device as much as Dexter has. The stories are pitch black and often hilarious and yet bloody as hell and still, strangely, oddly comforting. Dexter, murderous and monstrous and yet distressingly charming, is a postmodern and disillusioned (which I guess is what postmodernity really amounts to) take on the vigilante super-hero. However, unlike a Clark Kent or a Bruce Wayne, Dexter lacks a sense of morality, justice or even vengeance. He simply enjoys killing - it's his compulsion and he makes no apologies and suffers no guilt. That he kills other murderers is simply a protective measure: these criminal victims are less likely to be missed than, say, the average housewife. No one really misses the dregs of society. It's a sly and unsettling take on postmodern ethics and morality, in which one only acts decently or lawfully as a self-protective measure.
And yet, amidst all the carnage, Dexter is just like us. If, like myself, you are inclined to look for deeper and symbolic meanings in a story, you might begin to suspect that Dexter is really just an average guy and like all people he is just searching for meaning and identity. The very fact that he is so cut off from everyone else forces us, especially on a visceral level, to identify with him. He's just trying to make sense of himself and the world in which he lives. Dexter exposes the everyday rituals and pleasantries of society makes them look uncomfortable and alien; as the show subtly detaches us from our own surroundings we realize that much of our social conditioning is just that... conditioning: an artificial superstructure of rituals and niceties imposed upon human behaviour, maybe for the good of humanity and maybe not. As the series progresses, this is the question Dexter will eventually face: do these artificial impositions of morality and banal ritual in fact make us more human or are we most human when we give into our darkest urges and desires.
It used to be that television was just the "small screen" and that real philosophy and poetry, at least in the realm of the motion picture, was reserved for the "big screen," for the cinema. In the last few years, though, television has experienced a sort of Golden Age and you are now more likely to find true art on cable than in the movie theater. In the world of television art, Dexter, at least for the moment and in my opinion, represents the absolute height of art and wit. If that were not hyperbolic enough for you than let me say this (and I'm being perfectly serious when I say this): Dexter is the greatest thing to happen to television since Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, which was the greatest thing since The X-Files, which was the greatest thing since Twin Peaks, which was the greatest thing to ever happen to television. Seriously, if you are looking for intelligent and challenging television, than go watch Dexter. You won't be disappointed.
Dexter: The First Season is now available on DVD. Season two begins airing on Showtime on September 30.