Monday, December 6, 2010

'Dexter' Season One (2006)

Starring Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter and Julie Benz
Developed by James Manos Jr.

The first season of Showtime's hit cable show "Dexter" is pretty damn fantastic.  It's easy to see why the show has garnered the following that it has, filled with lively characters and gripping storylines.

Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) is a forensic analyst for the Miami Police Department, specializing in blood spatter.  He's often called to grisly murder scenes to help reconstruct the crime by looking at sprays and pools of blood littered liberally about.  To his coworkers, he's friendly enough, but a bit weird - they write it off as a necessity of his job.  But the truth is that Dexter hides a dark secret: he's a killer, a man who rarely feels emotion of any kind, and spends his night tracking and killing his prey.

At first, this might seem ghastly, but we quickly realize that Dexter follows a strict code: he only kills those who "deserve" it.  That is, he rids the world of other killers, like him, but unlike him, killers who have no code to protect the innocent as he does.  In order to fit into civilized society, Dexter has become an expert at faking normal human behavior.  He acts scared when he should, laughs at jokes, and shows remorse or sympathy for his actions even though he rarely feels that way.

Dexter's only family is his sister, Debra (Jennifer Carpenter) a newly-minted homicide detective who is eager to please her superiors but often feels out of her league and relies on Dexter's vast expertise to float her along.  Dexter also has a girlfriend, Rita (Julie Benz), an abused divorcee who can barely stand the thought of sex - which is fine for Dexter, since he can barely get through it.

Until now, Dexter has done his dirty work in relative secrecy.  But someone has arrived in Miami who knows the truth: the so-called "Ice Truck Killer," a man who kidnaps his victims, drains them of their blood, dices them up and freezes the parts and leaves them in neat packages around the city.  The Ice Truck Killer begins to taunt Dexter, drawing him into a dangerous game that could mean the end of Dexter's carefully constructed life, and possibly the lives of those around him.  But how does the Ice Truck Killer know about Dexter's secret?  Why is he reaching out to Dexter?

I won't lie, though the first season of 'Dexter' is pretty tautly written, I identified the Ice Truck Killer's identity from the very first scene he's in.  Normally, that kind of predictability might kill my interest in the show, but I was so engrossed in the goings on of the show's storylines, that it ultimately didn't bother me all that much.  The characters are all extremely well drawn, and also ably portrayed by an energetic and talented cast, each of whom is given screentime for development.  No one feels left out.  Even fellow lab tech Masuka (CS Lee) who exists purely for comic relief feels like a well-rounded character, rather than just someone spouting lines.

So while I felt that two of the show's major twists were ultimately quite predictable, I found it didn't lessen my enjoyment of the show.  There's a lot of fascinating character exploration going on here, as well as some intriguing side mysteries to make up for what could have been a devastating blow.  And beyond that, predictability aside, the story of the Ice Truck Killer is quite excellent in terms of his reason for being, his relationship with Dexter, and the similarities and differences between the two characters that are brought to the forefront.  If I can get a bit spoilery at the moment, there's a telling shot in the season finale where the show finally drives home that these two characters are meant to be mirror images of each other when Dexter is framed quite literally opposite the Ice Truck Killer in their final moments together.

To me, other than the relationship between Dexter and the Ice Truck Killer, the most fascinating element of the show is the relationship between Dexter and his adoptive father, Harry Morgan (James Remar, one of my favorite character actors).  Harry is something of a twisted Jonathan Kent...

...and I bet you never thought I could liken an emotionless serial killer to Superman, right?  Well bear with me for a moment, and I'll explain.

You look at the two characters: both gifted, unique individuals borne in tragedy, adopted by kind, caring families and brought up to use their gifts to do extraordinary things.  In Superman's case, the kindly Kansas farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent instilled a sense of right and wrong into their son Clark, who would go out and become the world's greatest hero, Superman.  They gave him everything he needed when he was growing up to always make the right decisions, always be there to help others instead of act selfishly and use his great power for personal gain.  Superman is a character who is often portrayed as feeling like an outsider, who doesn't truly understand the people around him because he's so different from them, because sometimes he's so isolated from them because of his nature.

Dexter Morgan is like a twisted version of the same story.  Harry adopts Dexter after finding him at the scene of his mother's brutal murder, and realizes early on that Dexter is, in fact, a psychopath.  But he trains Dexter to fit in, and he also instills a code of morals into him that function independently of his emotions.  Harry teaches Dexter to kill only other murderers and evil people, never the innocent.  Now as an adult, Dexter struggles to fit in, knowing that he's very, very different from the people around him, and yet he's able to discern right and wrong and act accordingly to protect the innocent and even people he has somehow come to care about, such as Debra or Rita.   Going further, Dexter's mild-mannered alter-ego that exists by daytime contrasts with his dark other self that goes about punishing criminals by night reeks of Clark Kent (though the better analogy here might be Bruce Wayne in some respects, but I'll keep this simple).

My favorite Superman stories have often revolved around Clark and Jonathan, which is probably why Superman's origin story is one of my favorite stories (ever), and the relationship between Dexter and Harry I find equally fascinating.  The concept of it alone enthralls me, and I find myself thinking about it between scenes of the show.  Harry appears irregularly via flashbacks, but I'm always looking forward to the next one.  Harry could easily have been a character who, like everyone else, is unaware of Dexter's true nature, but the show takes a massive right turn by introducing Harry as the driving force in Dexter's development into a functioning adult.

But I digress.  Comparing Dexter to Superman might seem a bit strange, but that's how I see it, and for the life of me, it works.  Season one came to a smashingly satisfying close, and I'm already a chunk of the way through season two.  People tell me this show gets even better, that season four as absolutely stellar and I can't wait to get there.  Put me down as a fan of "Dexter."