Ok, so you know there are some things you really, REALLY want to like?
Sometimes you’re lucky. Sometimes it’s the food that blows your mind, the book that changes your life, the movie you’ll see again and again, the tv show you buy your friends on DVD.
And sometimes you try as hard as you can, and there’s just nothing there.
I just finished season two of ‘Dexter‘.
Now, almost everyone I know has asked me if I watch it. They all insist I’ll love it, that it’s exactly my thing. And for two years now, I’ve been meaning to watch it, anticipating a macabre, black story, violent, dark, gory and funny.
I had half season one on my tivo and lost it due to a mishap, and then figured I’d catch it when season two ran; then I missed season two for some reason. Finally, after several other shows, Dexter came up in my netflix queue. And I expected to love it.
The thing is, I really really tried. Because there’s so much to love. Michael C Hall is turning in the performance of his career, and he’s got a strong (if wildly uneven) cast behind him. The writing shows moments of brilliance (or at least vast cleverness); Dexter’s monologs in season one are so clever, and delivered so well, that it feels like a thing of rare brilliance when we hear Hall’s narration.
The first couple of episodes show enormous promise. The premise is fantastic and perverse; the serial killer working as a forensic blood spatter analyst, and killing ONLY bad guys who’ve escaped justice. It plays with the notion of hero; is he batman? is the the punisher? or is he ted bundy with a badge and an elaborate ability to rationalize?
What’s wrong isn’t simple. The show has so many high points. But it seems to match every high with lows.
The best of the cast – Jennifer Carpenter, James Remar, Julie Benz, C. S. Lee, David Zayas, Mark Pellegrino, and in season two, Keith Carradine (and of course Hall) all turn in fantastic performances. Even some of the slightly off-peak performers – Erik King, Christian Camargo, Jaime Murray – are decent enough, and carry the roles, sometimes shining. The trouble is, they’re bogged down by awkward, wooden performances by actors like Lauren Vélez and Judith Scott. The bad performances wouldn’t stand out that much in a great show, but in a show that keeps reaching for mediocrity, they are a hugh problem.
And then there’s the writing. Now, some shows are terribly uneven from episode to episode because shows are, usually, written by some sort of round-robin. So one episode will be terrific, and one weak or clumsy. The dialog tells it; check out any recent season of CSI to see what I mean about alternating good and bad dialog.
Dexter is different. Scene to scene the writing will go from great (Dexter’s own internal monolog) to clunky and awkward, sliding randomly in between. In some scenes in the first season, it seems like different characters each have their own writers.
The real problem, though, is plot. Because the show never comes close to taking this fantastic idea and making it shine. Instead of a dark, avenging angel story, or a beauty and the beast story, or a super-hero story, or a monster-within story, we get a very weak cop show, with one incredibly clever character who talks a lot about how he’s a monster, but never really acts like one.
At first it seems clever; dexter’s notion of who he is, is at odds with what we see. But after a bit it looks like the writers are not doing this on purpose, they just don’t know.
The same can be said of the back-story with Dexter’s father training him, in effect, to be a weapon. It’s brilliant in concept; what he does is exactly what espionage organizations do, finding amoral but trainable sociopaths, and teaching them single-minded loyalty and all the skills of murder. Yet after we watch Dexter trained to be an amoral, heartless killer, he doesn’t act like one, he acts like a wise-cracking marvel hero with a secret identity.
I won’t spoil it for those who have not watched season one; I will say, though, that if you have not worked the ending out for yourself by the eighth or ninth episode, you’re just not trying, and if ANY surprise reveal actually surprises you, you are smoking too much fucking pot when you watch teevee.
The second season was widely rumored to be better. I held out high hopes. Because while season one was deeply flawed, it was also deeply clever, and peopled with good characters and some very appealing actors.
Alas, it’s like they took what worked and jettisoned it, keeping what was wrong. Then they added in stupid plot twists, retcon-like devices, and worst of all, made key characters suddenly start acting stupid.
The season arc is based around Dexter’s cache of bodies being found, and the man-hunt for an un-known killer. Trouble is, we’ve been shown and told that Dexter is fucking brilliant, the best of the best, so good he’s un-catchable. In season two we find he’s been stashing his kills neatly wrapped in bags, all the parts together, in fifty feet of gin-clear miami water, in an area where scuba divers often dive.
The list of what’s wrong with that makes me grind my teeth. I am a better killer than that, and I’m just sitting on my couch.
It only gets worse from there. Dexter makes a list of stupid choices, and key characters suddenly change mid-season, whenever it’s convenient for plot devices. Dexter, it seems, can no longer kill, and the later, finds a twelve-step is enough to stop him from killing. This effectively neuters his character, AND is a 180 turn around from who he was in the first season.
Ok, there are high points. Keith Carradine as Frank Lundy could carry his own show; he’s that good, both actor and role. Jennifer Carpenter, Dexter’s sister Debra, chews up her role. She was a high-point in season one, and she runs with it, turning her character into a sweet, fucked up, sexually dynamic, foul-mouthed dynamo. She’s incredibly *real*, in that she seems so sweetly fucked up, that you want to love her, and she’s so goddamned sexy that you want to take her clothes off and love her a lot more.
And then there’s Jaime Murray as Lila. Ok, she’s not the best actress in the cast, not by a long shot. But she makes up for it, at least early on, because the character is so good that it works. She’s incredibly sexy, wild, crazy, intense, sweet. She is a character out of my own writing, and I was almost instantly in love with her, and all the more every time she flashed her pert little breasts. She’s just as hot as fuck, and I wanted to leap into the teevee and take her.
But of course, the season starts wrong and makes good headway toward really-far-wrong. Characters make stupid choices, police work is done incorrectly, dexter makes mistake after mistake (things that just don’t make any sense). Plot lines – like the new replacement Lieutenant and her cheating boyfriend – are just filler. And in the second half, things flip-flop with certain characters that make no sense, while being utterly, painfully predictable.
At the halfway point, I knew the ending. I kept hoping I was wrong, and groaning every time they made another ‘surprise’ reveal.
The trouble, really, isn’t that the show is bad. It’s that it is so close to being brilliant. Cast, characters, concept, half the dialog, all very good, some incredible. But it’s a fast car with no driver; no editorial point of view, no meaningful story arc, no clear idea of who these people are or what story is being told. It’s fucking amature.
It could have been amazing. It should have been, really. But it’s not. It just barely nails ‘good’.
I’m afraid to watch season three. I think it’s only Michael C Hall and Jennifer Carpenter that will bring me back. He’s that good, and she’s just incredibly, sweetly fuckable.