Watch out, there be spoilers ahead .
Ok, caveate: I think Dexter has always been vastly over-rated. It’s one of those ‘emperors-new-clothes’ deals – has a rep for being all sorts of things it isn’t, like great, edgy, dark. They’ve somehow created the aura of these things without ever having to actually deliver.
But Dexter has always shown potential. It has cast going for it, and a strong concept, and a great setting (it’s one of the few shows set in Miami that actually look like Miami, at least how I think Miami looks). The problem has always been that it doesn’t know what to do with what it has.
The core of the idea is simple; A serial killer who’s been trained as a vigilante, channeling his urge to kill. He’s Batman meets Son of Sam.
The theme of the show, when it started, was that of an alien, an outsider. Dexter’s attempt to fit in by hiding in plain sight, by pretending to normalcy. It’s classic werewolf/vampire territory, where the monster may hide in plain site, all the while knowing he’s a predator feeding on humanity. It’s rich, if somewhat staid, territory; and then angle they’ve put on it (serial killer as hero) is pretty original (we’ve seen the opposite many times; the heroic vigilante who’s really sort of a criminal; but here it’s flipped – it’s criminal killer directing his crimes at other worse criminals).
The trouble is, someone (someone at showtime, maybe, or the show runners Cerone and Phillips) decided that they need to make Dexter more likable. And that’s where the big pitfall is. Because they’re already there, thanks to Michael C Hall’s performance (he really just can’t be anything BUT likable, no matter how he’s presented, like Mickey Mouse in a Darth Vader costume).
In the first season, they managed it all pretty well. Dexter was a wry and funny narrator, and Hall played him brilliantly, completely inhabiting the awkwardness of a man faking ‘normal’, copying those around him for reactions. The surrounding cast helped (Jennifer Carpenter is fantastic as Dexter’s sister, for example, playing the other side of the confused and socially awkward coin). Sure, there were problems; mostly with plot, but we can blame the book for that ( Season 1 is lifted mostly from Darkly Dreaming Dexter), though there’s a glaring casting problem with Lauren Vélez as Maria LaGuerta (she can’t act her way out of a paper bag).
One of the best devices in season 1 was Rita (Julie Benz), who’s introduced as a pathetic, neurotic basket-case; a perfect ‘beard’ for dexter, because he doesn’t care about her at all, and she’s so damaged all she needs from him is that he seem to care about her (something Dexter learns to fake well enough to keep his cover). She’s sad and deeply dislikable, which is exactly what she needs to be (since Dexter is using her, and doesn’t care at all about her).
While season one’s the plot devices are weak and improbable, and the writing is uneven, on the whole it works. The effect is sort of light weight and melodramatic, but with enough real high points to make it all work.
This start to go wrong – very badly wrong – in season two.
One of the key points we’ve learned about Dexter is that he’s brilliant; almost super-human. Strong, quick, dangerous, with a monster’s mind behind the seemingly mild-mannered disguise. He doesn’t make mistakes; he’s only threatened when he meets a mind as dangerous as his own. Yet, Season 2 opens with Dexter ‘exposed’ by his (we see in season 2) really, really stupid way of hiding bodies (wrapped in fucking plastic bags, and dropped into shallow water on a reef – the worst sort of rookie mistake, and not something anyone with a clue would do, let alone a police forensic investigator). It’s the worst sort of cheap plotting move, and doesn’t follow at all with the character we’ve seen through season one.
So we have our first big weak plot mistake; the smart guy acting stupid. Weak. We then add in a really stupid sub-plot where a fellow officer (Doakes, hugely over-played by Erik King) stalks Dexter; again, weak. Entertaining in a small dose, but an absolute slog as a season-long arc, because it depends on Dexter acting stupid.
We also see Dexter suddenly working to try to keep Rita, who is suddenly no longer pathetic, weak and damaged, but drably likable and sweet; which doesn’t work at all because they’ve just finshed making her kind of hateful. They try to make a complete character about=-face that makes no sense at all, AND blows out her reason for being there. Dexter tells stupid lies (drug addiction? Are you kidding me? What’s this, a ‘Friends’ episode?). They try to justify this by telling us Dexter actually cares about RIta rather than to be using her as a beard; another nonsensical switch.
Sure, there are some good points; Frank Lundy, wonderfully played by Keith Carradine, and Lila (Jaime Murray) , the most appealing character in the show for the first few episodes (though predictably, as soon as she’s revealed to be a sexual wildcat, she then has to also be revealed as a psycho, in standard TV type casting of sexual women as crazy, pathetic, or mean).
The ending features a really bad deus ex machina device, and leaves Dexter resolving to not kill anymore and to be a nice guy, which isn’t the least bit in character, and pretty much blows out the reason we’re here, to see the hero serial killer. When dexter doesn’t kill, he’s both out of character, and boring.
Season 3 fairs a bit better; Dexter actually has a decent opponent; Jimmy Smits as ADA Miguel Prado, who chews up scenes wonderfully, if improbably. But we’ve already gotten used to some improbability; like 24, if the show is well written and well paced (and well cast), we have to ignore little problems like logic. Unfortunately, to balance the far better villain, we get a really, really stupid plot device; Rita is now pregnant, and Dexter decides to marry her. Sure, this arc comes from the book, but they’ve thrown away most of the rest of the books by now; why keep this one, Particularly when the books are reputed to be terrible. They’ve already made Rita aan annoying (and inconsistent) character, why drag her along more, and shoe-horn dexter into scenes that don’t fit with his serial killer nature? Oh, and wait, he’s not not really killing. Why? I can only assume it’s the producers trying to make him likable (really, he may be a killer, and crazy, but look, he’s not really crazy and doesn’t really kill!)
Overall, the season works, but despite it’s failings; it’s clear the writers don’t really know who the characters are anymore, and it’s clear Dexter’s now a serial killer in name only; he’s now just a weird dude who talks to himself, and has a hobby of vigilanteism.
I had hopes that season two was the anomaly; that they’d started to get this show back on track. I was wrong.
Season four had promise; John Lithgow as another serial killer (wow, they’re thick on the ground in Dexter’s universe). Lithgow can do a lot to salvage bad material; he’s really, really good. And to his credit, he’s the only thing that works about season 4. He’s frightening, and completely convincing.
Unfortunately, that’s vastly offset by the fact that the show runners have clearly thrown out any character continuity, and have decided that filler is a crucial plot device.
What seems like two full thirds of each episode is dedicated to a dreadful and stupid plot line with LaGuerta (yes, she still has a job, but god knows why, it’s certainly not due to any acting ability whatsoever), and Angel Batista (David Zayas). Now, Zayas is an extremely appealing actor, but he’s acting opposite a waxy lump, and he’s given truly awful dialog. Worse (or almost as bad, it’s hard to decide), the plot between these two characters (an illicit affair between superior and underling) is full of bizarre ideas, like a threat of a perjury charge for a statement that had nothing to do with a court (wow, you’d think someone in the writer’s room would know what perjury means, or at least check a wikipedia to see). Everything these characters do is boring, stupid, illogical, and badly acted (because Velez’ terrible acting brings down that of everyone around her, she’s like a talent black hole).
Added to that, we get a truly pointless side plot about Rita kissing a neighbor (as if Dexter would care at all), and various other Rita nonsense. It seems like each episode it an hour and three quarters long, with only about 20 minutes of that featuring plot movement with Dexter and Lithgow’s Trinity character. The show DRAGS.
I’m almost tempted to resort to a bullet list of stupid devices; at one point Miami Metro police put up a city wide checkpoint to screen for DNA so they can find Trinity. Well, sure, nevermnind that it’s unconstitutional, AND that any evidence is not admissible in court. To pay for this, they free up several million dollars by “working the books”. Wow, I should get them to come work my books, I could spend that money on something that might actually be useful.
Dexter, in another smart-character-doing-idiotic-things device, decides he has to study trinity because trinity is so good at pretending to be a regular guy (never mind that dexter has already been transformed into a regular guy, the ‘monster’ thing was jettisoned last season). Dexter assumes a fake identity (using a real person’s name that’s easy to track), presents himself in public all over the place with Trinity, meets Trinty’s family, and leaves his DNA everywhere. Nothing here makes a shred of sense.
Once Dexter has gotten all cozy with Trinity, his sense of empathy and moral outrage (wait, what empathy and moral outrage? Wasn’t Dexter a complete sociopath with no empathy? Oh, right, he got better) forces him to decide he has to kill Trinity. Of course, he can’t just lead the police to Trinity; no, Dexter has to do it himself. What happens when the police start closing in? Well, sure, he does the sensible thing and INTERFERES WIT THE INVESTIGATION, insuring that Trinity won’t be caught. Nevermind Dexter’s code, which was that he should only kill the ones who got away; Dexter actually insures Trinity gets away. So now Dexter’s completely off character track; Code be fucking damned, evidently. Yet Dexter still spends a good half of his screen time with ghost-dad, who seems not to know the code anymore either. Dexter is n o longer a serial killer at all, what he’s become is a vigilante, and a not-very-good one.
Typically, one of the most interesting characters in the show, Joey Quinn, is under-used, despite being caught red handed stealing money at a crime scene. This character is as complicated and mysterious as anyone on the show, yet they never explore who the fuck he is and what motivates him. His only real value this season is that he’s screwing a reporter (Courtney Ford as Christine Hill), (and THAT is only really rewarding because miss Ford spends quite a number of scenes naked, and has fantastic little titties) before she becomes another lame plot device (There’s a spoiler there, but it’s neither interesting for useful, plot-wise).
The whole last third of the season is a loop; dexter almost gets trinity, but then for some reason (usually because dexter does something stupid or gets interrupted by having to play hubby/daddy for Rita), does’t; on this goes for twenty or thirty episodes (or so it feels). It finally ends up where it should have been several episodes earlier, with Dexter seal-a-mealing Trinity and than killing him, while also being really nice to him for no apparent reason. It’s an event that feels weeks overdue, and when it happens, only Lithgow’s acting makes it anything other than a letdown.
########## SPOILER BELOW ##########
And then we get the exceedingly obvious (and of course, improbable) twist ending. If you watch the show, you know what this is, and if you didn’t, well, tough shit if you ignored the spoiler warnings; Dexter comes home to pack and meet Rita in the Keys, only to find she’s just sent him a voice mail saying she’s a little late (note that the voice mail comes in RIGHT AS DEXTER IS STANDING THERE, which would be impossible). As dexter tries to call her back, you already know she’s dead.
And then we get a lovely scene re-creating DExter’s childhood blood-bath (which of course trinty didn’t know about, so it’s an ironic accident!), with Rita dead in the bath (which is filled with roughly five times the volume of blood a body actually contains), and baby Harrison sitting in a lurid blood puddle on the floor (looking more pissed than afraid).
The scene is supposed to have vast emotional impact; but the problem is, Rita’s the worst single character in a show full of train-wreck characters. She’s alternately annoying or boring. So her death has only one effect; possible reboot of the show without it’s dragging boat anchor of a plot device. This is a good thing, aesthetically (it looks cool), and plot wise.
Alas, this show is consistent only in it’s ability to disappoint and underwhelm. So I have absolutely no faith in the show runners ability to do something good here (my bet? We get my-three-sons dexter as the harried single dad; suddenly we have a sit-com setup where dear-old-dad thinks he’s a serial killer).
Ok, so I guess what the fans out there (and they are fucking legion) will say is, well just don’t watch it. BUt there’s the problem; I want to watch it. I just want it to be good. Dexter has one of the best, and most forgiving, ideas for any show out there right now. It’s really hard to go wrong with a serial killer-vigilante; it’s hard to go wrong with a wolf-amoung-the-sheep plot. You really have to do a pretty terrible job to fail a crop with that fertile soil. And the cast in generally strong; Hall, Carpenter, Carradine, Smits, Lithgow; these people are all really good actors, people who can go tie to tie with anyone on teevee.
It’s the richness of the ingredients that makes this so bitter; they have so much, and they turn in into such crap. It’s akin to what great chefs say about great ingredients; the chef’s job is simply to not ruin what he has, because its starts out so good. Dexter is like that; but the writers and show runners are akin to giving farm-fresh produce and kobe beef to Dennys. Everything comes out tasting like greasy hash.
I want this show to be good, because it could be. And I’m sick of [people acting like it’s there; we deserve better, and they’re capable of it. Shape the fuck up, Showtime.