Review: Dexter, the TV series

Ever since I first saw Silence of the Lambs, the 1991 film starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, I have been fascinated by serial killers, both fictional and real. My interest in the real murderers did turn quickly from fascination to disgust. Learning about them was one reason why I ended up pursuing a career in law enforcement, although my personal involvement has remained tangential.

There is a difference between the real and fictional. Even those real serial killers who thwarted law enforcement and criminal justice for years if not decades did so through random chance rather than cunning masterplans. The reality is they are all too human with messy psychological and physical lives – that’s not to suggest that all those with psychological problems are serial killers. Should go without saying, but I did just want to be clear.

Dexter is based on a novel I have not read that plays the game of what if a serial killer was a hero, someone who in their tarnished way actually works for good, but all the while sating their urge to kill.

The premise is as comic book fantasy as the Walking Dead.

The TV series of Dexter is a compelling on in large part because of the cast. Michael C. Hall as Dexter Morgan, geeky blood splatter expert for Miami Metro Homicide and the heroic serial killer, carries the part beautifully. He’s believable as someone troubled, who battles with his lack of emotion to do the right thing and act morally. His monologues, and dialogues with the image of his dead foster father and moral weathervane are a hallmark of the series. As are Dexter’s near break-downs, the spiralling into chaos. His desire to trust and love other human beings always thwarted.

The Miami Metro Homicide family are also what makes this series. They are not the most professional, do dally with corruption, but most of them want to do a good job. They are a family, complete with squabbles and changing allegiances. It’s just a shame that some of the interesting stuff happens between seasons, and for plot reasons. I’m thinking particularly of the relationships between María LaGuerta and Angel Batista.

Each series attracted some top-notch actors, including Jimmy Smits, John Lithgow, Edward James Olmos, and Charlotte Rampling in key roles in the seasonal story arcs that pits Dexter, the serial killer targeting killers who evade justice against other monsters in human form… often with monumental personal cost to Dexter, his (foster) sister Debra Morgan, and/or other members of his family, work colleagues, and close circle of friends.

And therein lies the problem I have with the series. The first year went with the big one – his unknown big brother being a rival serial killer terrorising Miami, who becomes romantically entangled with Debra, and sets Dexter up for an almighty fall as Miami’s most prolific serial killer. It’s hard, dramatically, to match that. Generally, the series does, but I do wonder about casual viewers, or those who came to it later and didn’t catch up with the box set. I suspect a lot of WTF moments, also known as a high reliance on the ‘previously on Dexter’ summaries.

It is a beautifully shot series, though not as arty as Hannibal. I haven’t looked, but if there isn’t there should be fanfic mixing up the Dexter world with CSI Miami.

There are a lot of people who are fascinated in serial killers, and in a small percentage that fascination is unhealthy. On a quick search of the internet, I wasn’t too surprised to see some individuals who committed crimes who had those crimes and their motivations linked to Dexter. A couple of real-life cases attempted to use methods depicted on the series to disguise their crimes – mostly unsuccessfully, as it turned out. The fact that there will be those viewing who will want to emulate what they see is a thing that creators of what are essentially police procedural dramas do need to take into consideration. More of a risk with documentaries, I would suggest, and while this might seem dismissive, it’s not as though people didn’t do these things before popular culture showed them. Fact is that Dexter Morgan, like Hannibal Lector, is a totally fictional character who obeys the demands of storytelling, which is not the same as reality.

All-in-all, I’d recommend the series as a well-crafted and acted drama, with moments of dark comedy and visceral – often psychological – horror.

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