Tuesday, 28 May 2013

TV1: Deconstructing Dexter: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

For years I have been asked to write occasional reviews of TV shows. I have resisted. Though I am passionate about my favourite TV shows, I consider film to be a far superior medium. TV tends to offer the same mediocre entertainment week after week (though you feel compelled to watch because they get you hooked on the characters, who become like family). Of course, many of the most popular films at any given time are also mediocre entertainments at best.

While my favourite post-sixties TV show (The West Wing) is a network show, I can barely tolerate watching network TV anymore. That’s because cable TV is, in general, so much better in every way (especially the writing, which is particularly critical for TV). When I watch TV, I want something intelligent, provocative and compelling, something that makes me want to watch the next episode as soon as possible (and if you watch TV with a DVD player, as I do, that often means the minute the previous episode is finished). Yeah, you got me: I’m a primetime soap opera junkie, with very little interest in what I call formulaic episodic TV, in which each week involves a new “case” (there are, of course, exceptions, like the above-mentioned West Wing, or Boston Legal, House, Star Trek, Babylon 5, etc.). 

Which brings me to cable TV’s Dexter. Keep in mind that I have absolutely zero interest in any form of entertainment that involves serial killers. I have always considered our society’s fascination with serial killers to be at best dangerous and at worst disgusting. What attracts people to serial killers is a complete mystery to me. Dexter is about a serial killer who kills serial killers. It’s a very dark, twisted, ugly and violent entertainment. And I am an addict. The instant a new season is released on DVD, it’s in my mailbox. Shortly thereafter, it’s in my DVD player, to be devoured as quickly as possible (usually within a week; it’s only twelve episodes).

Why? Excellent question. I wish I could remember the ‘friend‘ who recommended Dexter to me, so I could take whoever it was out back for a little chat to help me answer this question. Failing that, let’s begin by noting that Dexter is, in general, very-well-made TV. The acting (Michael C. Hall as Dexter, Jennifer Carpenter as Deb, his sister, David Zayas as Batista, and so on) is outstanding. The writing is astute, intelligent, witty and tight. Dexter is a psychological thriller and the ‘psychology’ is complex and haunting. Dexter is, after all, shown from the point of view of a serial killer, with his commentary (voiceover) throughout, often reflecting on what it means to be human, what it means to love, and why he needs to kill people. While Dexter is clearly a ‘soap opera’, each episode (and each season) is a self-contained expertly-crafted unit with its own theme, its own introduction and its own conclusion. Other shows, like Desperate Housewives, use such devices, with voiceovers, to frame each episode, but to nowhere near the same degree of intelligence or effectiveness. Sometimes the ending is so good (bad?) that I have to stop watching for the day, regardless of the time, because I’m too drained, like I often am after watching a good film.

There are, of course, exceptions to the good writing on Dexter. The sixth season, for example, should have been one of the best, since it was all about Dexter’s relationship with God. Instead, the writing quality suddenly dropped to mediocre network standards and the season was largely a dud. And the last few episodes of the seventh season had some very uneven writing (I have yet to decide whether I think the final moments of the season were brilliant or awful). My eroding sympathy with Dexter and his sister may yet end my addiction. While there are some interesting developments in seasons six and seven, a strong case could be made that Dexter should have stopped after its first five ugly seasons. Few shows can maintain consistent writing excellence episode after episode, year after year (exception: Six Feet Under). Even The West Wing had some misfires after Aaron Sorkin (best TV writer ever, by far) left the show. 

But I digress. The point I still need to make is that I don’t want anyone to think I am recommending Dexter. If anyone suggests I am so warped that I once recommended Dexter to my own daughter, I would have to deny it or claim temporary insanity. Because as brilliant as it may be, I think Dexter is one of the worst and most dangerous shows ever offered on TV. 

What I’m talking about is the fact that our protagonist is a sympathetic serial killer. Yes, you heard me right: sympathetic! Indeed, I find Dexter a much more sympathetic character than Walter White in Breaking Bad (a compelling show but inferior to Dexter exactly because it has no sympathetic characters). In viewing Dexter’s struggles to find a glimmer of human feeling inside himself, we can’t help but be attracted to his deep humanity, sensing that in some ways he is more human than those around him (I believe his sister makes such an observation in the seventh season). That’s all fine and good, except that Dexter is a serial killer KILLING BAD GUYS (other serial killers). Yeah, now you see where I’m going with this. We’re talking ‘myth of redemptive violence’ taken to the extreme. I think we are meant to identify with Dexter as he kills those bad guys. We are meant to see him as a vigilante hero, killing in order to save (these bad guys would have killed countless innocents without Dexter’s intervention, a point that is made repeatedly). We are even meant to take pleasure in the ritualistic killing of these bad guys. That is a very dangerous path for a TV show to walk down (not that Showtime has ever been worried about that).

Dexter’s need to kill is supposedly the result of his traumatic childhood (seeing his mother brutally murdered when he was just a toddler). He calls this need his ‘dark passenger’, a shadow side that he admits is much darker than most and over which he believes he has only limited control. Insofar as Dexter’s struggles with his dark passenger relate in some way to each of our struggles with the shadow that lies within, this can be profound and edifying stuff. But if we, the viewers, are supposed to be seeing the potential serial killers within each of us being exorcised through Dexter, I have a problem.

Stephen King, one of the best and most moral writers of our time (I’ve read almost everything he’s ever written), writes about the potential catharsis in reading or viewing horror/violence. I don’t buy it. I won’t deny the possibility (though I am not admitting the possibility either) that deep down I sometimes feel ‘glad’ (to quote Dexter’s sister) when Dexter kills a particularly nasty bad guy. But if I do, I feel very guilty about it and see it as only a negative thing. For one thing, it reinforces the black & white dichotomy between those who are good and those who are bad (though no one would describe Dexter as someone purely good) instead of seeing everyone as representing various shades of grey. For another thing, it reinforces the myth of redemptive violence by suggesting we can somehow be freed of our darkest impulses by watching others release theirs in a fictitious setting. What needs to be reinforced instead is the goodness that is inherent in each of us (and yes, King does this very well and Dexter also works at this, though not as overtly).

Perhaps the creator and writers of Dexter are trying to alert us to the very dangers of which this essay has spoken (as I said, there are some very positive messages in Dexter). If that is so, they have chosen a very disturbing and dangerous method to convey this.

There are very few people who have not already seen Dexter to whom I would recommend it (and you probably know who you are). For the rest of you, if you want to watch some intelligent, provocative, compelling cable TV, try: Six Feet Under, Mad Men, Treme, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica or Homeland, or try BBC shows like MI5 and Downton Abbey. As for Game of Thrones, that requires another essay (but darn if it isn’t awesome and compulsive TV). ‘What about The Sopranos?’ you say. Well, leaving aside the question of whether mob boss Tony is as sympathetic as Dexter, The Sopranos has a lot to answer for. It kicked the whole ‘brilliant cable TV’ thing off, which is obviously a good thing. But did it also kick off the use of gratuitous profanity, violence and sex/nudity which tends to prevail in cable TV (think Thrones and Deadwood) as if these are necessary to attract viewers? Of course, in the case of Deadwood, you have to take into account that it’s among the most intelligent and brilliantly-written pieces of entertainment ever (though you did not hear that from me) and, especially in the case of language, I find the ‘gratuitous’ question to be quite complex. 

And then there’s LOST. It’s not cable TV but the title and contents perfectly represent our generation(s) (and it is certainly intelligent, provocative and compelling TV). 

I have wanted to write this essay for years. If you want me to write more essays on TV shows, let me know. And please do argue with me.


  1. Someone recommended I start watching Dexter, so I gave it a shot. I got through the first three episodes before I was so horrified and creeped out that nothing can entice me to start again. I'm not normally squeamish, but the cool calculation used to catch and murder the 'bad' guys was going to give me nightmares.

  2. I find Dexter watchable but nothing special.For me,Breaking Bad is superior in every way.I don't agree there are no sympathetic characters in BB-they may do horrible things but I still look on Walt and Jesse as the 'good guys'.If you like The West Wing(and I do),then you should check out Danish political drama 'Borgen'-it's excellent.

  3. Thanks for the heads-up on Borgen. I will definitely check it out. As for Walt and Jesse, I must disagree. I may have found Walt somewhat sympathetic early on but when you-know-what happened to Jane, that was the end of it for me. I do not see Walt as a good guy. I understand the creator of BB deliberately set out to make Walt less and less sympathetic. That he succeeded does not impress me (at least not in terms of making me appreciate the show).

  4. Dexter creeped me out from Episode 1. Can't watch it. Oz was hard to watch until I got into the story; never missed another episode. Six Feet Under and Sopranos are a couple of my all time, never miss favorites.

    It does, however, tickle me that you mention the very violent Breaking Bad, The Wire and Homeland, all three of which I watch(ed) religiously - pun intended. If you want something a little less violent, try The Big C - think it's "On Demand" yet and Nurse Jackie, both of which are beautifully written and acted and have some - shall we say - redemptive value. But don't forget BB, Wire and Homeland. Gotta balance your viewing!

  5. How can you say that Dexter is better than breaking bad? The writing, and acting on breaking bad is exceptional. Dexter has three really good seasons in my opinion. Season 1, 2, and 4. The seventh season had its moments, but as soon as Hannah was put on screen it went downhill. I really enjoy Dexter, but it definitely has not lived up to its potential. I feel that it has been in decline since Clyde Philips left as a producer.

  6. Thanks for your comment. I do not disagree with your assessment of Dexter. I also feel that it has failed to live up to its potential and that it is on a downward slide. As for Breaking Bad, I agree that it is a very well-made and compelling TV show. My problem with Breaking Bad is the lack of sympathetic characters (especially Walter) and a failure to edify or inspire. For me, watching BB feels much more like a 'guilty pleasure' than watching Dexter.