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On TV: Serial Killers Who Stalk Serial Killers Who Stalk Serial Killers

Dexter's absurd twist on Hollywood's favorite bugaboo

TV review, Nov. 17, 2006

I'd love to be able to to say good things about Dexter, Showtime's new drama series, because I can't remember the last show that was so puppy-dog eager to be transgressive. The hero is a police forensics expert by day and a serial killer by night -- now there, by God, is a nasty premise. But I'm sorry to have to report that Dexter isn't that bad for you. Sure, it's amoral, and cynical, and plenty gruesome. But mainly it's a bore.

The problems start with the performance of Michael C. Hall as Dexter himself. Hall was great on Six Feet Under (he played the gay brother, David), but here he displays all the energy of a man recently shot by a tranquilizer dart. He does kill a lot of people, but he never has much enthusiasm for it, and he always treats his victims with regretful courtesy. When his day job leads him to investigate crime scenes where somebody else committed a murder, he invariably displays a collegial respect. If it's especially gory, he sometimes allows himself a faint appreciative smile.

He's just as restrained in his personal life. In one episode his girlfriend (Julie Benz -- she was Darla on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) shows up unannounced at his door in a Lara Croft costume and proceeds to give him a blow job. "That was unexpected," he murmurs politely, taking a steep spike into mild surprise.

I suppose the idea is to suggest the menace pent up beneath the placid surface. But there's an awful lot of surface. Episode after episode Dexter goes to work, does his shopping, picks up his girlfriend's kids at school, and washes his car. Sure, there's all this ominously moody photography and Dexter's creepy narration ("Another beautiful day in Miami -- human body parts and a chance of afternoon showers"), but when you get right down to it, it's still just a guy washing his car.

And that's pure adrenaline compared with the rest of the show. Evidently the writers think that the character of Dexter is so spellbinding that their work is done. The police department setting is especially listless. Let's see: beautiful rookie who wants to be taken seriously but is assigned to go undercover as a hooker, Cuban cop you can tell is streetwise because he wears a tropical shirt and a fedora, choleric black officer who bellows every line as though he's about to have an aneurysm. I realize The Wire has unfairly raised the bar for cop-show verisimilitude, but you'd swear the closest the Dexter writers have gotten to a real police station is a Starsky & Hutch marathon.

The deeper problem, though, is with this whole serial killer thing -- because really, aren't we done with it by now? Haven't there been just a few too many Hannibal Lecter wannabes playing mind games with brilliant but unorthodox profilers? Once you've seen Keanu Reeves playing a fantastically devious serial killer (in The Watcher) and Sandra Bullock playing a case-hardened profiler (in Murder By Numbers), you figure you've pretty much seen it all.

Dexter cranks things up to a whole new level of preposterousness. We're told in flashbacks that when Dexter was a lad his foster father, a police officer by trade, spotted in him the warning signs of incipient serial-killer-ness, and rather than, you know, getting him some therapy or something, taught him instead to channel his little quirk in a positive direction. So Dexter grew up to be a serial killer with a purpose: he exclusively targets other serial killers.

Maybe this strikes you as a bit too specialized of an ecological niche, even in Miami. But the show has an answer for that. Whenever the local supply of serial killers is running low, Dexter switches over to targets who are serial killers in a broader sense: habitual drunk drivers, for instance, who've racked up a string of fatalities. It's a bit of a reach, but it does add to Dexter's bogus air of vigilante virtue. There are times when you'd mistake him for Batman.

Unfortunately, though, his work of thinning the serial-killer herd has attracted the attention of his prey, and one of them, a particularly nasty specimen known as the Ice Truck Killer, has turned the tables and started stalking Dexter himself. And this is what's really weird: the Ice Truck Killer seems to know Dexter so well, to be so conversant with Dexter's history and habits, it's almost as though he has a history with him. Why, he might almost be Dexter's long-lost . . . well, look, it all gets very mythic. But there's a certain point where the mythic tips over into the idiotic, and for me it's when a serial killer who stalks serial killers is being stalked by a serial killer.

Here's the real issue: Hannibal Lecter seems to have given people the idea that the serial killer can tell us something dark and significant about ourselves and about violence in the world. But if Dexter proves anything it's that such talk is just air. Push the cliche of the serial killer to the extreme and it doesn't take on any more significance, it grows ever more absurdly involuted until it starts disappearing up its own ass.

In the real world the chances that you're going to meet your end at the hands of some mutant fetishist who's playing metaphysical chess games with Sandra Bullock is approximately zero. Why worry about it? Because it's easier than worrying about the ordinary people around you who might decide that murder is the most straightforward solution to whatever problem they're currently having in their lives. There's a scene in the Japanese cult favorite Battle Royale (an appalling and brilliant movie that might really be bad for you) where a homicidal schoolgirl says, "I don't see what the big deal is about murder. After all, everybody's got reasons."

Everybody, that is, except serial killers. That's what makes them so comforting.