Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Enemy of My Enemy...

My latest down-time project has been an ongoing survey of the Showtime series Dexter.

I watched the first two seasons years ago, but I read something the other day that reminded me that the series might be worth watching. It's been long enough that I felt I should refresh myself before moving onto the unseen episodes, so I re-watched the first two seasons again and have continued on, now up to Season 5 (season 8 is currently filming).

I've dived into several TV series over the years only to have my interest flag after a season or two (Weeds, Rome, The Tudors--the exception to this rule has been the original Law and Order; I seem never to tire of that). Maybe this is because there are a limited number of variations one can make on a given theme. The last time I watched Dexter I filled up on the plot points that have to accompany this kind of story--the tensions, the near-misses, the twists and turns. But I'd forgotten how delicious it is. The essential concept--a bad guy you root for--isn't especially new, but for the most part it's well-written and -acted and otherwise skillfully done. The writing is terse and often darkly funny, and the core characters are quite magnetic.

For the uninitiated, Michael C. Hall plays Dexter Morgan, a blood-spatter analyst for the Homicide Division of the Miami Metro Police Department. He's very good at his job, thanks to a sharply analytical mind and a vivid imagination that enables him to put himself inside the heads of the perpetrators. He can do this because--the main detail that everyone knows--Dexter is a serial killer in his free time. This could be the most horrific subject matter possible, but the details, however improbable, make the idea... acceptable. Dexter's deceased father was a cop, and he recognized early on that his son was improperly wired, as it were. So the father basically taught Dexter how to give vent to his antisocial urges in a way that will keep him out of prison and that provides a net benefit to society. So Dexter lives a more or less normal life and his "hobby" is only exercised on... bad people. It's this delicious sense of vigilante justice that makes the premise palatable--even (dare I say it?) satisfying.

And the story is told with a dollop of humor. Dexter's normal-seeming daily interactions are often served up with a voiceover of his darkly comic twisted interior monolog, and a couple of his workmates provide comedy relief. His younger sister is a junior detective on the police force, a passionate and good-hearted kid with an incredibly foul mouth and a thin skin. He shares lab work with forensics investigator Vince Masuka, an über-nerd with a gaping social skills deficit and a penchant for saying scatalogical or wildly-inappropriate sexual things at precisely the wrong moment. The rest of the office is more typical cop fare. Detective Angel Batista is another good-hearted cop trying to navigate life's turbulent waters, and the office is overseen by Lieutenant Maria LaGuerta, a competent cop in a tough job.

Pitted against these "good guys" is an array of criminals who are dispatched--some legally, some otherwise. And there's always someone on the police force itself who just gets a bad vibe from Dexter--despite his sister's fierce protection--and this keeps the heat on Dexter to some degree.

Maybe watching them in short order this way, this immersion, makes everything seem more compelling than it would be with some space. But I find myself daydreaming about the characters as though they were real people. That's kind of disturbing in the case of Dexter himself.

And I can't help thinking about the mechanisms for writing an ongoing story where we root for the bad guy. For eight continuous seasons. Part of it involves making the bad guy as sympathetic as possible; Dexter's voiceovers tell us how deranged he is, but he often seems the smartest guy in the room, and he often manages to imitate sympathetic human behavior better than those who supposedly feel these things for real. Another part of this like-the-bad-guy formula involves making his victims really odious so that we're not unhappy to see them go--our sense of justice is satisfied this way, and our natural dread reaction is kept at bay. Once these lubricants have seeped in and eased the resistance, we find ourselves pulling for, well, the serial killer. It's especially delicious to see Dexter in a dangerous situation where a normal person would be shitting their pants with fear--fearing their own death or some such; but Dexter knows that no one arrayed against him really poses much of a challenge. The character is given extraordinary talents in stealth and jiu-jitsu, and his easy dispatch of people who are targeting him is, well, very satisfying.

But good drama naturally hinges on conflict, and it's not all smooth sailing for Dexter. The series goes from one near-miss to another, typically with someone we've come to care about hanging in the balance. It's often Dexter himself, but not always. And I think it's this tension that I get filled up with eventually. There is typically some resolution in each episode, but the underlying tension of a serial killer hiding in plain sight never abates fully. And I can see having a limited appetite for that, no matter how brilliantly presented.

I have Seasons 1-6 on hand, and Season 7 is available on disc now. We'll see if I make it to the end.

1 comment:

dbackdad said...

I've never watched Dexter, but wanted to. I'll get around to it one of these days. Right now, I'm still working through The West Wing.