Blood work

A cop who leads a se­cret dou­ble life as a vig­i­lante killer raises laughs as well as moral ques­tions, writes Graeme Blun­dell

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv -

TONIGHT’S the night and it’s go­ing to hap­pen again and again,’’ the man driv­ing through the moist Mi­ami night is say­ing. His name is Dex­ter Morgan and he is a se­rial killer. As played by Michael C. Hall ( Six Feet Un­der ), this qui­etly spo­ken, dead­pan man is also the fresh­est pro­tag­o­nist in re­cent television his­tory and Dex­ter is the clever­est show this year.

Though you’ll have to search for this charm­ing and good- na­tured mur­derer, as he’s tucked away, in deep cover, sharp­en­ing his knifes on pay TV’s new Show­case chan­nel.

Pro­duced by US cable net­work Show­time, the se­ries is based on the macabre, ironic and of­ten very funny al­lit­er­a­tively ti­tled nov­els of Florida crime writer Jeff Lind­say ( Darkly Dream­ing Dex­ter , Dearly De­voted Dex­ter ). And it’s dev­il­ishly de­li­cious, de­light­fully funny and com­pletely and com­pellingly dark.

Morgan is a foren­sic ex­pert in blood pat­terns who works with the Mi­ami- Dade Po­lice De­part­ment. He is also a vig­i­lante, driven by an in­ner voice he calls ‘‘ the dark pas­sen­ger’’.

When the need to feed reaches an ex­treme, the pas­sen­ger takes over and Morgan ex­e­cutes peo­ple that the ju­di­cial sys­tem can’t bring to jus­tice, or doesn’t know about.

He has to hide his dou­ble life from his vice squad cop sis­ter De­bra ( hy­per­ac­tive Jen­nifer Car­pen­ter), his emo­tion­ally dam­aged girl­friend Rita Ben­nett ( qui­etly sweet Julie Benz) and his co- work­ers. Es­pe­cially the sul­try Lieu­tenant Maria La­Guerta ( Lauren Velez), di­vi­sion boss and res­i­dent dic­ta­tor, who has the hots for him.

Morgan is good at what he does, care­fully stalk­ing and prep­ping his prey be­fore wield­ing his knives with deadly pre­ci­sion and fi­nesse. In the first episode he ‘‘ Dex­ters’’ ( get used to it, crime buffs) a God- fear­ing man who sex­u­ally as­saults boys be­fore bury­ing them. Then Morgan vi­o­lently dis­patches a brutish ho­tel park­ing at­ten­dant who mur­dered a wo­man for a snuff film.

The deaths are un­set­tling and highly re­al­is­tic, though the viewer gets a strange sense of jus­tice. The show slyly and dis­turbingly brings us to see Morgan’s ac­tions as nec­es­sary acts of re­gen­er­a­tion and pu­rifi­ca­tion.

Morgan is in­trigued by an au­da­cious hook­er­hunt­ing mur­derer, dubbed ‘‘ the ice truck killer’’. His work is el­e­gant, evoca­tive of Morgan’s own. Our hero, ini­tially per­plexed, quickly be­comes ex­cited by the dis­cov­ery of a long- awaited kin­dred spirit. The killer be­gins to stalk him in an en­ter­tain­ing ( for Morgan) and re­source­ful game

and it be­comes clear that the macabre mur­derer knows Morgan’s se­cret. It seems ob­vi­ous that Morgan’s duel with the frosty killer will con­tinue through the se­ries, as will his own acts of di­a­bol­i­cal and las­civ­i­ous ex­e­cu­tion.

Like his vic­tims, our an­gel of vengeance keeps sou­venirs. Morgan main­tains a case of slides, each one con­tain­ing a drop of blood from each of his vic­tims, hid­den in his apart­ment’s wall- unit air­con­di­tioner. Not that he’s all that good around blood. ‘‘ Some­times it sets my teeth on edge,’’ he mut­ters, his own nar­ra­tor. ‘‘ Other times it helps me con­trol the chaos.’’

His first- per­son voice- over nar­ra­tion pro­vides one of the plea­sures of the show: it’s sar­donic, snappy and smart, and yet so full of qui­etly sad self- loathing that you find your­self ashamed for laugh­ing. Not­with­stand­ing his oddly simian ap­pear­ance, Hall man­ages to make Morgan ap­peal­ing, oddly comic and se­ri­ously ghoul­ish all at once.

‘‘ There is some­thing strange and dis­arm­ing about look­ing at crime scenes in Mi­ami,’’ he says as he drives to an­other piece of butch­ery in his day job. ‘‘ It makes the most grotesque killing look staged, as though you are in a new and dar­ing sec­tion of Dis­ney­land: Dah­mer­land.’’ ( He is idly re­fer­ring, in his typ­i­cally ironic way, to Jef­fery Dah­mer, sen­tenced to 15 con­sec­u­tive life terms for the mur­der and dis­mem­ber­ment of 15 young men and boys.)

Morgan de­scribes him­self as with­out hu­man feel­ing, a hollow man play- act­ing and feign­ing hu­man emo­tions. He is a smart, self- dep­re­cat­ing spec­tre ca­pa­ble of acute ob­ser­va­tions, un­rav­el­ling an in­ces­sant in­te­rior mono­logue that al­ter­nates be­tween self- in­ves­ti­ga­tion and ad­mon­ish­ment.

Some trau­matic event in Morgan’s child­hood led to him be­com­ing a mon­ster. His fos­ter fa­ther, a top Mi­ami cop, dis­cov­ered his son’s habit of killing an­i­mals. Know­ing that Morgan would soon grad­u­ate to peo­ple, he trained him to catch and mur­der se­rial killers ( a nice Clark Kent- toSu­per­man re­fine­ment here), which would ef­fec­tively help Morgan feed his com­pul­sion and lead to his re­demp­tion.

De­spite all the moral ques­tions Dex­ter poses, if shown on free- to- air the show would have Chris­tian moral­ists in an up­roar. Dex­ter makes Weeds , My Name is Earl and Cal­i­for­ni­ca­tion seem like train­ing films for the right- to- life peo­ple. Though the idea of a lov­able so­cio­pathic se­rial killer silently rid­ding the world of evil men at set in­ter­vals and clean­ing up af­ter him­self may just ap­peal to those who still sup­port cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment and think same- sex mar­riage is a sin.

Worry not, this show has not turned me into any of the mon­sters I feared as a child and prob­a­bly never will, con­trary to what the Chris­tian Right and the wowsers might be­lieve.

Morgan’s quest, in fact, proves weirdly con­vinc­ing, a clev­erly ironic twist on the myth of heroic in­di­vid­ual vi­o­lence so cru­cial both to the US ex­pe­ri­ence and to pop­u­lar cul­ture.

Dex­ter is a sar­donic vari­a­tion on the per­va­sive­ness of the great mythic he­roes who face the ul­ti­mate chal­lenge of life and death and emerge tri­umphant. As such the show is qui­etly sub­ver­sive, satiris­ing the myth of the vig­i­lante avenger with a cool and hu­mor­ous non­cha­lance sim­i­lar to the way its hero dis­patches his vic­tims.

There has al­ways been a large pub­lic de­mand for imag­ined vi­o­lence from the gun­fight­ers, private eyes, gang­sters and gang­busters of TV. The medium, like the US, pos­sesses a deep be­lief in the moral ne­ces­sity of vi­o­lence.

As D. H. Lawrence once re­marked: ‘‘ All the other stuff, the love, the democ­racy, the floun­der­ing into lust, is a sort of by- play.’’

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