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