Thursday, 28 February 2008

Dexter: Dexter

Dexter had received a lot of press coverage, setting up the expectation that it was a brutally horrific serial-killer psychology show shot through with black humour. Why, then, did it need to rub our faces in it from the first scene? It inevitably didn’t live up to the hype, not least because we all knew what was coming. Of course, in our heads we aren’t constrained by any arbitrary board or commission. Given what was expected, it was actually a relief that there was no torture scene or graphic violence.
The horror shown was clinical and entirely divorced from any involving context. In a way, that’s terrifying. In another way more appropriate for what should be a character-driven series, it needed some emotional attachment to someone (Dexter, the victim, the victim’s victims, the victim’s victims’ families, etc.). Here, we simply witnessed the good guy exacting society’s vengeance on the bad guy. People can carp about shades of grey, but there was no attempt to make us think Dexter was wrong to do what he did (the victim was old, rich and white; the victim’s victims were young; although the victim had a family, we never knew them; Dexter himself expressed no doubts about his actions; and the depiction of his actions was fairly tame given what his actions actually were). In this sense, Dexter took more of a lead from 24’s surgical violence (where torture is no more than injecting drugs into people) than the raw physicality of the Sopranos or the Shield. The psychological terror inflicted on the victim was undoubtedly haunting, but without the fuller emotional sketches of the victims of a Six Feet Under it was ultimately far from captivating.
Maybe it’s not fair to dismiss the opening so pre-emptively. Even if the cinematography did not, a written prĂ©cis would convey the horror of what was happening and plenty of people would have been disturbed by what they saw. Whether or not you found the images effective, starting with a gore scene still didn’t seem right for the show. It would have been better to start with Dexter’s mundane life, introduce his slightly more interesting job, and then crescendo through to some of the grim stuff for a powerful close. Following Dexter through his frustration/fixation about his rival serial killer could have built up to him taking it all out on some poor rapist or something. Obviously torturing a rapist to death would be a good thing for some of the audience, but for others it would reveal the very disquieting nature of Dexter’s pathology as he did it for the wrong reasons and with reckless abandon. As it was, though, the chosen ending set the series up nicely on a plot-driven note instead.
If this is to be a plot-driven show, the clumsy exposition evident throughout this episode needs to disappear. This means no narrator and no flashbacks. Instead, just afford us little glimpses of Dexter’s scar and his unguarded moments when his colleagues turn away. At first, it was a nice touch that Dexter was so eager to explain the cocaine murder scene to the novice cop, but sure enough this proved only an excuse to tell the audience how clever Dexter is. If you can’t leave it as read, at least confine it to flashes of genius rather than lectures. Similarly, we didn’t need such forced dialogue between Dexter and his sister at the motel. It was the first time they met in this episode, not ever. Hadn’t they discussed Dexter’s hunches and playing politics many times before?
The motel also served as a nice motif for the show’s aesthetic, which uses the perfunctory Latin music and low-budget lighting to complement the theme of hollowness. This hollowness is the source of the show’s attempted black humour, alongside the heavy dramatic irony whenever Dexter chats to the normal folk. It’s not great. Dexter smiling wryly when little old ladies praise his niceness may be humorous, but it’s not funny. Equally, the satire of normal people smashing crab meat with hammers was crass.
Looking ahead, I wonder whether the conceit of this procedural can sustain interest. How many serial killers can there be in Miami? The, one would assume, season’s arc of the refrigerated-truck killer could deliver enough suspense and tension, but unlike House Dexter isn’t good enough company to sit through a weekly problem that gets wrapped up in 50 minutes. Especially not if all the serial killers are cut from the same psycho paradigm. Dexter claims he can recognise any killer. Really? What about the scared ones who never meant it? Well, maybe they would be recognisable. The point is, the show needs some variation to the ‘hates women and/or compulsively murders young boys’ profile. I think it probably will do.
Finally, on women, it seems apt that a show about serial killers dichotomises women. The women on parade here were either dead/raped or strong but maybe a little vulnerable. Dexter’s sister looks a good character (her embarrassing performance in the briefing aside), while I like his girlfriend too. Sure, she’s a bit mopey, but her past considered, she can be deemed a strong woman. The other main female character, Dexter’s boss, is something of a caricature (strong bitch who wants some loving), but there’s certainly a bit-part role in the plot for that.

Buy now: Dexter: The Complete First Season (REGION 1) (NTSC)

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