Saturday, January 13, 2007

First entry: Dexter

I hope I'll find the time to update this blog regularly, because finding the time just to watch stuff is hard enough, but I avoid writing some of the long, tv-related things I'm thinking about when they don't feel natural for livejournal, so I'm trying this out. I'm planning to let out some of my many many thoughts on Babylon 5, probably several raves about Battlestar Galactica once it starts up again, and some random thoughts on elements of shows that have pissed me off lately. But we'll start--possibly badly, from a "hook" perspective--with a show many of you probably haven't watched.

There was a lot of buzz on the internet about the new Showtime show Dexter, but since I live in Canada, I would have to put the effort into downloading it in order to watch, which I wasn't inspired enough to do until the season had already finished. The premise of the show is that Michael C. Hall (David from Six Feet Under) is a forensic blood analyst for the Miami PD who also happens to be a sociopathic serial killer. Genius premise, in my opinion, given how incredibly boring I find forensic procedurals and the sort of tongue-in-cheek idea of undermining the shiny (alleged) uber-awesomeness of the Gil Grissoms and the Horatio Caines with some serious darkness. I'm always intrigued by the question of how dealing with violent, unrepentant individuals as well as a complex bureaucratic legal system affects the individuals who deal with it day after day in negative ways--there's a statistic that says that police officers are ten times more likely to use violence in their private lives than the general population. Michael C. Hall is also brilliant in portraying this guy as unfeeling, but trying to negotiate the world of pretending that he has feelings in order to "pass" and not end up with a lethal injection--a character very unlike the WASP-y repressed David.

I finished the 12-episode season this week, so the following will contain possible spoilers about the whole thing.

Things I love about this show, in addition to the premise and portrayal mentioned above:
  • Dexter's relationships with his sister and his girlfriend. His (foster) sister genuinely loves him, and while he identifies himself as incapable of love, he looks out for her well-being and career, to some extent because he needs to "pass", but also with this subtle suggestion of awe and gratitude that she does love him and the wish that he could actually return that on a deeper level. His girlfriend (played by Julie Benz from Angel, also in a completely different role from what I'd seen her in before) recently ended a physically and sexually abusive relationship with a drug-addicted convict husband, and part of what he likes about that relationship is that she is initially terrified to have sex, which he appreciates because he's not remotely interested in sex and because sex tends to reveal the fact that he can't really feel. When they finally do have sex, he assumes she won't want to see him anymore, having gotten a glimpse of his "true" self, but she thinks nothing of the kind. In both these relationships, there's an element of question as to how much he's really "faking" it and how much of the fiction is creeping through into truth. I don't know anything about the psychological definition of sociopathy, but I love a good redemption story, and you have to have something that makes your lead character sympathetic.
  • "The Code of Harry". Dexter only kills unrepentant killers who are not going to be brought to justice. He learned this from his now deceased foster father, Harry, who was a somewhat world-weary cop who recognized the signs of sociopathy in his young son and realized he couldn't change them, so they had to be channelled into something "productive". This is another portrayal of the darkness that creeps into the lives of cops, and however fucked up and misdirected it might be, he does it because he loves his son and doesn't know what else to do.
  • The detail revealed in the final episode that when Harry found 3-year-old Dexter in the middle of a bloodbath in which he had been sitting for days after watching his mother murdered with a chainsaw, there had been an older brother there as well, but Harry had neither taken him in nor ever mentioned him to Dexter. What I like about this is that it's so true. People see a 3-year-old suffering and they see innocence disturbed and want to hope and protect and fix this child and take him/her away from pain. People see an older child and they see damage possibly too great to fix, and someone more able to take care of him or herself, meaning that if he or she is fucked up later, there is some element of responsibility.
  • Doakes. When this guy is introduced, it's obvious that Dexter creeps him out, and Dexter voices over that all the cops in the room are apparently acutely aware of human psychology and the nature of why is Doakes the only one in the room who finds something off about Dexter? I love that note of somewhat willful blindness on the part of most of them, and I love the way that Doakes' discomfort with him and Dexter's counter-intuitive (for normal people) respect for that informs their whole relationship.

Stuff I don't so much love:
  • It's a little predictable. It was obvious to me from the moment they introduced a prosthetics doctor that he was the Big Bad serial killer who cut off the limbs of his victims, and I was relieved that they didn't draw out that reveal for too many episodes. It was also not a big shock to me to discover that he was Dexter's blood brother, and his obsession with Dexter to the point of constructing a series of murders with the sole motive of drawing Dexter out was kind of cliché.
  • On a related note, while I kind of like the theme of Dexter being forced to define who he really is in a choice between his birth family/sociopathic nature and the people who love him but only know the surface lie, the metaphor of his blood brother serving up his adoptive sister for him to kill was a bit too heavy-handed, even for me. Anvillicious, if you will. I really love the character of Deb, the sister, but I felt like it would have been much riskier for the writers to have her murdered by the Ice Truck killer and carefully posed for Dexter to find.
  • I've already acknowledged that I know nothing about sociopathy on an academic level, but something tells me that it's not created by trauma, no matter how intense that trauma may have been, so all the stuff about Dexter-the-unfeeling-serial-killer being "born" in the bloodbath of his mother's murder left me with the struggle to suspend my disbelief.

I'm curious to see where they go with this in a second season, as they set up the probability that the girlfriend is going to start asking difficult questions and suspecting something, but if they let him reveal too much to anyone, or change too much toward genuine relationships and actual feeling, they're going to lose the premise of the show and create a "Clark Kent tells Lois Lane he's Superman" level of shark-jumping.


Anonymous said...

Fun idea for a blog, Sarah. Best of luck in keeping up with TV posts. I really liked Dexter. I thought the themes were strong, but I didn't really feel ham-fisted by them. Perhaps its because they actually gave the themes room to breathe. And for what its worth, I didn't suspect that the Ice Truck Killer was his brother until the episode before the reveal. I like Dexter's central issue of having his self knowledge be questioned. He seems a crazy self confident guy at the beginning (and even now), but he slowly starts to realize he might love people, and he might need people, and he might not have a code etc. But the writers let these themes swirl around without the hooks ever latching them into a definitive plot line. I like that. I love the way Joss Weadon plots in that all plots serve character development, but I like this nebulous character development as well. It's nice.

Sarah said...

Hi Ryan! I should be clear that I, too, really liked the show overall, and I agree that the themes had some "room to breathe" as you say. I'm just reserving judgment maybe a little with respect to the direction they're going...maybe I'm just too brainwashed by mainstream TV to accept this kind of "nebulous" character development, at least for now. There's a tough balance to strike in a show like this, involving a main character who is fucked the hell up, between showing some growth in order to avoid stagnation and not changing him so much that you lose the premise. House struggles a little with this, too, which is one of the things that leaves me hesitant, as it hasn't been entirely successful or consistent in its character direction.

Ryan said...

Yeah, House totally bores me. It's too bad because I love Hugh Laurie