Sunday, September 8, 2013

An Ambitious First Season, Dexter Season 1 Doesn’t Quite Hook Me.

The Good: Decent plot progression, Good acting
The Bad: Light on character development, Somewhat predictable/formulaic plotting, Soap operatic elements
The Basics: The first season of Dexter is interesting, but it includes both soap operatic and predictable elements that left me less than thrilled about continuing with the series.

I have, for quite a while, held off my wife’s desire to watch Dexter, or more importantly, to have me watch Dexter with it. She came to enjoy Dexter years ago when she was working for a good friend who tends to like everything (in terms of television programming) that is trendy. The guy seems to have no opinion about any program unless it is on a premium cable channel and, frankly, he’s never been able to articulate to me what he actually considers good or great without simply citing this year’s list of trendy shows that he is watching. So, when I sat down to watch the first season of Dexter with my wife, I was a little biased against it by virtue of it being the most highly recommended program from a guy whose opinion I have absolutely no respect for.

That said, Dexter had elements that I was instantly intrigued by. Michael C. Hall wowed me on Six Feet Under (reviewed here!) and the idea of a serial killer who dispenses his own brand of justice is actually not far beyond the concept I enjoyed for Daredevil (the first volume of which is reviewed here!). Dexter Season 1 seemed like it would quickly become formulaic and, by the time Sam Trammell guest stars, it was exactly the type of formulaic series that made me stop watching Bones, House, M.D. and virtually every crime-solving series on the air.

The flip side of the first season – which no doubt seems stupid to say considering it is rapidly approaching the end of its eighth season – is that the show was so ambitious it burned out an incredible number of bridges in its first season. Given how many initial character aspects that are used to establish the protagonist Dexter Morgan – his adoption under mysterious circumstances, his initial celibacy, Sergeant Doakes’s suspicions of Dexter – that are revealed and resolved through the course of the first season, it seems like there is very little left for the characters and stories to do in subsequent seasons.

The first season of Dexter starts with the Miami Police Department’s blood pathologist specialist absolutely fascinated by the work of a new serial killer in Miami. The serial killer exsanguinates (removes all the blood from) the victims he kills and dismembers. The killer then leaves the prostitutes he has killed symbolically arranged where the police find them. Almost immediately, Dexter is thrown off his game when the killer starts to leave him messages (in the form of a dismembered doll) in his apartment. Feeling intrigued that someone has discovered his nocturnal activities – which include quietly executing those guilty of brutal crimes who are acquitted in court – but appears uninterested in outing him, Dexter begins a complex game of cat and mouse with another killer working in Miami.

As Dexter aids his sister in tracking the Ice Truck Killer – called that after Dexter hypothesizes that the killer is freezing his victims and using an ice truck as the place he kills and/or transports his victims – he finds himself intrigued by the killer’s methods. Suspected as being something more than creepy by Sergeant Doakes and favored by his Lieutenant, Maria LaGuerta, Dexter works to cover his tracks while killing those who menace him and society. But soon, the Ice Truck Killer changes his methods and begins to tweak Dexter to uncover repressed memories that reveal that the killer knows Dexter even better than Dexter knows himself.

Dexter is hailed as audacious, despite coming from a pulp novel series that, as previously mentioned, seems to just be the logical extension of Daredevil. Matt Murdock in Daredevil is a blind lawyer by day who, at night, seeks justice for those who escape punishment using legal maneuvers and bribery (form over substance). Dexter Morgan is a man, coached by his police detective adopted father, who channels his homicidal urges into killing those who kill, torture . . . and drunk drive?! I care about drunk driving. It is criminal and it is horrible. However, the willful negligence with which a blackout drunk kills people in multiple cities is not quite the same level of crime as a coyote who kills illegal immigrants he smuggles into the U.S. when they cannot pay and dumps the bodies in the ocean.

But, the first season of Dexter oscillates between the creep of the week whom Dexter is drawn to kill and the long-running plotline of the Ice Truck Killer. Other serialized plotlines in the first season include the relationship Dexter has with abuse victim Rita Bennett and the return of Bennett’s abusive (almost) ex-husband and Dexter’s sister, Debra, dating losers until she settles on a man who makes prosthetics, one of which is for a victim of the Ice Truck Killer who was systematically dismembered.

The formulaic nature of Dexter is more than just on the surface. Sophisticated viewers will know the very first scene Debra Morgan has – where she appears undercover dressed as a hooker – that she will end up at the mercy of the Ice Truck Killer by the end of the season. Similarly, the conceit of Angel Batista being estranged from his wife for an affair seems more like the cop show staple than anything truly audacious. In the first season, Lieutenant LaGuerta’s friction with her Captain and her constant bumbling of the Ice Truck Killer case seems much more like soap opera conflicts and something for her to do in the season than anything organic stemming from the actual character.

Still, the initial characters in the first season of Dexter are interesting enough. In the first season, the primary characters in Dexter include:

Dexter Morgan – A blood pathologist who has strong homicidal urges. He was adopted as a very young boy when Harry Morgan rescued the blood-splattered boy from a crime scene and now helps the Miami Police Department solve crimes. He is protective of Debra Morgan, his adopted sister (Harry’s biological daughter), who works Vice for the Miami Police. To blend in better, Dexter has a long-term relationship with Rita Bennett, whose abusive past makes her largely uninterested in sex (which works for Dexter as he has real difficulty emoting and keeping his real self hidden post-coital). He is toyed with by the Ice Truck Killer, though the two share a similar level of professionalism. He alternatively helps Debra try to catch the killer and helps his counterpart cover his tracks better,

Debra Morgan – A vice cop who has ambitions to be a police detective, she was raised as Dexter’s sister. She was largely jealous of the amount of time her father spent with Dexter growing up, but relies upon Dexter for his insights. She uses Dexter for help with professional advancement. Somewhat promiscuous, in her off time she starts dating a prosthetic surgeon for whom she develops real and deep feelings,

Angel Batista – A police detective who is estranged from his wife, he implicitly believes Dexter and trusts him. When Doakes gets into trouble during a shooting incident, he is reluctant to come to Doakes’s aid when Dexter’s blood-splatter analysis differs from Doakes’s testimony. He begins to follow some leads in the Ice Truck Killer case and, in the process, becomes a target for the murderous fiend,

Lieutenant Maria LaGuerta – An ambitious woman who rose quickly to the rank of Lieutenant, she was Doakes’s partner and is frequently in opposition with her Captain. She releases information to the press that quickly comes back to bite her in the ass, leading the Captain to work to replace her,

Sergeant James Doakes – An aggressive police detective who is utterly creeped out by Dexter and believes there is more to the blood splatter specialist than meets the eye. He had an affair with a fellow detective who is killed and he becomes obsessed with bringing the gangster who killed his friend and his friend’s wife to justice. In hunting the gangster, he is betrayed by another detective who uses him as bait and in the process, he becomes more suspicious of Dexter,

and Rita Bennett – A mother who works at a hotel while trying to raise her two children. She was repeatedly beaten and raped by her husband and when she and Dexter develop a relationship, she finds him to be surprisingly safe. Dexter works well to comfort her children and her and things are going well for her and her relationship with Dexter until her violent, drug-using husband reappears . . . and has a bad feeling about Dexter.

To its credit, Dexter Season 1 has a pretty impressive cast. Led by Michael C. Hall (Dexter) and supported by Jennifer Carpenter (whose only other work I was only familiar with was stupid Quarantine, reviewed here!), David Zayas, and Lauren Velez (who I was surprised to realize has not appeared in any other work I have ever seen!). Hall is good as Dexter, but the truth is, he plays both dispassionate and emotional virtually the same way he did as David on Six Feet Under!

On DVD, the first season of Dexter includes a few featurettes, none of which are truly extraordinary. Still, the show is engaging, if not as original as one might hope. Not for the faint of heart, Dexter Season 1 is good, gory and well-paced, holding up fairly well on DVD, though leaving remarkably little to Dexter’s past to keep his character interesting for the future.

For other shows that premiered on Showtime, please visit my reviews of:
Dead Like Me
Weeds - Season 1
The L Word - Season 1
Jeremiah - Season 1
An American Crime


For other television and movie reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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