We're certainly well beyond the understanding that an anti-hero can be a compelling protagonist in fiction. As The Shield and The Sopranos have shown, characters who are sometimes warm and funny and at other moments vile and repugnant can produce some of the best television, though they may immediately turn away a certain segment of the population before it views a frame of film. Pushing those bounds of morality and good taste, Showtime drama Dexter recently released its second season on DVD while teasing the third season, premiering Sept. 28. Even more than a captivating corrupt cop and a charismatic, vicious gangster, can an audience enter the headspace in which they identify with—even root for—an emotionally vacant serial killer?
Dexter, based on the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay, is about Dexter Morgan, a blood-splatter analyst for the Miami police department who was adopted by a cop, Harry Morgan. The compassionate Harry notices something off about Dexter as a child, something dark. Rather than turn the kid over to social services, Harry coaches Dexter to turn those antisocial instincts toward punishing those who skirt justice rather than hunting innocent human prey. Therefore, Dexter kills only other killers, using his deceased adoptive father's practical wisdom and his own job to help identify those he feels are deserving of death while covering his tracks. The interesting turn on this setup is that Dexter isn't a do-gooding crusader or an iron-willed vigilante. He's a true sociopath who frequently questions his own lack of feeling, refers to himself as a monster, and may or may not be moving slowly towards humanity; his father's code is all that keeps him functional in society.
Dexter is a showcase role for actor Michael C. Hall, until now best known for his part on Six Feet Under. He gets to play layer upon layer of Dexter: the good-natured, affable guy who gets along with his co-workers and is good at his job (though it's all an act) as well as the "real" Dexter, the clinical killer who only opens up to his victims in their dying moments. Since Dexter must live most of his life as the "normal" guy, the audience is treated to internal monologues that are sometimes heartbreaking but also provide the show with many of its liberal doses of black humor. (Another example is the name of Dexter's body-dumping pleasure craft, Slice of Life.)
Fortunately, Dexter is not a one-man show. Harry is played in flashback by omnipresent, gravel-voiced character actor James Remar. Dexter's gloriously foul-mouthed adoptive sister, Deb (Jennifer Carpenter), a young police officer trying to make her reputation, is a steadying influence on Dexter, whom she is unaware is a killer. He even has a girlfriend, Rita (Julie Benz), who helps him maintain a façade of normalcy, mainly because she's been so abused in the past she doesn't expect or crave much true intimacy.
He gets along with most of his co-workers (Lauren Velez, C.S. Lee, and David Zayas, all wonderful) except Sgt. James Doakes (Erik King), who rightly senses something is wrong with Dexter and gives him no quarter about his suspicions. This all follows an imaginative title sequence (this reviewer laments the loss of the title sequence as a dramatic signature on commercial television), illustrating the abject violence involved in one's morning wake-up ritual and scored by a jauntily sinister opening theme.
The first season of Dexter follows the case of the Ice Truck Killer, a murderer who taunts the police in public and Dexter in private. It follows the plot of the first Dexter novel fairly closely, but expands it a great deal. The second season deviates from the novels and follows a new yet strangely familiar killer, the Bay Harbor Butcher, while also cleverly pushing Dexter into a 12-step program that doesn't work as anyone intended. (It's a thematic expansion of a first-season episode in which Dexter plots to kill a murderous psychiatrist but puts it off because the therapy does wonders for him.) These two storylines converge by the end of the season, but don't wrap up as cleanly as the brilliant ending to the first season, maybe because the show was a clear hit and a third season was assured. The upcoming third season brings veteran actor Jimmy Smits to the cast and promises to maintain the high standards Dexter has set for itself.
The overarching theme of the show, however, is Dexter coming to terms with his traumatic past as well as his own identity, and whether or not he or his actions are good or evil. Audiences will certainly have their own opinions about such matters, but those who find such questions compelling and appreciate the broad canvas upon which pay cable allows writers and producers to work will likely find Dexter worth the price of subscription to Showtime, or at least a spot in the Netflix queue.