Dexter in the Darker-Than-Ever: Night Five of Paley 2010

Michael C. Hall

Kevin Parry/The Paley Center For MediaMichael C. Hall

When Showtime's Dexter was first featured as part of the annual Paley Center television festival during its first season, it was one of the most talked-about series on the air -- a visceral, challenging, impossibly addictive drama that asks of its audience an almost unimaginable investment: Can you find it in your heart to sympathize with a serial killer?

With extraordinary writing and directing and a towering lead performance by Michael C. Hall, the answer then as it is now is a resounding "yes," as the capacity audience that filled the Saban Theatre on Thursday night (night five of Paley 2010) might testify. And the show is still the talk of television geeks everywhere, in no small part thanks to the 50-megaton shocker that occurred in the last five minutes of the season four finale late last year. (This is your warning if you haven't caught up with Dexter to this point: MASSIVE SPOILERS BELOW!)

Jennifer Carpenter (l) and Julie Benz

Kevin Parry/The Paley Center For MediaJennifer Carpenter (l) and Julie Benz

After a screening of last year's immensely popular Thanksgiving horror-show "Hungry Man" -- and if one had any doubts why Hall and John Lithgow cleaned up the acting prizes earlier this year, that episode should set them straight -- the whole of Dexter's principal cast, plus the show's executive-producing team (including outgoing showrunner Clyde Phillips) were on hand to discuss what has universally been regarded as the series' best season to date. Capped, as it was, in jaw-dropping fashion as Dexter's attempt at suburban family life came crashing down with the slaughter of his wife, Rita (Julie Benz, who the evening's moderator, E!'s effervescent-bordering-on-shrill Kristin Dos Santos, nonetheless accurately summed up as "the woman everyone in this room wants to give a hug") at the hands of Lithgow's Trinity Killer. (Benz's first gut reaction at learning her character would die: "But you can't kill her, she just had a baby!")

Over the course of four years, the audience has seen Dexter Morgan evade capture and attempt to keep the killing urge he calls his "Dark Passenger" -- nurtured by his adoptive, late cop father's "code" of honor, he only kills those who deserve it (rapists, murderers, other assorted scum) -- at bay. "He asks these questions [all the time]," said executive producer John Goldwyn: "Can I have a true friend? Can I be a father? We address those every season."

(l-r) Desmond Harrington, Jennifer Carpenter, Julie Benz, Michael C. Hall, Lauren Velez, David Zayas, C.S. Lee, Brando Eaton

Kevin Parry/The Paley Center For Media(l-r) Desmond Harrington, Jennifer Carpenter, Julie Benz, Michael C. Hall, Lauren Velez, David Zayas, C.S. Lee, Brando Eaton

And yet the panel confirmed, as the audience likely assumed, that the show has reached a real turning point with Rita's death -- not to mention Dexter's first kill of an innocent victim (albeit by accident), and his detective sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter)'s discovery that her own deceased, murderous ex (season one's Ice Truck Killer) was Dex's biological brother. (Carpenter, who is both Hall's on-screen sibling as well as his off-screen spouse, said of the possibility of Deb knowing much more next season that she's "overwhelmed" by the thought of it at the moment: "Boy, going back to work really scares me right now!")

From day one, the writing team has diverged dramatically from the events in Jeff Lindsay's novel series on which Dexter is based (for example, Deb learns about her brother's killing ways fairly early on in the books; as producer Sara Colleton pointed out, there's far more long-term storytelling promise in keeping her in the dark... for now.) It really doesn't seem as though Dexter's going to find it so easy to lay low under the radar anymore.

Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter

Kevin Parry/The Paley Center For MediaMichael C. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter

Hall -- who, looking terrific as he continues to recover well from treatment for Hodgkins' lymphoma, was greeted with a thunderous standing ovation as he took the stage -- feels as though no matter where the show goes from here, it will retain the gallows humor that has made it both possible for him to bring the character to life as well as for audience to embrace the show's pitch-dark premise.

"Grief is something [Dexter] has never had projected onto him before," Hall explains, anticipating the show's characters will at least initially rally to Dexter's side to help him cope with his loss. He added with a grin: "But I think that'll be kind of... funny."