Dexter, on Showtime, prides itself on the creative left turn of presenting us with a “good” serial killer as its star. Of course, serial killers have always been good for television — all those high-energy procedurals would starve without them. And in our pop-culture world, the corralling of multiple murderers has turned into a wish-fulfillment scenario a lot like the technological advances in computer speed, where real-life investigations that have taken years (consider the long reigns of Mr. Zodiac and Mr. Bundy) have been superseded on prime-time TV by the caffeinated, always successful, days-long manhunts of shows like Criminal Minds.
Dexter, based on a crime-novel series by Jeff Lindsay, posits a handsome, smart, homicidally inclined vivisection specialist (Michael C. Hall) who was trained in his troubled youth by his cop foster father to be a life-snuffing force for justice, literally killing the evildoers. Now that’s homeschooling! The grown-up Dexter, therefore, leads a calm outer life as a blood-spatter specialist for Miami law enforcement, while privately, perversely — ah, the twist — taking out unpunished killers roaming our streets.
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But I’ve watched three episodes so far (two have aired), and all I see is fashionable gore, occasionally witty dialogue, serviceable suspense and boilerplate police-department politics. Dexter is too chilly to be chilling, too affected to be affecting. We’re supposed to have our minds blown by the paradox of a bad man doing good things (or is it a good man doing bad things?). But isn’t that what we’ve seen on The Sopranos and Deadwood — where the truly epic and genuinely disturbing is ultimately enlightening? And as long as nobody except Dexter knows what Dexter does in his downtime, how thorny can the show’s philosophical edge get? In other words, Dexter isn’t really dark comedy, or police thriller, or brooding drama. It’s just another superhero tale.