Going Through the Motions (With Style):
John Lithgow and Dexter Season Four
I am, without question, a Dexter contrarian. I like the show, don’t get me wrong, but when everyone was jumping up and down at the end of its second season I was frustrated with a lack of finish. When the third season was ramping up and getting everyone excited, I was observing a few too many similarities in the way that Jimmy Smits’ character, Miguel Prado, mirrored Season 2’s primary focus of Dexter’s attention, FBI Agent Frank Lundy. By the time they got to the Season 3 finale, I had more or less given up on ever liking the show as much as ever, and penned what I consider to be the definitive statement of my frustration in my review of the episode.
In that review, I conclude the following:
“But what “Do You Take Dexter Morgan?” reminds me, against my will, is that this is a show with limitations, one which in the introduction of Jimmy Smits shed more light on its weakly developed supporting cast, and in its slow start made us stop and think “what other directions could this show be taking that would be more dramaturgically interesting” for a few episodes too long. In those moments, I know exactly why I jumped on that drunk, hungry, and entirely innocent TV viewer: Dexter could be a better show than it is, and the third season was filled with warnings that the show seems unaware of its recurring problems.”
So with news that John Lithgow (3rd Rock from the Sun, Harry and the Hendersons) has been cast in a key role in the upcoming season which begins on September 27th, and that a particular familiar face will be returning (I’ll leave that beneath the jump as it’s a bit more of a spoiler), I can’t help but feel that Dexter is just going through the motions, repeating patterns that give us a single strong character dynamic while robbing the show as a whole of a chance to actually develop into a show on the level that the series aspires to.
[Note: the below post spoils who his character is, and the basic plot of Dexter's fourth season - if you want to be surprised, stop reading.]
I’m well aware that this is speculation based on a casting announcement, so I’m prepared for the show to surprise me. However, the pattern is becoming prevalent enough, and in my mind uneffective enough to make note of it. At this point, what we’re seeing is that a big name actor (Keith Carradine, Jimmy Smits, John Lithgow) is cast in order to act as a foil to Dexter in some way. Carradine’s Lundy was a threat to Dexter’s way of life, Jimmy Smits was a confidante who proved more of a colleague, and it appears that Lithgow’s Walter Simmons fits in as an actual serial killer, the Trinity Killer to be exact, who Dexter views as something of a role model. From the press release:
Lithgow will play Walter Simmons, an unassuming, mild-mannered suburbanite who has been living a dual life as one of America’s most prolific and deadliest serial killers. Dubbed the “Trinity Killer” because of his proclivity to kill in three’s, he relocates to Miami after being tracked by F.B.I. Special Agent Frank Lundy (Keith Carradine). Brought on to assist in the investigation of Miami’s latest serial killer, Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) becomes fascinated with “Trinity’s” unique killing methods and his ability to evade capture for almost three decades.
I think that Lithgow is inspired casting: he’s playing heavily against type (at least pop culturally speaking – as a few twitter folk pointed out, he’s done dramatic work previously, including a role which speaks to this character’s duality, Raising Cain), and he is a very different kind of actor than either Carradine or Smits. However, his character is just another foil: this time, Dexter has a real serial killer as opposed to a wannabe one to play off of, which isn’t that diferent from Season 1’s Ice Truck Killer. The reason that storyline worked is because it was eventually revealed that there was an intensely personal reason for their feud. By comparison, as long as serial killers just happen to move into Miami and Dexter just happens to murder the brother of a psychotic prosecutor during one of his vigilante missions, the show is stretching just how logical this structure of “Michael C. Hall acts his ass off with a veteran actor” really is.
The problem with this press release is what it doesn’t say: I like Carradine, for example, but do I really want the show to return to Deb and Lundy’s relationship, which was just plain awkward? And what about Rita pregnancy, which played such a prominent role at the end of the season; is the show really going to play the “Dexter’s so fascinated by the serial killer’s pattern that he draws away from his wife and children” card and pretend it’s different from the “Dexter’s so fascinated by serial killer’s pattern that he draws away from his girlfriend and her children” card? The show is great in those moments when Dexter faces off with the big guest star brought in to introduce a new arc for the season, but beyond that the show has all but fallen apart with its supporting cast.
I don’t want to make some unfair comparisons here, but in many ways Dexter is trying to achieve what The Wire achieved: making each season an arc, a single investigation, which speaks to some part of the show’s central thesis, which in Dexter’s case is the psychological investigation of a serial killer. However, because Dexter’s character is ultimately only one part of the cast, compared to The Wire’s broader thesis regarding the Baltimore experience, the show spends a lot of time filling in the gaps with Deb storylines (Sorry Mrs. C. Hall, but they’re not good), LaGuerta storylines (worse) and Angel storylines (seriously?). The Wire was a show that, in its fourth season, stepped up and sidelined its lead character, the one who had been the most personally involved in every previous case, and managed to craft maybe its best season, creating new characters that could populate this world and feel important to its main storylines.
I’m not suggesting that Dexter has the deep bench required to do such a thing, but right now the show is just letting that supporting cast sit back and play second fiddle too often. Michael C. Hall has proven himself capable of carrying this show on his back ever since Season One, and he remains amazing in the role, but at some point the show needs to do more than introduce short-term guest stars through revolving doors, especially if they want the show to last creatively into anything beyond this fourth season. If they really wanted a fifth season to work, they could have developed a storyline that perhaps didn’t relate to Dexter at all (on such a blatant level, at least), or felt somewhat less pre-packaged and dropped into this universe. And, to be honest, while these storylines are supposed to be intensely personal to Dexter, I actually thought that Season 3’s took the character from a more promising path (creating his own moral code independent of Harry’s) to one that was too tied up in the guest star, actually clouding the show’s central thesis as the season got off to a slow start.
C. Hall is too good to ever give up on the show entirely, but part of me was hoping that Season Four would demonstrate that the writers knew where the show was growing predictable and how to shake things up: instead, as stylish or pedigreed as they may be, the show is just going through the motions. And while I’ll give the series the benefit of the doubt for now, forgive me if my deja vu is clouding my optimism.