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Dexter – “Buck the System” (And Season 7 So Far)

“Buck the System”

October 14th, 2012

*Blows the Dust Off the Dexter Header Image* Well, it’s been a while.

I watched the fifth season premiere of Dexter waiting for a plane, and found it to be your typical episode of Dexter. But as the time crunch of the semester took over, the idea of watching any more floated away, and I hadn’t seen even a few minutes of the show since that point. The show remained “on the radar” as any show does, and certainly the events from the end of the sixth season were more visible than others, but the fact remained that I was content with Dexter being out of sight, out of mind.

This changed when that no longer became possible. During the past two seasons, people weren’t talking about Dexter: sure, there were still record numbers of viewers, but the people on my Twitter feed—people who used to talk about the show—seemed quiet. And then suddenly, there was Alan Sepinwall and Mo Ryan writing about the show again after watching their screeners for the first three episodes of the season. Tonight’s episode, “Buck the System,” was the last episode they saw before writing those pieces, and their support—and the similar mentions of improvement from the rest of my Twitter feed and my students—led me to take a look at the preview disc Showtime had been kind enough to send along.

I discovered a much better show than the one I left, mostly because we’ve reached the point where Dexter is the season’s star. Moving away from the seasonal serial killers of seasons past, the seventh season is invested in exploring Dexter and his impact on those around him, excising entirely unrelated subplots in favor of a web of character beats all focused on the ramifications of his actions. “Buck the System,” on the surface, is the episode where Dexter successfully begins to show Deb the positive benefits of his actions, and the episode where Yvonne Strahovski is introduced as a woman who, as a girl, once fell in with someone like Dexter. However, it’s also the episode where the unintended consequences of Dexter’s actions are equally as clear, at least to someone who is willing or able to think about them (which Dexter, very clearly, is not).

It’s a subtle distinction, but one that won me over, and has me committed to seeing the season out.

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Season Finale: Dexter – “The Getaway”

“The Getaway”

December 13th, 2009

When Dexter started its season, I spent a lengthy post comparing the show to 24, arguing that the show’s initial interest in Dexter as a psychological case study has been all but eradicated by seasons which have turned the show into your basic serial thriller that fails to take into account just how complex the character truly is. The show took two seasons to establish that Dexter is someone who has a code, and who kills those who deserve to be killed, and now it has taken that stock character and turned him into the blood analyst equivalent of Jack Bauer, happening to find himself wrapped up in compelling cases each and every season that speak to Dexter more than something wholly random but often do so in a superficial way. And like 24, these situations can often be quite compelling, but if you stop and think about the real potential in this character and the series you can’t help but feel that all involved could do better.

If we choose to accept that this is all Dexter is going to be, the fourth season has been quite solid, benefitting from a terrific and terrifying performance by John Lithgow as Arthur Mitchell, also known as the Trinity Killer. And much as 24′s fifth season was one of its strongest due to the amount of time spent crafting Gregory Itzin’s President Logan into a complex antagonist, the show works infinitely better when it takes the time to create a character that can give us chills, and who brings out interesting shades in Dexter’s character. So long as we ignore how convenient it is that Trinity is based in Miami, the consequences (like Jennifer Carpenter’s fine work post-shooting, like more time with Keith Carradine, etc.) are quite engaging, and viewed on their own represent some great dramatic television.

But they’re surrounded by a show that can’t help but call attention to its faults, and how those faults could have been prevented. Harry Morgan, once an integral part of the series’ mythos, has devolved to the point of serving as an exposition tool, a physical representation of Dexter’s self-conscience that the writer aren’t even willing to define as either angel or devil because they’re afraid that question would be too complex to handle. The supporting characters, like Batista and LaGuerta, are given stories that are literally just excuses for them to remain in the cast. Rita and her kids, once a beard for Dexter’s inner emptiness, have become a way for the show to investigate fidelity and suburban life, but never in a way that feels like it goes beyond melodrama.

“The Getaway” takes a lot of these elements and puts them to good use, unearthing Dexter’s bloody past in a way which feels organic and concluding the Trinity arc with the sort of momentum that the show is so very good at developing. And in its conclusion, which is in fact truly game-changing, there contains the DNA for the show to reinvent itself, to send it down a darker and more complex path that harkens back to the show’s first season.

And I’d be a hell of a lot more excited if I thought that was actually going to happen.

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Dexter – “Hello, Dexter Morgan”

“Hello, Dexter Morgan”

December 6th, 2009

“Who are any of us, really?”

There’s a requisite scene or two in “Hello, Dexter Morgan” where Dexter stands in front of a four-part mirror discussing his fragmented self or sits in his storage container chatting with his conscience in the form of his dead father. In these scenes, the show taps into something within Dexter Morgan that serves as the very basis for this character study, and I consider myself legitimately interested.

Except that, in this the show’s fourth season, those scenes have been completely ineffective, to the point where I consider them a parody of what the show once was. Lines like the above used to have some legitimate weight in this show’s universe, but the theme has been dragged through the muck so many times that it has lost all meaning. Michael C. Hall has never stopped capturing the inner torment of Dexter Morgan, but the show is so insistent on surrounding that with absolute chaos in an effort to “excite” the audience that moments of contemplation feel like exposition as opposed to inquisition.

What makes “Hello, Dexter Morgan” work as an hour of television is that in a collection of scenes it manages to capture at least one character in an new light, finding Jennifer Carpenter doing some of her stronger work on the show to date. If you were to isolate her scenes, you’d have a bang-up Emmy tape – unfortunately, you’d also have a non-representative statement of where the show is truly headed right now.

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Dexter – “Dirty Harry”

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“Dirty Harry”

October 25th, 2009

When “Dirty Harry” begins, the problems start before the episode even does. After the exciting finale to “Dex Takes a Holiday,” which was a strong episode which really connected with the qualities that make the show work and which ended on that cliffhanger of Deb and Lundy bleeding on the pavement, things seemed exciting in a way that the show was struggling with early on.

However, the lengthy “Previously on Dexter” sequence reminded us that the things that made that episode great were an exclusion (of Rita and the kids) and a shock (that won’t be recreated in the next episode), which means that “Dirty Harry” is immediately handicapped. And while there are some stories that seem legitimately compelling, those seem to be at a standstill while the “drama” comes from conflicts that are either entirely uninteresting or which feel like the sort of simple “Dexter meets Suburbia” type stories the show has been dealing with this season.

It proves once and for all that Dexter is a series best watched in extended bursts on DVD, because the hype is going to create expectations that this season isn’t able to live up to.

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Season Finale: Dexter – “Do You Take Dexter Morgan?”

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“Do You Take Dexter Morgan?”

December 14th, 2008

I was minding my own business one night about a month ago when a (drunk) resident in my building asked if I would like to join a game of poker. I declined, planning on getting some work done that evening, but he saw that I had a fair amount of food in my room and asked if he could have a sandwich. I obliged, as it falls within my job description as a Resident Assistant to on occasion feed the inebriated folks who wander the halls.

The reason I bring this up (I swear, there’s a reason) is that we then got into a discussion about popular culture, and eventually we got into an argument about Showtime’s Dexter. He said he liked the show, which wouldn’t ellict an argument under normal circumstances, but then he proceeded to single it out as “one of the best written shows on television.” And, maybe it’s that my patience for drunk people goes out the window during food preparation, but I immediately scoffed at this remark. He demanded I name him some better examples, I listed off the usual (Wire, Mad Men, BSG, Lost – you read the blog, you know what I shower with praise), and eventually he went off to play his game of poker, no longer in danger of alcohol poisoning.

But that conversation has stuck with me, primarily because I don’t think I had ever been quite so quick to undersell Dexter as something below the level of the shows I just listed. Admittedly, I was more down on the second season than most people, but even I couldn’t argue against the palpable tension the show created. However, while I would never question the performance of Michael C. Hall who remains as fantastic as ever, something happened at the end of the second season (mainly Lila) that the third season wasn’t able to rectify in my critical mind.

Since then, Dexter’s been my favourite punching bag, perhaps unfairly: I even trotted it out while recording a podcast about The Wire, which is something that really isn’t fair to any show. The third season had a lot of elements that certainly helped the show: the introduction of Jimmy Smits to the show has given it two Emmy-level acting contenders for the first time, and the season’s slow start paid off in the end by allowing them to ratchet up the momentum at the right time instead of about three episodes too early.

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.

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