“Living the Dream”
September 27th, 2009
“It’s already over.”
I have always made the argument that Dexter, slowly but surely, has turned into the pay cable equivalent of 24. However, until watching “Living the Dream,” I had always considered it a sort of referential shorthand for me to say that I’m not amongst those who consider the show in the same league as more complex cable series. After watching the show’s fourth season premiere, however, I’m now convinced that the show is intent on proving me right.
It is a show driven by a single lead character whose personal struggles form the basis of emotional investment. It is a show where each season features a different “threat” that the lead character needs to respond to. It is a show where the supporting characters are interesting when interacting with the lead, but mind-numbingly boring and pointless when left to their own devices. And, perhaps more importantly, it is a show where the similarities between seasons begin to feel repetitive, resulting in its negative qualities becoming that much more apparent in subsequent seasons.
I would be fine with formula if I felt that the formula was actually resulting in a show that made good on the first season’s premise of a vigilante serial killer coming to terms with his morality and engaging with “The Dark Defender.” However, the fourth season is shaping up to continue the trend of the third season, drawing most of its interest from an implausible scenario whereby a national serial killer happens to have originated in Miami, just as every terrorist attack seemed to happen within driving distance of Los Angeles on 24, than from what that means for Dexter.
And while Michael C. Hall will continue to be fantastic in a storyline played more for laughs and convenience than anything else, the show feels as if it is rebooting every time they start a new season. And for a character once defined by the haunting of the past, and by a complex set of characteristics I do not feel have been significantly examined to be undermined, to have only as much past as the show decides he should, is to find a show moving further away from a complex character study and closer and closer to a serialized action thriller with a strong central character and nothing else to show for it.
I want to start with the opening section of 24’s second season. We find Jack Bauer emotionally distraught after the death of his wife, bearded and struggling to keep his life together. That storyline, seeing how Jack will be dragged back into this world and how his trauma will affect his performance, was compelling television because of how well drawn Jack was as a protagonist and how efficiently Kiefer Sutherland got across his central characteristics. It was a good actor playing a good role, so we understood that the events of the previous season had taken their toll.
But, by the time the show got to its sixth season, that effect was gone. You start to forget about Jack’s entire storied past (faking his death and running off to live with Connie Britton, becoming a drug addict, his wife’s murder) and focus entirely on the most recent change (in this instance, his captivity in China). It comes to the point where each new scenario is overwriting the last, some part of his character lost as they focus on the newest life’s crisis placed before him. Kiefer Sutherland didn’t suddenly become a less interesting actor, but Jack Bauer as a character became only as interesting as the latest crisis put before him. When the seventh season brought a character back from the dead to try to reawaken the past, it was a desperate attempt to ignore the mess they’d created, but for me it was too little too late.
Watching “Living the Dream” for a second time, I kept returning to the image of Jack Bauer because I feel as if the show has had numerous opportunities to remind us about Dexter’s past and yet have largely ignored them in favour of storylines which start off interesting and end in a shocking turn of events. On paper, this season should be made downright fascinating by what we know of Dexter. We know of his complex relationship with his father, so being a new father himself should be bringing all sorts of things to the surface. We know of his early inability to be intimate with Rita, so married life should be something foreign to Dexter. And the idea of Dexter living in a new suburban house with three kids and neighbours with a swimming pool is the kind of situation that flies in the face of his penchant for being alone.
However, while there are a few reminders of these traits (like some on the nose narration pointing out that we’d never have expected this, or Dexter not missing sex as much as Rita), for the most part the show treats Dexter like any other new father having to balance their life with the new arrival. Yes, there is an inherent comic and dramatic value in having the baby’s ear infection interrupt Dexter right in the middle of killing a man, I’m not suggesting there isn’t. And, on a stylistic level that a show like 24 never achieved, the bizarro-world version of the credits with Harrison proving particularly damaging to Dexter’s sleep patterns were hilarious and well executed. However, everything is about short-term cause and effect: the baby is simply a hindrance to Dexter doing what he’s always done, and that’s solve murders by day and commit murders by night. It is no different than Agent Lundy’s presence in Season 2 forcing Dexter to be more careful, or Miguel Prada’s nosiness last year, used for largely the same purpose.
It’s a formula that might work if the show around it felt as if it had evolved into something that could offer something different each year, but instead we find that everything is still the same. While you could argue that Batista and LaGuerta hooking up is a surprise, it’s not even close to being compelling: Batista has never had an interesting storyline, and outside of when she was directly connected to the Prada case and when she had the hots for Dexter in the first season LaGuerta is no better. And while Deb was intriguing in the first season as the foul-mouthed sister and the rookie cop in over her head, the show now has her repeating something Dexter already did, and her character isn’t interesting enough on its own for us to enjoy her digging up the same past that Dexter already figured out. If the show really came down to Dexter and Deb’s sibling dynamic maintaining his humanity (as it, to some degree, did in the first season), then the ticking time bomb of Laura Mosher would matter. Instead, it feels like the show treading water with its supporting characters, something that has been a problem since the very beginning.
Much like with 24, the new situation presented to us is actually quite intriguing, as Special Guest Star John Lithgow stops by, gets naked, and then murders a young woman in her own bathtub. The Trinity Killer is, as long as we ignore the chances of him being the third Miami-based serial killer in four seasons, an interesting premise as we see someone who has been doing this for a very long time and who is returning to his own point of origin. I’m never going to complain about a storyline that offers us both the return of Agent Lundy (Keith Carradine, who’s also guesting on Dollhouse this season) and the appearance of Lithgow in one of his first dramatic roles in quite some time, but I have some issues with how it was presented. It’s one thing for us as viewers to be able to draw out precisely what this means for Dexter (the idea that this serial killer has done what he wants to do, to be able to keep killing), but it’s another for Dexter to point it out himself in less than subtle dialogue. It makes the entire thing feel pre-packaged, as if the writers sat down in a room and thought about what case would most appeal to Dexter’s serial killer side.
It’s really the same problem that eventually brought down 24: the storylines didn’t feel like real things organically happening within the show’s universe, they felt like story ideas pitched in a meeting or ripped from the headlines that seemed like they might be a good fit. Matt Roush made a comment on Twitter that tonight’s cliffhanger situation (Dexter getting into an accident with a dead body in the trunk after being distracted by the ghost of his father) was “classic Dexter,” and I have no problems with that in and of itself. However, I also know that “classic Dexter” also applies to the solution, where Dexter ends up being perfectly fine and when he escapes detection by the skin of his teeth (or so I presume – I’ve only seen the premiere). It’s the same sense you get watching Jack Bauer get himself into another bad situation: you might be entertained by how he wriggles out of it, but you know he’s going to do it and you know where the show is going next.
Dexter, of course, is more stylistically complex than 24’s real-time gimmick and its drawn out pace. Dexter’s short 13-episode seasons mean that each episode feels a little bit more purposeful in terms of its pacing, and the “special guest” sent in to play off of Michael C. Hall ensures that there is a clear thematic drive for the season. However, what’s missing at this point for me is a thematic drive for the series, as I’m losing sight of the character that Dexter used to be. He used to be someone who wasn’t fit to be part of society, who kept up appearances but deep down was troubled. Here, however, he’s happy to have screwed up a case so that he can satisfy his craving (not his need) to kill again, and he’s more annoyed than emotionally affected by the idea of his son’s ear infection interrupting his killing time. It doesn’t throw him off his game, creating an internal struggling between the dark defender and the suburbanite, but rather is as if he were having an affair, or trying to get some time to himself to go bowling (we do know how Dexter loves his bowling).
My point is that Dexter Morgan shouldn’t just be tired from staying up all night, just like Jack Bauer shouldn’t just be suffering from post-China stress disorder. These are characters that have been through enough, and have a complicated enough past, for them to be more screwed up than you could imagine, but the shows are so concerned about those wounds piling up that they reset the clock to be able to play out the scenarios they feel are most interesting. And while “Living the Dream” is occasionally quite funny and contains some interesting seeds for the remainder of the season, it all feels designed in a way that draws attention to the show’s repetitive nature and which fails to understand what made Dexter so interesting in the first place, at least for me personally.
With Michael C. Hall present, I don’t think Dexter will ever fall as hard as 24. However, if they keep pulling this for a few more seasons, I think there will come a time where not even his great performances can make this show watchable.
- Outside of eye candy, are we really supposed to care about Quinn hooking up with a reporter? Actually, scratch that: are we really supposed to care about Quinn? Last season made him out to be a complete jerk and an incompetent cop, and now this year Dexter considers him a good guy? I’m sure they like the actor just fine, but the show didn’t need another boring cop to waste time with.
- I was trying to figure it out, and never quite decided: is Masuka the Dexter equivalent of Chloe for being the most consistently entertaining part of the boring bureaucratic side of things, or is it Deb so long as she’s involved directly with Dexter as opposed to anyone else? I’d be tempted to call Deb the equivalent to Kim, always getting herself into trouble, but I don’t want to be mean.
- Stylistically, the show remains as great as ever, and the abandoned boxing gym (with the electricity conveniently left on) was extremely moody and made for an amazing scene as Dexter interrogated his victim in his tired, haggard state.
- Got a total “Let the Right One In” vibe from the Trinity Killer’s scene in the scalding hot shower, anyone else?
- Watching for the second time, I was wondering if they had even bothered putting Miguel into the “Previously on Dexter” section. It was essentially a Season 3 recap as opposed to any sort of real refresher for what was about to come: Miguel was never mentioned once, not by Maria and not by Dexter. It’s effectively like it never happened.