With so many choices of channel and programming, it’s easy to feel like great television is getting harder and harder to find. I don’t think that’s really the case. Instead, I think that the gap between really awful television and truly spectacular television has actually widened. TV has been a wasteland of shlock for most of my lifetime, but since the late ’90s and the advent of “reality” programs, a trip to the icky bottom of the barrel now requires a lit hardhat and an elevator. Thankfully though, the really good stuff has also gotten that much better. When I discover shows like AMC’s Mad Men or especially Showtime’s Dexter, my faith is restored that great television writing really is going on in the world.
For the unfamiliar, the premise of Dexter is easily the best concept fusion I think I’ve ever seen. We’re not talking The Mummy meats The Incredible Hulk. This actually works. There are stand out cop shows like FX’s The Shield. There are three iterations of CBS’s CSI forensic science franchise. CBS also has Criminal Minds, its very own FBI profiling show where each week they stalk and catch a new serial killer. Dexter is essentially the best parts of each of these kinds of shows all rolled into one. Dexter Morgan is a forensic blood spatter specialist working for the Miami Metro PD. He’s also [spoiler alert!] a serial killer. That’s actually not all that interesting until you add the third and best component. His fetish is killing killers. Using not only his professional acumen as a forensic scientist but his own natural ability to sniff out others “like him,” Dexter exacts his own twisted sort of vigilante justice on those who take lives. Meanwhile, he lives a carefully choreographed life to hide his sociopathy — his complete lack of real human emotions. This dichotomy — this double Dexter that only the audience gets to see — gives the show a dynamic unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. It’s the super hero’s alter ego re-imagined in a deliciously twisted way.
Dexter narrates his exploits in his own voice, bringing us along with him on the frightening yet strangely comfortable paths of his psychosis. We can’t help but pull for Dexter, but all the same, he’s a mur-der-er. Murder is bad, right? This central contradiction makes Dexter decadently delicious to watch. However, where the show really shines is in the depth, the complexity, and the authenticity of each of its key characters. The killer of killers bit is just the sizzle, the steak is in the characters and the fantastic way in which Dexter executes such an outlandish premise in such a completely believable way.
During the writer’s strike, NBC aired a neutered version of Dexter in prime time. Watching the original Showtime version on DVD, I just can’t imagine how it would have worked on network television. Not because it’s particularly graphic. I’d say CSI or even Heroes at times is just as graphic or more than Dexter. Gore doesn’t really relegate it to Showtime. The reason Dexter needs to be seen in its original Showtime glory is for the language. Frankly, it was so refreshing to have the police walk up to the aftermath of a truly horrifying death and someone actually ask “what the fuck?” Finally, adult television for adults.
So unless you just can’t stand the sight of blood or “motherfucker” shatters your delicate sensibilities, Dexter is easily one of the best TV series I’ve ever seen.