Dexter: A Retrospective for The Future
Part 1: What Made This Series So…Killer
During the late spring and much of the summer, Showtime has been showing reruns of some of its most successful series: Shameless, Ray Donavan and House of Lies. However, I found myself drawn to a series that I had once considered one of the greatest series of all time, and also one of the biggest disappointments. I am talking about Dexter, which for many was considered Showtime’s official launch into Peak TV. For obvious reasons, this became very relevant over the past week, and because much of the series greatest moments came during the period I wasn’t officially a critic, I thought now might be a good time to discuss the series. Its place in Showtime’s history, what made it so great at its peak, and where it inevitably crashed.
Up until 2006, Showtime was considered the poor cousin not just of HBO, but almost every other network on cable. It had been in the original series market nearly as long as HBO, but many of it success stories were ones that basically were launched for a single demographic: Soul Food for African Americans, Resurrection Blvd for Latinos, and a lot of Canadian Sci-fi that they would eventually release into syndication — Stargate SG-1 is the most obvious example. They kept make minor progress in the early years of the new millennium — Queer as Folk and The L Word were groundbreaking shows, Weeds was one of its most popular series, and it copped quite a few Emmy nominations and wins for Huff — but compared to FX, USA, and especially HBO, Showtime was never considered a place for great television.
Then in the fall of 2006, they launched a series based on a group of novels by Jeff Lindsay about a blood-spatter analyst for Miami Metro who spends his night stalking and killing other serial killers. And after Dexter debuted, its fairly safe to say that Showtime has never been the same since. It was the first series for Showtime that was both a popular and critical hit, it was nominated for Best Drama every year from 2007 to 2010, and received dozens of nominations, including five for Michael C. Hall in the title role. This made Showtime a true player in the Emmys — they would soon craft a series of dramedies centered around women with major issues — United States of Tara, Nurse Jackie and The Big C — and some truly landmark series, most notably Homeland. It’s hard to imagine Ray Donavan or Shameless existing without Dexter to serve as the groundbreaker.
But what made Dexter work? Well, it wasn’t really the source material. The series stayed fairly close to the first novel in its initial season, but departed from it in a major way with the final episode of Season 1. After that, most of the success of the series — and its failings –lay with creator James Manos and the people at Colleton.
But truly, it’s hard to imagine the series working at all without Michael C. Hall. Hall had just gotten off a stint on the series Six Feet Under where he had played David Fisher, a gay man who had spent most of his adult life in the closet only to find that his family had known about it his entire life. Most of Hall’s work on Six Feet Under would focus on him repressing much of his emotions, so one can understand why he was an ideal choice to play Dexter Morgan, a man who spends his life putting up a false face to the world so that no one sees the monster lurking just below the surface. The only people he ever seems to open up to our the audience in his often hysterical inner monologues and to the people he’s about to kill, when he can truly release his true self. It’s one of the great performances in television history that should have won a couple of Emmys — had the series not had the misfortune of being a near exact contemporary of another great series Breaking Bad. In many of my early reviews, I raged at how Cranston constantly robbed Hall of trophies — which was my greatest folly as a critic. That said, I think even Cranston wouldn’t have minded if one of his three consecutive prizes had gone to Hall.
But as I rewatched the first two seasons this year, it confirmed for me that Dexter was never just a one-man show. There were so many other great performances in the cast. Jennifer Carpenter, who played Dexter’s foster sister Debra, was marvelous, not just at utter profanity that would do Al Swearengen proud, but in showing growth from being a victim in the first season to showing great investigative prowess with each successive season, as well a true force for good. Her desire to protect the people she loved — primarily Dexter, but also her fellow detectives and the people in her circle — was the greatest arc in the entire series. Of course, in the final two seasons, they basically shot it to hell — but we’ll get to that momentarily.
And a lot of the other actors could get beyond the range of their initial scope. Lauren Velez, who played Lt. Maria LaGuerta, started out as a career minded bitch who at the series peak would show great growth as a friend and as a lover as well as true humanity. David Zayas’ work as Angel, a detective going through a messy divorced, showed great patience as man reaching his nadir emotionally in Season 3 and becoming a more dignified friend. And Julie Benz’s work as Rita was one of the most complex performances in the series. Starting out as just a beard for Dexter, she became the equivalent of a battered angel, a woman trying to get through the nightmares of her past, her true devotion for her children, and her own secrets some of which were never shown. It may not have been believable that she had no idea of her future husband’s secrets, but then he fooled a lot of people for a long time.
The guest cast was also very strong. Jimmy Smits gave one of his best performances as Miguel Prado in Season 3, a man who seems to be a hero corrupted by knowing Dexter, but in his own way has as much darkness as our lead. John Lithgow gave an Emmy-winning performance as Arthur Mitchell, the Trinity Killer, a murderer who seems to have hidden his secrets for thirty years, but whose own monstrosity is a lot closer to the surface. And I was always drawn to Johnny Lee Miller’s work as a man whose face as a motivational speaker hides the fact that he heads a cult, and that the murders of thirteen young women are actually the least unsettling thing about him.
This leads us indirectly to the problem that faces every series: when should it have ended? The universal belief is that the series peaked at the end of Season 4, when Dexter comes home having dispatched Trinity, looking forward to a happy life — only to find that Rita dead in the bathtub by Trinity’s hand, his baby son Harry lying in a pool of blood, the same way that Dexter was found by his father years ago. It was one of the great moments in television history — I considered it as much when I was ranking the 50 greatest episodes in the past twenty years, and TV Guide vindicated my selection on a similar list three years ago.
I have always been of the opinion that the show should’ve ended after the following season. The fifth season was the last truly great one the series had — certainly the Emmys thought so. The story of Dexter coping with the loss of his wife and adopted family with the help of Lumen, a woman as damaged as he is was well done, helped by a superb performance by Julia Stiles. It also features the last real signs of emotional growth by almost every character in the series — Joey Quinn being motivated by his love for Deb, Maria and Angel working through the early stages of their marriage, and Deb realizing that justice is not always best served by a badge. The season ends on the right note — Dexter helps Lumen achieve vengeance, but their fledgling romance is snuffed out by the fact that she no longer feels the same monster he does. It’s not at ending of hope — but then none of the previous seasons ended that way, either.
I think Showtime originally planned to end it then — I heard somewhere that Dexter was originally scheduled to run five seasons. But then, Showtime made the same mistake it would so many times — it followed the money. It resigned Hall for another three years. The series would never recover from this.
In the second part, I’ll deal with the fall and ending of Dexter…until now.