Reviewed By Scott Weinberg
We've seen all sorts of strange new crime-stoppers on TV lately, from the family-friendly (and hilarious) Monk to the snarky and sarcastic guys over at Psych. So when's someone going to come along and deliver a detective-style television series for fans of the ... darker material? Looks like some folks over at Showtime accomplished the trick last year, which is why you keep hearing questions like "Have you seen Dexter yet?" from various friends and co-workers. And if you're a fan of sly, dry serial killer stories then you're pretty much guaranteed a great time with this 12-episode opening season.
Dexter isn't exactly a detective. He's more of a forensic expert who specializes in the creepy field of arterial spray. In other words, if you come across a gory crime scene and you need to know who stabbed who where (and with what), then Dexter is your man. Our sorta-hero likes to fly firmly under the radar, and he graciously offers most of his juiciest tips to his adorable sister -- who actually is a cop. Toss in a few colorful supporting characters and a whole bunch of consistently excellent writing, and the result is a weekly crime thriller that's really quite satisfying.
Oh, I almost forgot: Dexter is also a vicious serial killer in his own right; a self-appointed punisher of humanity's sleaziest scumbags. And boy is he good at it. So while clever ol' Dex is trying to solve crimes by day, he's actually eliminating crime by night -- quite messily, too. And if you've already predicted that Dexter will find himself mired in quite a few 'close scrapes' (like when he's nearly found out on the first quarter of the season), then you're starting to appreciate how clever the program is. It's like "CSI" meets Hannibal Lecter, I suppose, only minus the cannibalism and plus a lot of quick-witted dialog. (The series is based on the novels Darkly Dreaming Dexter and Dearly Devoted Dexter, which I definitely plan to pick up soon ... especially with the third book, Dexter in the Dark on the way.)
One of the problems that a TV series faces is this: Does the show want to be a week-to-week "episodic" affair? Or does it want to be more of a "you gotta watch it every week" sort of serial? The Dexter-makers handle this problem quite smoothly, offering several 'stand-alone' episodes that also include an ongoing (and quite compelling) story about "The Ice Truck Killer." (To be honest, though, you really do want to start from episode one and follow in order.) I don't mind saying that I watched the first four episodes in one sitting and had to force myself to slow down on disc two.
While Dexter clearly belongs to the writers (and Michael C. Hall, but more on him in a second), the supporting characters start to earn their screen-time pretty quickly. As Dexter's sweet, wounded and clueless girlfriend, Julie Benz brings some much-needed warmth and humanity to the proceedings. Sparky Jennifer Carpenter also provides some necessary zip to the frequently gruesome story. David Zayas (as a big-hearted detective), Erik King (the aggravated sergeant), and Lauren Velez (as the prickly lieutenant) deliver the 'cop stuff' in admirably astute fashion -- plus we're frequently offered flashbacks to Dexter's early life, sequences that are anchored and nailed by character actor James Remar. As Dexter's adopted dad, Remar is consistently surprising and strangely sympathetic. All around an excellent cast.
So the premise, the writing, the production value, the supporting cast and the presentation are pretty much aces across the board. A few extra points for daring to try something a little 'creepy' within a well-traveled genre, too. But the icing on the cake has to be the consistently fantastic work from chameleon-ish lead actor Michael C. Hall. If you thought you'd seen the guy's full arsenal after watching all of Six Feet Under, get ready be stunned. While Dexter is able to maintain some sense of likability -- due to the fact that he stalks and slaughters only the lowest of true villains -- it's thanks to Hall's multi-faceted performance that we're able to stand the guy for more than ten minutes at a time. Sometimes he's perfectly charming; other time there's just a palpable void behind his eyes. Without this guy's performance, we could just have a gimmicky genre cocktail with no real 'magnet' that draws us back every week. Fortunately that's not the case here.
And hey, not only do you get one excellent season from a freshly (darkly) amusing series ... Showtime has seen fit to deliver Dexter to DVD in fairly fine form. The episodes are presented in a lovely anamorphic widescreen format, with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1. Extras-wise: Cast & crew commentaries -- although only on two of the episodes. There's also a 12-minute featurette on the real-life 'blood splatter' experts ... and a bunch of promotional hoo-hah. I would have hoped for a few more commentaries or a closer look behind the scenes, but the show is what matters -- and this show is really very good. Especially if you're a fan of scary stuff that's not afraid to be smart.