‘Murder Most Ethical’, or, Golden Globes by the boat load!

by TheLitCritGuy


Well, it’s that time of the year again, the nights are drawing in, the temperature drops like a stone and once again people turn to TV for some escapism. And, as per usual, once you actually start examining people’s tastes in ‘escapism’ it turns out, that collectively, as a species; we are all a little interested in things that are more than a touch macabre. So let’s talk about crime, and more specifically the detective show. Recently it seems that Scandinavian police drama has been having something of a renaissance with people being sucked in by the heady combination of jumpers! And Acting! And Foreigners being all murder-y for reasons that are often quite complex! This rise of ‘Scando-noir’ is usually attributed to the incredible success of the Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larson but it is by no means just our European friends who have mastered the art of murder.

Across the pond in the States the franchise is king, with CSI, NCIS, Law & Order and all their various spin-offs dominating for decades now. Given that the genre has been around for roughly centuries, it does seem difficult to find a detective show that adds anything new to the mix as even if the viewer doesn’t know the characters, the tropes and tricks of the trade have become so engrained in our understanding of how literature works the audience has become rather tricky to fool. Fortunately for all us fans of the genre who were getting so jaded, the US TV system came through for us once again in 2006 with Showtime producing one of their most successful shows to date, Dexter.

For those of you not familiar with the show allow me to explain the deceptively simple premise. Police officer. Serial Killer. ARE BOTH THE SAME GUY!

To be honest, I may have given the set up a lurid spin that it doesn’t really deserve, so if I’m being a little fairer I would explain the show like this. It’s basically a well-executed hybrid of two familiar premises: one, the police procedural, and two, the horror film. What’s really nice about the show is that both of these set ups are not skimped on. The scenes were Dexter arranges his kills and the eerie world of his mental darkness and the scenes of the Miami Police Department trying to catch the latest killer stalking Miami are given equal weight. This helps the show seem realistic as well as adding tension to Dexter’s attempts to stay one step ahead of his work colleagues as the two sides of the show seem equally matched.

The casting is all uniformly excellent, though Michael C Hall as Dexter is the stand out, with a performance that switches between wonderful dead eyed murderous rage, desperation to fit in to society and a bright friendliness to camouflage what he is really like. What is a nice touch is the streak of black humor the writers introduce. Talking about his wonderful foster parents Dexter quips, ‘I didn’t kill them. Honest.’ The character could have so easily been a caricature or a simple monster but Michael C Hall makes Dexter a complex and curiously likeable person. Other highlights in the acting department include David Zayas as the good but flawed cop, James Remar as Dexter’s adoptive father who appears as a figment of Dexter’s mind are both especially good. Jennifer Carpenter as Dexter’s adopted sister is also brilliant, completely unaware of her brother’s dark secrets and struggling to come to terms with the lack of a father figure – the reveal being that her father Harry spent all of his time with Dexter teaching the young serial killer to channel his murderous urges into the moral code that keeps him out of jail. The first season sets up the premise and runs with it, as Dexter finds his ordered world in Miami blown apart with the arrival of the Ice Truck Killer who seems to have an unknown connection with the intensely private Dexter Morgan.

The first season of the show is based on the novel ‘Darkly Dreaming Dexter’ by Jeff Lindsay and, for a TV show, is a usually faithful adaptation. The two main plots are kept and transposed into the format of the show, whilst the show uses some of its space and time to flesh out characters and build up the layers in the show and its characters. There are some details changed from the book in the, but they aren’t massively important and if I’m honest once you’ve read the book and seen the show the changes streamline the process for the viewer to become involved in the show and the world it is trying to evoke. The book does have the usual advantage of form when it comes to adaptation, as in the book the reader is granted a greater sense of what it is like inside Dexter’s head and see the world as he does. Working with his ‘dark passenger’ the reader gets more immediate access into the mind of this compelling monster that the TV show cannot immediately offer.

What the book and the show share is that they both function as high gloss entertainment that is actually a good deal more intelligent than it initially appears. It’s easy to treat the idea quite flippantly, and just enjoy both forms of the story as just gory popcorn fair but that misses a great deal of what makes the show and the book equally good. In both of it’s forms Dexter manages to engage with some serious philosophical and moral questions – things like the justice system, how emotional open any of us are and the darkness we all have to deal with. The fact that it was Showtime gives all of this a high gloss of cable tv production values and wraps it all up in a slick, entertaining package.

So there you have it, the show is high concept and highly intelligent; that is made well, looks great and manages to make what could be an over the top idea into something that doesn’t strain the bounds of credulity. If you haven’t seen it I suggest that you check out the show, be warned though it does come with a very generous helping of blood so there are scenes that require a slightly strong stomach. That none withstanding the show is easily one of the most impressive to come out of the States in the last 10 years and I will miss it a great deal when it’s finally concluded this year. The book is equally good, with interiority and access into Dexter’s dark passenger that the show doesn’t immediately deal with in the first season, but does come up later on so I can’t really criticize it for that.

Who would have thought it? Think I’ve found something I really like. Was bound to happen eventually.