Monday, May 9, 2011

Dexter: The First Season

4-disc set; 12 episodes (~650 minutes)

Dexter began its run on Showtime in October 2006, and I've been surrounded by Dexter fever for quite some time. My cousin and her friends watched it with rapt attention in college. My dad gave it a try on DVD recently, and ended up buying every episode available within the month. And two blood-adorned coffee cups. My parents invite my brother and his wife over to watch three or four episodes at a time. Having never subscribed to pay channels, I confess to being out of the loop when it comes to their heralded series. With a four-season Dexter care package arriving from Michigan, I had no excuse to avoid it. And this show makes a strong case for paying extra each month.

Michael C. Hall stars as Dexter Morgan, a forensic analyst and blood spatter expert with the Miami Police Department. Dexter practices a form of vigilante justice. When the scourge of society goes untreated by the hand of law, Dexter tracks them down and deals with them his own way. He interrogates the soon-to-be-deceased on their crimes. He confronts them with pictures of their victims. He adds a sample of their blood to his trophy case. Given his occupation, no trace of evidence is left behind. The room is covered in plastic. His victims are dismembered with power tools, and thrown off a fishing boat in the middle of the ocean.

All of this happens under the direct of his late foster father's "code." A former police officer, Harry Morgan took Dexter in as a child, and discovered he had a need to kill. Harry channeled Dexter's desire into something (arguably) good for society. If he was going to kill, the thinking goes, he should at least do so to people who "deserve" it. Harry taught Dexter all his tricks, stressing that he mask his emotional detachment from the world and "act normal." As a result, Harry's biological daughter Debra never quite got the attention she wanted. Both Morgan children join the police force in his honor, with Debra starting off the season trying to become a detective.

The first twelve episodes of the series revolve around "the Ice Truck Killer." Spoilers ahead, of course. This season is based on the book "Darkly Dreaming Dexter" by Jeff Lindsay. After this season, the TV show splinters off from the written plots.

Dexter – Right out of the gate, Dexter goes after a priest who molests young children, and kills him in a way we'll get used to as the series goes on. I knew coming in what it meant to "Dexter" your victim, so this rather open exposition of the character felt odd. Afterward, Miami PD finds a dismembered body in a hotel swimming pool. The strange part? There's not a drop of blood. The sight confounds Dexter. He lets Debra, who's working undercover as a prostitute, voice a theory that the killer is icing his victims in extreme cold. And we know something's up when Dexter receives a similarly dismembered Barbie doll at his home. Because we aren't yet invested in these characters, the episode lacks something. Thumbs in the middle. But as a viewer, you no doubt want to carry on. A lot of interesting ground is laid out.

Crocodile – Dexter examines a crime scene where an officer was killed. This officer was working undercover to stop a drug lord named Guerrero. Turns out Sergeant James Doakes was sleeping with the officer's wife. Again, given the relative youth of these characters in the viewer's mind, this whole plot is a jumble, and isn't satisfying to watch. What IS satisfying is another look into how Dexter finds his victims (he sees a family crying outside a courtroom) and a new lead in the no-blood case. Debra uses her free time to search for a refrigerated truck the killer might be using to cool down his victims. She not only finds the truck, but new evidence - fingertips frozen in a block of ice. The fingernails are each painted a different color....just like the doll left in Dexter's apartment. Just like the doll that's no longer there. Somebody's been inside again. These developments don't save the episode entirely, but they do succeed again in making you tune in next week. Thumbs in the middle.

Popping Cherry – A new victim is found chopped up in a hockey goal at the local ice rink. The surveillance tape sees a security guard placing the body parts, but it's suggested the real killer was off camera directing him. In the previous two episodes, Dexter's girlfriend Rita is unable to have sex due to her abusive past. This relieves Dexter, whose disconnection makes the whole thing awkward anyway. Here, Rita's past continues to haunt her, as one of her ex-husband's drug dealers takes her car as deferred payment. Meanwhile, Doakes turns up the heat on the drug lord from last week. Other members of the precinct provoke the drug family, retaliating at Doakes for sleeping with a colleague's wife. Elsewhere, Dexter targets a 15-year-old murderer, but spares him when he learns the kid might be "taking out the garbage" like Dexter does. There's a lot to learn about the character here. Coupled with the development of our running plots, it adds to a very worthy thumbs up. Quote from the opening funeral scene by Dexter: "Most people have a hard time dealing with death. But I’m not most people." The show ends with Dexter giving Rita a car from evidence, declaring it a win "for the little wooden boy." Is he becoming human?

Let's Give the Boy a Hand – Lt. LaGuerta's politicking hits one of its first major snags, as her much-ballyhooed lead suspect turns up...parceled out in pieces by the real Ice Truck Killer. The severed limbs are left in spots gleaned from Dexter's family photos. Sgt. Doakes is kidnapped. Turns out his enemies on the force used him as bait to get Guerrero. Doakes comes out unharmed, with perhaps a lesson learned. Dexter follows the hands and feet to another memory-filled location - the hospital - where he finds one-time suspect Tony Tucci all prepared for a Dextering. He chooses instead to give the tip to Debra, who's getting the short shrift from her superiors. The Ice Truck Killer flees the scene, but not before snapping a Polaroid of Dexter. The hits keep on comin'. Thumbs up.

Love American Style – Rita finds one of her co-workers at the hotel crying. Her husband is trying to immigrate (illegally) from Cuba, and he's gone missing. Dexter investigates, ending up with a new target of his own. Tony Tucci is brought in to the hospital, where Debra suggests blindfolding him in an effort to see what he can remember about the Ice Truck Killer. I guess the killer likes cough drops. And I guess he left his fingerprints on one of the wrappers. Despite enjoyable streaks of humor, I was feeling more thumbs in the middle about this episode. Dexter was out of the Ice Truck proceedings. The stuff with Angel and his wife growing apart was blah. But, a deviation of plan (in more ways than one) made this one exponentially better in a heartbeat. Thumbs up.

Return to Sender – Typical morning. Dexter's at Rita's, gets a call from work. This time though, he's called back to the scene of HIS crime. As we saw at the end of the last show, somebody was watching Dexter do his deed that night. Stories like this always make me uncomfortable. Even on the most pithy of sitcoms, I don't like to see the main character vulnerable when the viewers know he or she is in the right. We get to see the Ice Truck Killer's calling card here. The smiley face. As Dexter goes to dump his evidence, he finds one etched in a blood slide. The clue leads him to plant the evidence that grants him his freedom. Despite squirming over Dexter's possible capture, this gets a thumbs up. Elsewhere, Debra goes to dinner with Doakes and his family in something of a romantic subplot that never quite goes anywhere.

Circle of Friends – Big episode here. The Ice Truck Killer is caught (or is he?). We get a callback to Dexter's catch-and-release a few episodes back, and Rita's abusive ex-husband is introduced, recently released from prison. The husband joins a line of broad characterizations in the supporting cast, but doesn't succeed in that way as well as the others, looking more like a caricature. Despite him, this show gets a definite thumbs up. An exciting log jam of elements.

Shrink Wrap
– Dexter's next potential victim is a psychiatrist. On a recon mission to plan for the big event, Dexter ends up finding release in therapy. The idea of Dexter self-reflecting has potential, and in this episode, a good payoff. I started to pine for a weird plot twist where Dexter would keep his therapist hostage to figure out his own head. It was a neat insight into the character, and we got to see him humanize, albeit slowly. Debra's feelings grow for her latest beau - Rudy, the doctor who gave Tony Tucci his prosthetics. The end of this episode made me say "SHIT" out loud in an empty room. What a punch to the gut. Stellar. Thumbs up.

Father Knows BestDoakes stops his patrol car to kill a man, and tells a different story than the blood spatter reveals. While they try to get a grip on the sergeant, Dexter gets word that his biological father died and left Dexter a home in the will. Dex has no doubt - this isn't real. Harry told him about his past. The Ice Tr- I mean Rudy, talks with Deb about her brother needing help at this difficult time. So it's a double date with Deb, Dex, Rudy and Rita all cleaning up the home. You'd think the meeting of Dexter and...*ahem* "Deb's boyfriend" would be unreal, but this was more of a simmer. When Dexter finds a familiar thank you card at the home, things come together. Joe Driscoll, now revealed to be his biological father, donated blood to him at a young age when he faced death on the operating table. This episode pushes along our larger narrative, but lingers a long time on a dull B-story with Doakes. The ending felt telegraphed early on. Thumbs in the middle. But now there's doubt in the relationship of Harry and Dexter.

Seeing Red – This one started really down. I know, weird to say on a show about a serial killer who goes after other serial killers. Dexter is sent to a crime scene that's swimming in blood. The sight takes him back to a terrible childhood memory when HE was sitting in a pool of blood. Angel finds a hooker with painted fingernails matching those found earlier in the case. Because it's a prosthesis, he talks to Rudy, who nobody suspects yet as the killer. The sniffing around is enough to make Rudy defensive. He secretly stabs Angel in the parking lot. Meanwhile, Rita's ex-husband Paul is winning in court after Rita fought back physically. Paul makes the mistake of threatening Dexter, though, who knocks Paul out with a frying pan and plants drugs by his body. Dex goes back to the pool of blood, on Rudy's encouragement, where he realizes the gruesome scene from his childhood was actually his biological mother's murder. With all these developments, and superb execution therein, it's a slam dunk thumbs up.

Truth Be Told – Doakes' suspicions about Dexter grow tenfold when he discovers he's been lying about his connections to the Ice Truck Killer. Dexter finally uncovers records of the crime scene where Harry found him. The crime scene where his mother was murdered. Paul's in prison and he doesn't know why. Rudy is persistent in meeting with Debra, who doesn't want to leave the office amidst breaks in the Ice Truck case. He manages to get her on a boat for dinner and proposes marriage. And then he renders her unconscious. By the time Dexter puts the pieces together, the ship has literally sailed. The show in this position just HAS to be good. And it delivers. All the loose ends are swaying neatly together, ready for a huge load to be blown in the next episode. Cree. Pee. Thumbs up.

Born Free – Here it is. The reveal of all reveals. Dexter and Rudy - or should I say Brian - finally meet under their true identities. The Ice Truck Killer is Dexter's biological brother. He was with Dexter when their mom was brutally murdered. And now to solidify their bond, Brian has presented Dexter with Debra's body, just how he likes it, asking Dexter to end her life. He chooses to spare Debra, and Brian runs free. It's Brian's expertise, professional and private, that would turn out to be his undoing. A perfect cap to a wonderful season. The killing that ends this episode has to be one of the most intense moments in television history. Lots is left brewing for next season. The usual heavy-handedness with the side action wasn't felt here, because the main plot was just so intense. Thumbs up.

The count (up-middle-down):

Obviously any good TV show wants you to tune in to the next episode. But Dexter is top notch at stirring things up with the right energy and pace to make you want the next episode NOW NOW NOW. Viewed anew on DVD, you get the luxury of watching them back to back, and it's hard to stop once you get going. The top-of-show recaps are particularly well done, varying widely in technique from episode to episode, and aptly reminding of you details from the last show so you're well-equipped for the one you're about to see.

Dexter being such an interesting and multi-layered character presents problems elsewhere. Spending any significant length of time with supporting characters often feels boring. We have a habitual killer practicing his own moral code in one corner, versus a guy who's sad to be divorced (Angel) in another? Perhaps because of their length of time on screen, many of them end up as bold, loud characterizations. Doakes is a fireball of emotions. This sort of bluster entertained me in "The Departed," and it (mostly) succeeds here. The foul-mouthed Debra is another example. Because they're so over the top, we learn about these characters faster, and have more time to enjoy Dexter's plots. Like I said regarding the first two episodes, we're just not invested enough to care yet about anything else. We've barely gotten to know Doakes, and yet we're alluding to a convoluted past? I'd rather see what Dexter's up to. But after this season, it's practically impossible to turn away from the show. This momentum gives the writers and producers a chance to develop everyone else next season with the foundation they've built here.


If the idea of watching a serial killer practice his own form of justice doesn't turn you off, then absolutely dive in and watch this season now. You won't regret it. DVD extras include commentary (of course), chapters of a Dexter novel, and much much more. Frankly, you'll be too eager to get to season two before you even think about watching any of it.

No comments: