If you, like me, are a bit of a television evangelist, you know how satisfying it is to win a convert. There are so many shows that let you do so with ease: a gorgeous cable drama like Mad Men, for instance, which is smart and thoughtful, but also rewards any viewer interested in retro design, vicarious adultery, or Jon Hamm in a suit.
Then there’s the other type of show — the tough sell. The Wire was perhaps the No. 1 series of this type: Brilliant and engrossing, but it turned to spinach the minute you tried to describe it. (“It’s about inner-city Baltimore! But also a searing metaphor for the alienation of capitalism.”) Buffy the Vampire Slayer was another tough nut, back in the pre-Twilight days when it aired (“It’s about a vampire-slaying cheerleader. But it’s not stupid — it’s smart! And a metaphor. For feminism.”)
Which brings us to Dexter and Caprica. The first series is a brilliant, unsettling meditation on violence and masculinity, with a central plotline so disturbing it leaps right over the crevasse from “fun violence” to “yuck.” The other is a prequel to Battlestar Galactica, half of it set in a virtual world. They’re two of the best shows on TV, but if you’re not already watching, I doubt I’ll be able to convince you. So let’s start with Dexter. Next week, I’ll try — and probably fail — to talk you into Caprica.
Dexter, as you may know by now (especially if Showtime’s ad department has been spilling blood all over your computer screen), is about a serial killer who kills other serial killers (played to perfection by Michael C. Hall). There’s a segment of viewers for whom that’s a plus, but there are also plenty of avid TV fans understandably hesitant to reserve their Sunday nights for a man who likes to staple together a ritualized kill-room out of plastic sheets. When described, Dexter can sound like the single greasiest crime procedural on earth, and if it was created by different writers, it might be exactly that: Saw VII for cable, all splayed lady corpses and cynical outrage.
Instead, the show goes much deeper, becoming a resonant, highly original, stylized parable about male identity. (See? Didn’t that make you want to watch it?) Dexter Morgan believes he’s a sociopath, but just as often, he behaves like a hypermasculine male out of a sociobiological cartoon. His aggressive impulses are a monster repressed beneath a civilized face. He has fetishistic fantasies he fears outsiders will find disgusting. And while he wants relationships, both as a cover for his crimes and in order to feel more human (two desires he has trouble distinguishing), he also feels trapped by the muck of human intimacy. He’s linear, he’s logical, and despite his brilliance and dark humor, he has trouble stringing apart his own emotions, or even figuring out if he has any. This parallel is often made explicit, since his adoptive sister (played by Hall’s wife, Jennifer Carpenter) in particular views his clueless social behavior — his lack of romantic impulses, for one — as “typical guy behavior.”
The show also features a tonal mix that’s difficult to describe: Its visuals are Miami-brilliant, the narration from inside Dexter's head is at once icy and jaunty. From scene to scene, the series swings from merry nihilism to deep, often grotesque sadness. And though the series features a crime-of-the-week structure (although our hero is try to kill the culprits, not arrest them) and occasional missteps (a few half-baked romantic subplots), it has a more ambitious idea guiding those familiar structures — the stylized fable of one deeply damaged Pinocchio.
Each season has been a stage in Dexter's symbolic therapy. The first explored his family of origin — would Dexter choose his messy, loving adoptive sister (who knew nothing about his real self) or his serial-killing biological brother (who knew everything)? In the second season, he moved between his girlfriend Rita (Julie Benz), a mother of two who saw him as a gentle man, and a psychotic mistress turned on by his hidden urges. The flawed third season contrasted male friendship and heterosexual marriage. But last season was the series’ tour-de-force. In it, Dexter pursued a season-long transference with a violent soul mate, this time an older serial killer who was dubbed the Trinity Killer (John Lithgow). As the episodes built, Dexter fantasized that Trinity had solved the puzzle of his life: how to be both a loving family man and an isolated fiend.
But this round, when Dexter came to his usual decision — to kill off the person who knew and understood who he really was — it was too late. Trinity had slashed Dexter’s wife, Rita, leaving her dead in a bathtub of blood. By her side, their baby son sat in a puddle of red, wailing.
It was a final sequence that horrified viewers, violating as it did the show’s implicit promise that while Dexter might be violent, it would stay within the boundaries of TV entertainment (Dexter would never hurt a child, for instance). But I had tremendous admiration for the show’s willingness to follow through on its own terrible logic. The scene haunted me all during the show’s hiatus. I thought I’d hardened myself to Dexter’s horrific visuals: bound skin, plastic wrap (props cleverly referenced in the title sequence). But the series, which has always used its wit to make its story bearable, had finally stabbed through to real horror.
I couldn’t imagine how they could return for the fifth season, with Dexter widowed, his stepchildren orphaned, and his 10-month-old baby traumatized just as Dexter himself had been as a child. The material felt too dark for the show to handle — and it would be offensively glib if they didn’t treat the aftermath seriously.
But so far, they’ve been pulling it off masterfully. The first episode was one of the best of the series: It seemed to take place underwater, in Dexter’s numbed grief, as his robotic responses — ”it was me,” he blurts when the police show up — make him look monstrous to outside observers. The episode climaxed in one of TV’s most outrageous scenes of dark comedy, as Dexter informed his stepchildren of their mother’s death while wearing a Mickey Mouse cap. As they wept and gasped, he mouthed the clichés of funeral directors. (“I’m sorry for your loss.”) Like the final sequence of season four, it was both daring and difficult to watch.
Since then, Dexter has been returned to his native state — isolated, but for his baby and his sister. His stepchildren have fled to their paternal grandparents' home. He’s hired a sketchy Irish nanny (one major qualm: Wouldn’t they have hunted down every single reference this woman had?) And his lies are falling apart. A police colleague is busy patching together his relationship with Trinity. In last week's episode, a dead-animal collector and serial killer named Fowler ended up shooting him with a tranquillizer dart, leading to a hilarious sequence in an ambulance, as both come to consciousness simultaneously and try to match one another's cover stories for the medics.
And then, just as he kills Fowler, he stumbles across another human mirror, but this time she is a victim, not a killer — a suffering blonde played by Julia Stiles, who stumbles out of Fowler’s attic, having witnessed Dexter’s crime. Will he kill her to protect himself? Will he see himself in her? Will he love her? This could be the sickest and most logical rebound romance of all, the serial killer and the iconic blonde victim, happy at last. Or at least, for one television season.