The blog has been a little heavy the last couple of days — fascinating, and I’m loving it, but heavy — and I have a couple of heavy-ish posts planned for the coming couple/ few days. So I’m taking a moment to indulge in my new “Things I Like” series. In the interest of fending off incipient crankhood, I am making a conscious effort to occasionally write something positive about things I like. Here’s one of them.
It’s not just that it’s well- written and well- acted. It’s not just that it’s a fascinating character study. It’s not just that it manages to be both seriously grisly and seriously funny (a combination that I’m almost always fond of).
Here’s what I like about “Dexter.”
(The Showtime series where the protagonist is a sociopathic serial killer who works as a blood spatter analyst for the cops and only kills murderers. For those who aren’t familiar.)
When I tried to get Ingrid interested in the show, she watched one episode and argued through it the whole way. Ingrid is something of an aficionado of true crime, and something of an amateur expert (if that makes sense) about sociopathic serial killers. Which is what made me think she’d like the show. But throughout it she just kept arguing, “No sociopathic serial killer would be like that. No sociopathic serial killer would care about whether the people he killed were good or bad. No sociopathic serial killer would care about some code his policeman father taught him. That’s what makes them sociopaths. They don’t care about right or wrong, and they don’t care what other people think. They think of themselves as above all that.”
A fair critique, and one I can certainly understand. After all, if I were watching a TV drama series on a topic I knew and cared a lot about — sex toys, say, or atheism — I’d probably give up on it myself if it got the basic facts about its subject so very wrong.
But her critique made me think about what it is I like so much about the show, and why I like it despite its lack of realism.
I don’t watch “Dexter” as an exploration of human nature.
I watch it as a truly astonishing narrative exercise.
The exercise: Can you make an audience care about a serial killer? Can you make them root for him? Can you make them sympathize with him, identify with him, want him to do well? Can you even make them sympathize enough with him that they want him to get what he wants… which is to kill people, and keep on killing people?
And the answer, astonishingly, is Yes.
I like Dexter. The character, I mean, as well as the show. Watching the show, I find myself on the edge of my seat, hoping that he’ll be able to go through with this next murder, that he’ll be able to hide the evidence, that he’ll be able to successfully frame someone else for it, that he’ll be able to get away with it.
Which is an intensely compelling, if somewhat unsettling, experience. And it’s an amazing achievement in narrative.
There’s a book called Freaks Talk Back, about sexual non-conformity and tabloid talk shows. (No, this isn’t a tangent — stay with me.) I haven’t read it, but Ingrid has, and she’s told me many of the interesting bits from it. And one of them is this bit of fascinating information: The best predictive factor in determining whether a talk show audience will be with you or against you, cheering and hollering “You go, girl!” or booing and cussing you out? It’s nothing at all to do with your story. It’s whether you get to tell your story first. Whoever gets to tell their story first gets the audience on their side.
The character of Dexter gets to tell his story first. The show is almost all from his point of view, with his internal monologue narrating the proceedings. And so he gets you on his side.
Then, of course, you have the whole “he only kills bad people” thing. He kills people you have no sympathy for. He kills people you’re actively repulsed by. He kills people you yourself might want to kill, or at least feel a desire to kill, even though of course you wouldn’t. And that turns down the volume on the moral revulsion as well.
And then you throw in Dexter’s horrible childhood trauma. I won’t describe it, in case you haven’t seen the show yet, but suffice to say: Horrible. Makes you feel sorry for him. Makes you feel like maybe he can’t help being who he is, and doing what he does.
All this — plus the pure likability of lead actor Michael C. Hall (of “Six Feet Under” fame) — and you get a likable, sympathetic protagonist who kills people for pleasure, in a truly gruesome way, and then cuts up their bodies and dumps them in the harbor.
I may be making it sound as if watching it were a cool exercise in aesthetic appreciation. But it’s more powerful than that. It’s not like I’m sitting back going, “Hm, this is interesting, I’m sympathizing with this character even while I’m finding him reprehensible and repugnant.” It’s more like I’m feeling both of these emotions at the same time: the compassion and the repulsion, the fervent hope for him to succeed and the fervent hope for him to drop off the face of the earth.
It’s unsettling as hell. But it’s also weirdly enlivening. It makes me question, and pay attention to, what I’m feeling. It takes the standards of the sympathetic- hero narrative and uses them to twist your emotions. Thus making you question, not just your emotions, but the narrative standards as well.
And that’s just neat.
It’s not a perfect series. It has a tendency — all too common on TV drama serieses — to throw too many curveballs at once, substituting lots of big dramatic moments for actual drama. And some of the inaccuracies bug me as well… like the ones about recovered memory. But ultimately, I don’t care. It’s clever, and it’s well-made, and it’s vastly entertaining, and it totally screws with the assumptions we make about what stories are supposed to be like and how they’re supposed to go. And it is, above all else, unique.
And that’s good enough for me.
(Dexter Seasons 1 and 2 are available on DVD, for purchase or rental; Season 3 starts on Sept. 28.)