When I first heard the synopsis for Showtime’s Dexter, before watching a single episode back in 2006, I was doubtful the premise could be sustained beyond one or two seasons. Michael C. Hall plays Dexter Morgan, a Miami forensic scientist specializing in blood spatter analysis for the city’s police department. He moonlights as a serial killer. Haunted by the memory of his long-dead adoptive cop father, who recognized in the son a familiar compulsion toward murder, Dexter adheres to a methodical code of conduct which requires he kill only those who have murdered others.
The first season was outstanding, with episodes of uniformly high quality, wit, and suspense. Once it was over however, I remained convinced there was no where else to go with the premise, that the second season would simply repackage the scenarios of the first, and the formula would become stale. To my pleasant surprise, the second season exceeded the first, and the third the second. For four years now, Dexter has reinvented itself over and over again, pushing the comfort zone of both its titular character and we the audience.
As the premiere episode of the fifth season approaches (this Sunday at 9pm EST), it has occurred to me that the reason Dexter is so appealing is because its mythology evokes the conventions of a crime-fighter comic book, without the child-like naivety. Dexter is a twisted superhero for grown-ups. His super-power is the greatly subdued empathy of a sociopath.
It’s not that Dexter feels nothing for the people around him, though that is often his claim. As the series has progressed, he has repeatedly demonstrated concern and even a degree of love for his adoptive sister Debra, played with vulgar relish by Jennifer Carpenter. He has displayed a sense of camaraderie and even loyalty toward his co-workers in the Miami Police Department. Not least of all, Dexter exhibits a genuine sense of righteous indignation when he dispatches his criminal prey, viewing his tightly focused homicidal rage as a function of extra-legal justice.