First, the good news. Dexter is quality entertainment. The first episode focuses on Dexter (Michael C Hall) but the series develops rapidly into an ensemble show, with fine performances from the uniformly excellent cast. I was particularly pleased to see the lovely Julie Benz as Dexter's girlfriend (especially when she took her clothes off).
The Miami locations are colourful and attractive, the music adds greatly to the mood of the piece.
Dexter himself, whose inner voice we hear as narration for much of the screen-time (I enjoy listening to the show on my laptop via headphones, thus making Dexter the little voice in my head), comes across as an engaging and sympathetic character. Dexter continually struggles against his inability construct a truly insightful theory of mind about ordinary people, bemused by their needs and motivations. Dexter's dead foster father, policeman Harry Morgan whom we see in flashbacks, has equipped Dexter with the skills to live in society undetected in spite of his handicaps. Dexter has internalised 'The Code of Harry,' maxims he lives by to make his way in society, a part of which constrains him to kill only other serial killers.
Dexter works as a CSI specialising in blood spatter, a profession that proves crucial to his ability to function in society. Dexter's foster sister Deborah is a policeman in the same department. Deborah also idolises her father, in spite of (or maybe because of) the fact Harry's obsession with caring for Dexter had prevented her from forming a truly intimate bond with her father. Dexter is unable to reciprocate Deborah's desire for intimacy and Deborah searches for a male companion with especial urgency, frustrated by her inability to achieve emotional intimacy with the men in her life. She loves Dexter nonetheless and initially relies on Dexter's intelligence and insights to help her further her police career.
It appears that the only fly in the ointment is Doakes, a policeman in the department who 'gets' Dexter and watches him closely. Doakes' shady past, partially revealed towards the end of the season, suggests why he might have special insight into Dexter.
Then comes "The Ice Truck Killer." Another serial killer who, it seems, has a special affinity for Dexter and has figured out who Dexter really is. Dexter embarks on a journey of self-discovery, along with the major members of the supporting ensemble, as the increasingly urgent hunt for The Ice Truck Killer is pursued.
It makes for compulsive watching, the plot unfolds smoothly, working as a well-oiled machine. Black humour leavens the tension. Insights into the characters' personal lives keep you invested. All the pieces fall into place and make perfect sense within the context of the logic of the situation the writers set up.
Now the bad news. Although the plot and its progression are well-constructed and expertly handled, the portrayal of the pathology of the serial killer is entirely fictionalised. Watching Dexter and imagining it to be a source of insights into the serial killer phenomenon in general will leave you ill-served.
Dexter's emotional emptiness and inability to empathise with the motivations of the majority of humanity are quite possibly realistic and insightful. The issue I have with the series is that serial killers aren't made they are born. A single traumatic event in childhood does not birth a serial killer (let alone two). Nor can they be socialised by a 'proper' upbringing. Most serial killers had unexceptional upbringings. The causes lay in genetics and/or very early (i.e. during gestation) development. By the time it's possible to identify someone as a psychopath it's too late to fix them. Dexter does imply the only 'cure' is death but, worryingly to me, leaves us with the implication that if only we could prevent trauma in early childhood there would be no serial killers. Sadly that ain't so.
I doubt the fact that Dexter isn't a good account of the aetiology of serial killers will affect your enjoyment of this excellent entertainment. But bear it in mind as you watch.
Perhaps Dexter will encourage more people to an interest in the serial killer phenomenon and thus more people will become armed with knowledge of just how deeply psychopaths are embedded in the structures of our current society. Equally, Dexter the cuddly serial killer could cause dangerous complacency about the true nature of the wolves in sheep's clothing who live and work amongst us.
"We serial killers are your sons, we are your husbands, we are everywhere. And there will be more of your children dead tomorrow."
- Ted Bundy
Showtime Networks Inc official Dexter website.