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Sep 18 2008

Things I Like: Dexter

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.

Dexter-dvd
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.

Dexter1
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.

Freaks talk back
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.

Dexter foot
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.

Dexter blood spatter
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.)

12 comments

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  1. 1
    Yoo

    You’re sick to like a show that’s rooting for a serial killer. In fact, I’d say you’re almost as sick as me. ;)
    (Love the show, too, although I also emphasize with Dexter about not having a clue why other people do certain things …)

  2. 2
    Clare

    That reminds me of why I like the book ‘American Psycho’ so much. What the protagonist does is absolutely repulsive but you also see how sick the culture around him is and how it allows him to get away with it. Dexter sounds a lot more fun though, I wouldn’t say I like the Bateman character in American Psycho that much but in some ways he’s preferable to the Yuppies around him.

  3. 3
    Anonymous

    I don’t think Dexter “cares” about whether the people he kills are good or bad, nor do I think he “cares” about what his father taught him. Rather, I think what his father taught him was that he must PRETEND to care in order to blend in, in order not to get caught. Sociopaths definitely do not want to get caught; they know this means they will no longer be able to satisfy their hunger. Plus, this curious aspect of Dexter’s behavior is one of his charms: knowing himself that he is a sociopath, he finds it curious when now and then he observes, almost from a scientific/clinical perspective, that he is feeling some emotion for his sister or his girlfriend. To the viewer, this means he is “only a little bit over the line” and therefore may be “savable.” It’s that save-ability that makes him so attractive to both males (who love to fix things) and females (who love to fix men).
    That’s just my take on it. I’m not a shrink, but I play one around the patio table over a glass of red wine.

  4. 4
    Christopher

    I think this program shows just what a farce human “morality” is – how by playing the proper chords of society we can make people accept that which is thought to be “unacceptable.”
    I’ve written stories myself featuring protagonists that would often be considered “villans” by mainstream society, but I know the key to getting others to accepting those characters is to make them appear just enough like the audience to earn their sympathy: and thus I can insert any other message I want into the tale and it will be digested by the reader.

  5. 5
    Heather

    I just wanted to say that (as a psychology graduate and amateur sociopathy afficianado) that your friend is missing the point in Dexter’s characterization. Sociopathy is not a black and white proposition: you have emotions and empathy or you don’t. Dexter is a sociopath, but he has reactions that mimic real emotion and empathy, regardless of their origin. Real sociopaths exhibit these traits too, either from practicing so hard they convince themselves, or from building moral codes as intellectual abstracts (example: the Green Bay killer only targeted prostitutes. Homeless people or the mentally disabled would have made equally easy targets, but he justified his actions to himself by only attacking streetwalkers).
    And the show is awesome.

  6. 6
    Freidenker

    Two things:
    A. does it ever say that Dexter’s a sociopath? I thought he was a psychopath. That’s not the same thing, last I heard. Also, he’s not completely devoid of emotion. SO he can’t be, under any definition, a psychopath. He cares about his sister and he doesn’t kill recklessly. I’d say he’s not a complete psychopath. It’s possible to have a gradient in those things – and as a normal person, he’d care a lot more about the person he cares about if he weren’t in any way psychotic.
    B.Even if he IS a sociopath,being a sociopath doesn’t mean you have to be stupid. Killing good people does a lot more to get attention and eventually, screw you over as a killer. He could be killing only bad guys because of his own self preservation.
    This whole “dad-police-code-thingie” is tacky even if we disregard the inconsistency with Dexter’s sociopathy. I choose to disregard it to better enjoy the show :-)

  7. 7
    Sean the Blogonaut

    I am glad I got to see the uncut American versions of Season 1&2. They modified them for viewing on aussie TV.

  8. 8
    Valhar2000

    Are sociopaths really devoid of emotion? I thought they were just possesed of emotions rather different from the norm.
    And, also, do sociopaths neccessarily feel the urge to kill? I thought that what they felt, instead, was no compunction about doing it when they think it will benefit them, whereas normal people require anger or rigorous training to be able to kill on demand.
    Time to chekc the wikipedia, I guess…

  9. 9
    Donna Gore

    My partner does the same thing, he dissects the plot and points out what he thinks is implausible, etc. I say to him, “It’s NOT a documentary, it’s FICTION. It’s intended for entertainment purposes only. Just relax and enjoy it, okay?”
    One trait that I have is this. When I watch a movie that is supposedly “based on a true story” or “science fiction” I am curious to separate the fact from the embellishment, the science from the fiction. Then I get on the internet and start researching. But that’s not out of any criticism, it’s purely out of curiosity. That’s what got me interested in quantum physics – I saw a movie about time travel that was suppoedly based on the actual principles of quantum mechanics. I ended up reading a Brian Green book.

  10. 10
    John the Drunkard

    Give the books a look. You’ll appreciate how important good writing/acting is for a show like this.
    It is an open question whether Dexter is really a full-tilt sociopath. The character bonds with children, is capable of (unenthusiastic) sex, is not driven be sexual sadism, and feels some bond–however odd–with his sister.
    If Dexter ‘recovers’ from his traumatic past, will he continue his vigilantism?
    At any rate, a chance to watch Michael C Hall do a 180% from the mild-mannered, church-going David is worth the price of admission.

  11. 11
    John the Drunkard

    Give the books a look. You’ll appreciate how important good writing/acting is for a show like this.
    It is an open question whether Dexter is really a full-tilt sociopath. The character bonds with children, is capable of (unenthusiastic) sex, is not driven be sexual sadism, and feels some bond–however odd–with his sister.
    If Dexter ‘recovers’ from his traumatic past, will he continue his vigilantism?
    At any rate, a chance to watch Michael C Hall do a 180% from the mild-mannered, church-going David is worth the price of admission.

  12. 12
    Koby

    While your friend has good arguments and points, I’ll have to disagree with her. Dexter is neither sociopath or psychopath. He is an empty shell. His childhood was marred by such a traumatizing event, he dedicated his life to filling that shell…with blood. His step-father, Harry, knew that so he tried his best (and somewhat succeeded) to have Dexter do some good with his ‘curse.’ So, really, emotions play no part in this story. And I have to say, as an actor, Michael C. Hall does a fan-f***ing-tastic job of playing the part of an emotionless emotion-faker.

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