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Dexter: Making Serial Killers Socially Acceptable

August 30, 2009

I have always been fascinated by serial killers. I was the kid who watched the “60 Minutes” specials about people like the Green River killer and Charles Manson. I’ve exhausted almost every book written about Jack the Ripper (the best theory I’ve come across is that it was the doctor and he died of syph) and I have a creepy and unabashed love for Sylar on “Heroes.” I also bought my boyfriend ceramic “serial bowls” that have the faces of different serial killers at the bottom. Needless to say…I’m creepy. And, just for the record, I’ve never wanted to kill anybody…wanted to get that out there in case any one was nervous.
So naturally I love everything about Showtime’s “Dexter.” For a creeper like me, this show is manna from heaven. It’s about a serial killer who only kills other killers. He lives a mostly normal life: he works as a blood spatter expert for Miami Police Department’s Homicide Division, has family and friends, and generally gets along in society. Interested? I thought so.

Other than the sick curiosity that most people have about this show, there is more than the general attraction that keeps it interesting. I mean, there has to be. How many times can the audience just watch Dex (I call him Dex…yeah) kill people while trying to hide his little hobby from everyone? Well, probably a lot. But, amazingly, the writers don’t rely on that!

Season 1 was all things brilliant. The introduction of Dexter and how he functions would have been enough to carry the first season, but the writers didn’t rely on that either. So there was the exploration of Dexter’s (horrific) past, the introduction of the Ice Truck Killer, and the intriguing ways in which the Ice Truck Killer and Dexter are intertwined. And then there are the other characters to introduce and get to know, most notably Dexter’s sister Debra, his girlfriend Rita, and work colleague Sergeant Doakes. As Season 1 wrapped up nicely (I don’t want to spoil it too much for those of you who may watch now) there was a lot of excitement for what was to come next.

In Season 2, the writers allowed the audience to delve more deeply into how Dexter functions and why he functions that way as Rita decides he is a drug addict and forces him into Narcotics Anonymous meetings. It is there he meets the psychotic Lila who wreaks havoc on Dex’s personal life and has him questioning his methods and motives. But the major plot line is that Dexter is on his toes because his dumping ground for bodies is found and The Bay Harbor Butcher, (aka Dexter) is public enemy number 1. This prompts an FBI agent, Lundy, to come to Miami to aid the Homicide Department search for the Butcher. Then, Lundy and Debra begin a relationship and Dexter is trying to cover his ass in all ways possible and a major character is killed off. This season, like the first season, kept the audience on their toes and never quite sure of what would happen next. It was fantastic to watch because of the brilliant writing full of twists and surprises.

Then came Season 3, which fell a bit flat for me. The premise was that Dexter killed the wrong person by accident, and this person turns out to be the much loved assistant DA’s, Miguel Prado’s (played by Jimmy Smits) little brother. On top of this, Dexter and Rita find out that they’re pregnant. Rut-roh! This, coupled with the accidental murder, send Dexter into a mental and emotional tail spin, which I thought was really annoying. Or maybe that it’s that I don’t like Jimmy Smits. However, it was interesting to watch Dexter wrestle with impending fatherhood, which set things up nicely for Season 4, which officially begins in September.

So, in the Season 4 preview, Dexter and Rita have married, and the baby (Harrison!) has been born. So, we have a Dexter who is extraordinarily tired, is screwing up both at work and in court, and is stressed to the point that he BADLY needs to kill someone. As soon as he captures the guy and has him prepped to be killed in the way that Dexter likes, Rita calls because the baby has an ear infection and Dex has to go at that second to pick up medicine. So, the always meticulous Dexter kills and cleans up in a mad rush, stuffing the body parts into trash bags that are then put in his car. Then, on the way home he falls asleep and has a pretty horrific car accident. So! In the first episode of Season 4, the audience is concerned that Dexter is a) dead and if not, then b) going to be found out because there are body parts strewn all over the place.
In addition to this, Lundy returns as a now retired FBI agent, Angel and Maria are in a secret relationship, and John Lithgow joins the cast as a severely creepy and far too successful serial killer. I smell intrigue and tension.

But, why would people who don’t like serial killers anyway want to watch “Dexter”? Because Dexter seems completely normal. If he wasn’t the main character and the audience didn’t have insight into what Dex thinks and does, the audience wouldn’t assume that he is a serial killer. He has friends, he loves his wife and kids, and he has hobbies outside of homicide. This show hypothesizes that serial killers are humane and that you may not realize who they are in day-to-day life, which if you’re like me and watch the “60 Minutes” interviews, that is what the serial killer’s friends and family say about them. This show capitalizes on the cliche that a serial killer is 30-something, well-educated, quiet, and a bit of a loner. So, outside of just being a cool show with great writers that keep the audience intensely interested, this show is telling the public to be on their toes.

Paranoid yet?

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