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Screen Time: Hoping “Dexter” regains edge

Published 8:44am Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I regretfully have to admit that Dexter Morgan has finally met his match — a semi-stagnant plotline.

Showtime’s original series “Dexter” is in its fifth season, and it faces the same dilemma most great television dramas deal with around this point in their existence; how do you keep the plot new and exciting?

“Dexter” centers on blood splatter analyst Dexter (Michael C. Hall) of Miami Metro Homicide, who moonlights as a vigilante/serial killer of other serial murderers. At the age of 3, Dexter witnessed the brutal murder of his mother, which he blames for his need to kill. This season, Lumen Pierce (Julia Stiles) witnesses Dexter murder one of the men who was in the process of torturing and killing Pierce, and the two begin their quest to find and take out the other men responsible.

While the series may have been at its superbly best and easily one of the top dramas on TV in its first two seasons, the show remained fresh in the third and fourth seasons with Emmy-nominated guest star Jimmy Smits and Emmy-winning guest star John Lithgow, respectively. In both seasons, the story slowly built and culminated at season’s end, with Smits and Lithgow advancing the season arc and delivering knockout performances as their respective season’s villain (and both make excellent antagonists). But on the third go at this now-tired plot structure — this time with Stiles (who isn’t the villain but like Smits and Lithgow, is Dexter’s “sidekick” for the season) — it just isn’t as fresh.

From the beginning, you find yourself rooting for the serial killer, or anti-hero. In the first season you learn about Dexter’s past and how he came to be what he is, and the series immediately bursts into film noir lore as Dexter battles the protagonist — his long-lost brother, who also happens to be a serial killer. Five years later, the closing line of the pilot still resonates; after Dexter discovers pieces of a Barbie doll neatly wrapped in his freezer left by the “Ice Truck Killer” (his brother), we hear Dexter think “I suppose I should be upset, even feel violated. But I’m not. No, in fact, I think this is a friendly message, like ‘Hey, wanna play?’ And yes, I want to play. I really, really do.”

In the series’ second year, by far my favorite season, the bodies of Dexter’s victims are discovered, and Dexter frantically works to undermine the cops’ efforts to uncover the identity of the person responsible (him). But at this point, three seasons later, for the sake of advancing the plotline, I find myself hoping for the ultimate turn. To make this story great again, I feel the only hand left to play is to expose Dexter’s self-proclaimed “dark passenger.” (While this isn’t an original screenplay — the show is based on the Dexter series of novels by Jeff Lindsay — at many points the TV series varies greatly from the novels, including some basic plot structures.)

Don’t get me wrong, Dexter remains one of the edgiest series out there, and exactly two-thirds of the way through Season 5 (Episode 9 airs at 8 p.m. Sunday) I still find myself anxiously awaiting the new episode each week. I will watch every episode from now through the eventual series finale, but I know how good this show has been, and it has the potential to get there again.

Hall has been and continues to be excellent, as does the supporting cast. The score adds an eerie presence. The deadpanned comic relief is always spot on, and Dexter’s running monologue of thoughts provides a narration style that gives you insight into his inner demons and struggles and helps you cope with the fact that this anti-hero is committing brutal, premeditated murder in almost every other episode.

While it hasn’t quite reached the bar it set for itself in Seasons 1 and 2, it continues to entertain, and hopefully it hasn’t peaked.

Adam Harringa is Audience Manager for the Albert Lea Tribune and will be reviewing both the big and small screens presentations.