As Cool As A Fruitstand

…and maybe as strange. A movie blog.

Dexter – Season 1 (spoiler-free)

Posted by Hedwig on May 30, 2008

I don’t blame my foster parents for that. Harry and Doris Morgan did a wonderful job raising me. But, they’re both dead now. I didn’t kill them. Honest. Dexter.

As a general rule, for movies but especially also for TV shows, voice-overs should be on the “to avoid” list. Show, don’t tell, after all: it’s a difficult rule to follow, but that doesn’t mean you should give up and resort to a cheap trick. Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy… All of these shows use prominent voice-overs, and all of them would be better of without them. After all, the only use the voice-overs serve is to make themes -that usually worked perfectly well as an undercurrent- dreadfully explicit and unevocative.

However, there are exceptions to every rule. And when your show revolves around a main character who fakes all his emotions, who lives his entire life hiding who he is and what he’s thinking… a voice-over starts sounding like a reasonable thing. And luckily, in Dexter, not only is the voice-over pretty essential, but it’s also really well executed. For instance, it’s not particularly literary: it doesn’t have the pat, too rounded style many TV-voiceovers do, and it isn’t filled with cringe-worthy puns. It’s just a man talking to himself, to an audience he sort-of wished he had (and which, of course, he in fact does have in us).

Of course, I let my original thought take me on a wild rant, so let me get back to the basics: a plot synopsis (spoiler-free, as promised). Dexter Morgan is a blood-spatter analyst for the Miami police department. He’s also a serial killer. The kind that starts on pets as a kid, that takes delight in killing and follows a fetishistic procedure while doing it, the kind, even, that collects trophies. In other words: not your typical hero.  But in flashbacks, we see what made Dexter different from your average homicidal monster: he was raised by a cop who saw his tendencies early on, and he taught him a code: only kill those who deserve it. Those who get away from justice, but only after you’re certain they’re guilty.

The series works beautifully on a superficial level. The cinematography and production design are simply amazing (see below for the credit sequence, for example), and as Dexter himself remarks: “There’s something strange and disarming about looking at a homicide scene in the daylight of Miami. It makes the most grotesque killings look staged, like you’re in a new and daring section of Disney World: Dahmerland!”. The crime scenes, but also just daily life, are made to look both horrific and perversely beautiful, and the look together with the slow, playful direction make sure it’s like nothing else on TV.

And then there’s the content, of course. While the show is very playful, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any suspence. It’s derived mostly from the presence of the mysterious “ice-truck killer”, another serial killer with somewhat more conventional targets (prostitutes) who knows who Dexter is and seems to want to play. I didn’t quite nightmares from the show, but I’ve learned not to watch it just before I go to sleep.

And then there’s the rich subtext, which makes this show go from good to great. Not only is it suggested that Dexter might just be an unreliable narrator, who might not be quite as emotionless as he says he is, but through the eyes of a serial killer, you see the world differently. You see all the more clearly that everyone wears a mask. Everyone fakes some of the required emotions and thoughts. We all put up a front. We all smile when a photo is taken, even if we’re not feeling all that cheery at all.

Through a cold-hearted killer’s eyes, you see society anew. And while it’s not that nice a place to be, it is fascinating. All the more because Dexter’s universe is populated with complex, fleshed-out characters who each have their own season-spanning arcs. With TV-shows we love, we often equate more with better, but this season is perfect at 12 episodes. You can tell everything was planned out, and it makes for a hugely satisfying viewing experience.

I am as guilty as a lot of film buffs of often dismissing TV, seeing it as “easy” entertainment compared to the more “intellectual” experience of movie watching. But they are simply different beasts, and while Dexter is a lot of fun to watch, simple or easy it is not. It’s a complex, well-written, compelling 12-hour experience. And one I can recommend even to the most devout TV-haters.


9 Responses to “Dexter – Season 1 (spoiler-free)”

  1. I absolutely LOVE this show, it is so odd and fascinating, and I have yet to be bored or not on the edge of my seat for a single episode, including the equally enticing season 2.

    I love that you see television as a different thing altogether than film, and not just a lesser being, because it is so not. In fact, I often care more for my favourite television shows than most films. That is saying something, coz I love me some film.

  2. Kaj said

    Dexter. Ah, the best new show since Deadwood. Season 2 is indeed equally enticing, mr. Plowman, if not more so. Loved the metaphor Dexter struggled with. And Doakes is great every second he’s onscreen. There’s something wonderful about that character, the way he moves, talks…

    As for the TV vs. film thing, I feel that shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, The Singing Detective, and even Dexter, can go toe to toe with most art films when it comes to depth, or form for that matter. With the added bonus of much more character development and time.

  3. Snoskred said

    This is one of the best reviews I have read of the show yet. Well done! Good point about the voice overs, though I don’t mind the one on Desperate Housewives as it tends to tie things together nicely and from memory it only appears at the start and at the end of the shows so it isn’t invasive or overpowering like voiceovers can be sometimes. I’ll have to re-watch to double check, though.

    One thing I find is that the music in the show is very haunting – it plays in your head, even the fast bits of music. There’s so many brilliant bits of music in the show.

    I have seen season 2 also, and that is just as good, perhaps slightly edgier.


  4. Java cat said

    Wonderful review, and I couldn’t agree more. Makaidiver at LJ.

  5. I haven’t caught up with this one yet, though I aim to.

    I take a little bit of an issue with a flat “no voiceovers” rule. In the hands of an expert…like the Coen Brothers for example…it can work brilliantly. In the hands of a hack, well, it’s usually a lazy shortcut.

    In addition to the ways it works in Dexter, VO can also be great for setting a tone which is the way the Coens most often seem to employ it. It’s also great for capturing the literary flavor of a movie based on a novel.

    Some film noir wouldn’t be the same without it.

    Anyway, point is, in my opinion good writing is good writing and though VO is often the sign of a hack, it isn’t always.

  6. sarcastig said

    Quite a few new readers, welcome! And thank you for the kind comments.

    I agree with you completely, Craig. One draft actually mentioned the Coen’s, but I’ve been trying to write shorter pieces and I’m afraid it got lost in the pruning. And I hadn’t thought about the noir voice-overs, but I love those, and I totally agree with you.

    I just love the voice-over in the Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men too. And in both cases, they don’t tell you anything that’s also up on the screen, they just add a layer, and as you say, it sets the tone.

    On TV though, I have a hard time coming up with examples of good voice-overs. The one on How I met your mother, for instance, is hit and miss: it’s interesting in how it plays with unreliable narrative and narrative conventions, but Bob Saget’s voice is quite a bit annoying, and sometimes it’s superfluous. And on Scrubs I feel it’s more miss than hit: sometimes the observations are nice, but all-too-often it’s just too sappy and on-the-nose.

  7. Lanchka said

    As I have now seen every episode of Psych that I can find online, and as the US networks’ seasons have ended, Dexter seems like just the thing to break the monotony of housewifery!!! That trailer is really beautiful.

  8. Kaj said

    Yes, the voice-over really brings Scrubs down, together with the sentimental montages that pop up every other episode. A shame, I really like it’s characters. I guess the voice-over on Veronica Mars was decent enough, although I can’t really remember liking or disliking it particularly.

  9. Hmmm…good TV voice over…

    I think The Wonder Years is a highly regarded show with VO, but I never watched it hence I can’t comment.

    One of the problems with TV I think is that VO is best in limited amounts, but a TV show goes on forever so even if it’s good at first, it gets old quick.

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