In just a few short seasons, Showtime’s popular show, Dexter, has become a major player in the evening TV niche. This show draws in literally millions of devoted fans on a weekly basis, and for good reason. For those of you who may not be clear on the premise of Dexter, the idea is that the main character, Dexter Morgan, is a sociopathic serial killer who has banked up a treasure trove of victims he’s killed since he was a boy. Dexter is able to accomplish this with a front as a blood splatter analyst for the Miami Police Department. You see, criminals come across the board easily for Dexter, since his office sees them daily.
The thing is, Dexter has a certain code. He doesn’t kill, mutilate, dismember, and dispose of the innocent; Dexter only does those things with the criminal element he believes should be gone. He mainly goes after those who are also serial killers, but not necessarily. He picks bad guys that are causing trouble for his police department and hunts them down on the sly, on his own dime, and then places them before his own personal brand of justice.
It’s indeed a great story premise. Dexter is a serial killer hiding in the perfect location and he gives it to the bad guys like nobody else can. Plus, we’re allowed to like Dexter because he only kills the bad guys. But there’s more to it than just that, so this article highlights five reasons this show is so popular and has been so for a few years. There are likely more than just five reasons, but these are obvious enough to see from the shadows, where Dexter lurks most.
A good diversity of characters
Any good TV show has to have a good cast; innumerable shows have failed because the writers and producers failed to recognize or achieve this simple fact. While Dexter is mainly focused on Dexter Morgan, superbly played by Michael C. Hall, there is a broad cast of characters highlighted by the backdrop of the Miami Dade Police Department.
Dexter is who he is in part because of his father, Harry Morgan. Harry found the mainstream methods of justice lacking in genuine justice, so he built a more effective brand into Dexter. Harry saw the sociopathic tendencies in his adopted boy and helped develop them. We see Harry as Dexter’s mentor in every episode, despite that he’s dead. Harry eventually became horrified and disgusted by what he built in Dexter and coped with it through an overdose that killed him. Harry exists as a focal point in Dexter’s mind, keeping him to his unique code of ethics.
Dexter has a sister, Debra, who is also a detective on the force, played well by Jennifer Carpenter. She’s a tough, foul-mouthed cop with a penchant for bringing bad guys to justice. But she has a softer side and her own set of demons, and she provides Dexter with more to worry about than just where to dump the bodies.
In fact, the force has a bunch of cops we see going through their daily lives with drama and intrigue. The Homicide Chief, Maria LaGuerta, played by Lauren Velez, is tough and not above some ethical tweaking. Yet, she seems emotionally honest and vulnerable, and holds firm to her beliefs of good and bad. Presently, she is married to Angel Batista (played by David Zayas), another cop on the force, and their personal troubles are as much a part of the show as their professional struggles. And their relationship is not the only personal relationship in the office, as Debra is involved with Detective Joey Quinn, who is played by Desmond Harrington. Quinn is falling for Debra, who is trying to resist her own attraction to him, and this is complicated with the way Quinn really dislikes Dexter.
Then, seemingly for comic relief and as an additional spice to the recipe, we have Vince Masuka. Vince is the lead Forensics Investigator, and a bit of a harmless pervert. He claims to love kinky, nasty sex despite looking like one who would struggle to obtain it, looking as geeky as can be, portrayed well by C. S. Lee. Vince is still easy to like, though, as he does take his job seriously and does have a genuine human side to him.
Also, the show has been bringing in celebrity guests who have added star power to the show. This season, we see Julia Stiles and Peter Weller as guests, as well as the popular Johnny Lee Miller from Eli Stone. Julia Stiles plays a character who escaped from near death at the hands of a group that kidnaps, gang rapes, and then kills innocent girls. She came into Dexter’s life and he is helping her settle the score. Peter Weller plays a Private Eye who is watching Dexter from afar at the hire of Quinn, Dexter’s less-than-buddy-buddy colleague on the force. The cop who also happens to be in a personal relationship with Dexter’s sister, Debra.
In the past, John Lithgow played a major serial killer for a season, and he played the role in such a way that he should be awarded. Lithgow played a serial killer known as Trinity because he killed in threes. This killer murdered Dexter’s wife, to the horror of fans who came to love Rita. One of the first big guns to come to Dexter was Jimmy Smits, the first big celebrity guest in Season 3.
Yes, Dexter has a family, too. His wife, Rita, played by Julie Benz until the character’s death, bore him a son. So, Dexter must juggle the daily life of being a specialist in his outward profession, his passion as a serial killer, and as a family man and father.
All of this brings us an hour filled with plenty to see and take in, and the writers do so quite well. The list of characters highlighted above demonstrates that this is a complex and unapologetic show that is more than happy to shed the politically correct demeanor and place a spotlight on the notion that mainstream justice is a failure and some people simply need to be killed by those happy to do it.
A fairly simple story line
While the range of characters is quite long and complex, the story manages to remain rather simple and straightforward. Often, with many series running for a while with a long list of characters, some of these series end up getting so complicated and deep that if you miss anything (and God forbid you miss a single episode, because if you do, hang it up and watch TLC for that hour), then you end up lost in what’s going on. It becomes virtually impossible to catch up without doing a lot of homework and other extracurricular activities just to be abreast with a chosen show. The show Lost was one of those. ER was one, and there are always plenty of others. Those shows demand you are able to DVR, and while Dexter prompts you to be devoted, you don’t have to feel like a geeky Trekkie to keep up with a ton of details.
Thankfully, Dexter doesn’t put us through all of that. Dexter is involved enough to pique our interest and done well enough to keep us hooked, but we don’t need a laser focus to keep up. People have their daily lives and dramas, and Dexter just has a bit more to concern himself with as he hunts his victims and then disposes them in the Atlantic, from his boat aptly named Slice of Life.
It’s nice to think we won’t have to be treated like a bunch of inbred morons, like fans of Lost were treated. Oh, you don’t think so? When a show has to repeat the prior week’s episode with cliff notes running across the bottom of the screen before the present week’s episode begins (so the dolts among the fans can keep up), it has become too ambitious in the complexities. With Dexter, they don’t need to hold our hand; they simply let us know that we need to keep it clean if we don’t want it lopped off.
Dexter is free of the limitations of Network TV
Because the show is on Showtime, let’s let the nudity, blood, and colorful language out of the bag, although this is obviously not exclusive to Dexter. Dexter’s sister, Debra, has the mouth of a truck driving sailor, and a sense of apologetic concern diametrically opposed to that. While she’s built like Olive Oyl, she’s as tough as nails and can be meaner than a badger. However, she does have a cuddly, feminine, vulnerable side, too.
The subject matter would be rather too provocative for network TV, anyway. While network TV loves to push the envelope, this would not be something for the family programming. Dexter Morgan should not be a hero to anyone, although part of his draw is that most of us have a list of people we would like to introduce to him, with pictures and addresses, and blueprints of their homes so he would know where they sleep. The thing is that Dexter is a serial killer who takes pride in what he does and feels compelled to continue. In fact, if he goes too long without killing, he gets edgy.
The Sopranos, Californication, and many others enjoy or have enjoyed this freedom and hallelujah for that. But Dexter is utterly unique in style and method, and worthy of becoming an addiction.
For the most part, these characters are so plausible
Except for being a serial killer, Dexter seems so much like the everyman. In fact, there isn’t anyone on the show who appears larger than life, other than perhaps Arthur Trinity Mitchell, played by John Lithgow. This mix of character isn’t bogged down with people who are just too good looking to live in our neighborhoods, which was another nick in the perfection of Lost. This isn’t to say these people are plain or unattractive, but just believable in their looks and as people.
Then, their situations are not so overblown in freaky drama. One would have thought the characters in ER would have been exposed to enough drama and conflict to force them into situations so neurotic that they would have been committed or become serial killers more than ten years ago. On Lost, these people were beat up, shot at, and had guns pointed at them virtually every single day they were on that miserable island. But on Dexter, things are difficult enough with their law enforcement jobs combined with a handful of the standard difficulties of adult lives. We feel our levels of concern for the character and we root for Dexter, but we don’t need a protractor, wall chart and half dozen computer programs in order to keep up.
In fact, this only serves to lend to Dexter’s credibility as a real character. The characters all around him are so plausible in their existences that Dexter seems that believable. Because we felt a connection and love to Star Trek characters, ending an episode with the only thing between life going on and certain death of everyone aboard the Enterprise was modifying the main deflector to emit an inverse tachyon pulse was not seen as jumping the shark. The angst of Masuka combined with Angel’s power struggles with Maria lend some realism to Dexter shrink-wrapping a killer to a room lined with plastic sheeting and plunging a Bowie knife through his heart after pointing out why this is how it goes.
Dexter gets to do what a lot of people desire to do, at least once
Let’s face it. The vast majority of us have met at least a few people we would like seen strewn about in a series of shallow graves. We may not appreciate that part of ourselves all the time, but it is there. Porn’s popularity is not a fluke, despite the resistance of so many people to admit their involvement with that industry’s success. The point is that there is a darker side in all of us, and Dexter gets to bring his to the light.
We like to see Superman fly because we’d like to be able to fly. In fact, the superhero genre is so popular because we all have the childlike fantasies of being able to do something we actually cannot do. So it is with Dexter; he gets to slaughter the people he finds disagreeable, and he moves freely to keep doing what he does best.
Mostly, we love the fact that he gets to do his thing with the worst of the worst. Everyone deplores those who harm the innocent, particularly when the innocent are children. Most everyone agrees that the worst among us, even when they face justice, never really face justice. Someone may face life in prison or even the death penalty for their heinous crimes, but they’re merely put to sleep. Dexter, on the other hand, lets them know in detail that their moment is upon them, and why. Then, he plunges his knife through their heart, allowing his victim that last moment of reflection. Further, they’re not costing hardworking taxpayers millions in the process.
There are those out there who criticize the graphic nature of this show, but they can all feel free to go screw themselves. We live in a world where we must accept political leaders happily destroying the future of humanity while they staunchly defend the criminal and express perverse glee as they feel us up at the airport or strip us of what dignity we have left while pointing and laughing while we pass through their full-body scanners. We live in a world where the powerful are happily void of any conscience or accountability, allowed to openly destroy countless lives so they can feel enough power to get it up hard enough to masturbate to pictures of the suffering innocent holding a dying child, yet the everyday citizen must suffer in silence while the powerful strip the world’s citizens of independence and threaten their futures with something as mundane as a minor violation as simple as a blown headlight. Dexter is not a threat to society; he is a threat to what’s wrong with society.
Dexter demonstrates a seemingly average guy showing those who think they’re above the law and everyone obligated to it that they’re not as invincible as they think. Dexter Morgan wields a more justifiable brand of justice, since when his brand of justice is wielded, it isn’t at the expense of everyone else. While Dexter is labeled a predator, he isn’t. He preys on those who prey on others. He’s the watchdog supervising the flock, occasionally ripping out the throats of the coyotes and jackals who threaten the flock. Plus, he isn’t obligated to the BS of bureaucracy; he simply does his thing and feeds the fish with what’s left.
It’s hard to say how much longer the Dexter series will continue, as now it seems that the show will require a significant change or risk being repetitive. The Trinity Case was great fun and this season with Julia Stiles promises a lot of things to come. But sooner or later, the finicky fan will need a rising of the bar. Dexter will need to hunt prey bigger than pedophiles and serial killers in order to maintain the ratings. The cat-and-mouse of him chasing those too much like him will get stale in time. Hey, the smarter shows know when to say when.
In the desire to admit something, I do hope this series runs the course of the life of Dexter Morgan as opposed to just ending the series when the time comes. I don’t know if I want to see Dexter busted and face the death penalty (I simply adore the fantasy that Hannibal Lecter is still out there), but then, there’s a story there. How would the rest of his department respond? How would his sister feel about it, particularly when she finds out dear old Dad always knew? Would we see Dexter find a way to bring his Dark Passenger to rest and call it quits? Might he find himself too monstrous to continue and would he do himself in? Or, might he sacrifice himself through getting to what might be the worst of the worst, in a character so big that he’s a threat to the world and not just Miami?
While all of us fans will accept whatever it is the show’s producers and writers provide, we must ask that we see this to the end. Even Lost and ER gave us that.