We're now exactly 10 years into cable's ownership of the phrase "quality TV." HBO grabbed the mantle from all those locationy network titles— Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue—and hung it on The Sopranos on Sunday, Jan. 10, 1999, at 9 p.m. Before long, discerning viewers had developed a taste for compromised heroes—and a short attention span when it came to virtuous ones.
Showtime's Dexter, which finishes its third season on Sunday, inherits cable TV's complex-hero tradition and takes it a step further. If Sopranos-generation cable put us in moral check, Dexter pushes us to checkmate. TheSopranos got us to relate to a mobster, The Wire to enlightened drug-dealers and rogue cops; but Dexter somehow gets us rooting for a full-on serial killer—and hoping he never gets caught.
You can't help but recoil from Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), a stone-cold killer who plastic-wraps his murder rooms with the mechanical precision of a die-cutter. But you can't help but love him, too. He may be a serial killer, but he's a rational serial killer, one with a strict code: He only goes after killers who've slipped through the justice system.
The show thus challenges our consciences in the biggest way possible. In the stunning rape episode of The Sopranos, we felt the temptation to have Tony Soprano kill Dr. Melfi's unfairly freed rapist, but only for a moment. Ultimately, we were relieved that Melfi didn't turn to Tony to enact vigilante justice. Dexter pushes us through such qualms every week. You cheer Dexter the murderer as he stalks his prey—and outwits anyone who gets in his way—as you might cheer Batman swooping into action. Except unlike Batman, Dexter never spares the villain or broods over the morality of vigilantism. No bleeding heart, he.
The basics: The boyishly handsome Dexter Morgan is a blood-spatter analyst at the Miami Police Department, which is where he catches the scent of his victims. To his sister, a high-strung cop named Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), and to his blandly sweet fiance, Rita (Julie Benz), he is an odd but lovable outsider. To his colleagues, he's the reserved Average Joe who brings them donuts in the morning.
Everyone would be shocked to discover that the Clark Kent-like Dexter seethes with murderous rage, that he controls his violent animal instincts just enough to direct them against his victims. He looks so normal. But the viewer gets to know Dexter better than anyone, through his intimate voice-overs, delivered in the wry but stiff monotone of a noir detective. ("I'm not in the business of giving life," he mumbles upon learning that Rita is pregnant.) Since the show's 2006 premiere, he has revealed his history to us, and it has accumulated the mythic qualities of a superhero's back story: An early-childhood parental trauma, the urge to combat evildoers, a secret identity. The 3-year-old Dexter saw his mother carved up with a chainsaw and was locked in a storage container for days with her body. His adoptive father, an astute cop named Harry Morgan, knew that Dexter would be compelled to kill his mother's murderer over and over again. So Harry taught Dexter to channel his blood lust into cleaning up the streets of Miami.