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.
The key to the show's power is that Dexter is so curiously appealing—and a big part of that appeal is thanks to the superb work of Michael C. Hall. Hall's affectless, Mr. Spock-ish performance is the opposite of Ian McShane as Al Swearingen in Deadwood or Denis Leary as Tommy Gavin in Rescue Me, who deliver unedited rants with the volume turned up. Dexter is all interior self-scrutiny, but thanks to Hall, you never for a second feel like he's merely a construct built to upend our moral balance. There's something profoundly sympathetic about this guy as he works to seem "ordinary," like an awkward teen trying to fit in. He speaks to the nerd in all of us, that part of ourselves that is always wary of being seen as an outsider or a fraud.
Every season, the writers—including Jeff Lindsay, author of the books on which the show is based—emphasize Dexter's merits by throwing him in with someone who's far more dangerous than he is. Within the tightly plotted seasonlong arcs, the writers distort the spectrum of good and evil. In Season 1, the heavy was the Ice Truck Killer, who turned out to be someone very close to Dexter. In Season 2, it was Dexter's lover, Lila (the dynamic Jaime Murray), a borderline with a fire fixation. And this season, it has been blood-thirsty D.A. Miguel Prado, played with unexpected angst by the usually more heroic Jimmy Smits. None of these people operates with a code like Dexter's, and, inevitably, he contrasts favorably to them.
Also casting Dexter in a positive light is Deb, played by Carpenter with winning foul-mouthed emotionality. (For Deb, "dildo" is a term of endearment.) She has been ridiculously sloppy in her romantic adventures: With the Ice Truck Killer, with her boss, and, this season, with an informant. She's a dear mess. Sure, Dexter is terribly bottled up, but, well, Debra. She makes Dexter's robotically deliberate approach to life seem rather creditable.
Does all this make Dexter sound like a one-note morality play? Oh no, it's not. It's one of TV's very best times. I've pushed it on many a friend looking for the next chapter in smart TV, and few have complained. There's always the initial balk—a show about a vigilante killer?—but the reality of watching Dexter is much more dimensional, suspenseful, and comic than its premise might suggest. On top of everything, Dexter is a black comedy. "I'm sorry," Dexter said to the relative of a dead man earlier this season. "That I killed him," he adds in a voice-over. Dexter is also secretly a ham.
Then there is the visual wit of Dexter, beginning with the amusing title sequence, a chronicle of Dexter's morning that's a small masterpiece of sociopathic insinuation set to a warped merry-go-round song. As Dexter mundanely shaves, wraps dental floss around his fingers, grinds coffee beans, and carves some meat, you can't help but see in his actions the meticulousness of his killing techniques. The show generally has an alluring Miami-noir haze over it, but when Dexter gets his victim on a gurney in some vacant room in the middle of nowhere and pulls out his knife, the motif becomes Abstract Expressionist—except Dexter spatters with blood. Dexter's set designers are among TV's most audacious.
And so the DVDs of two seasons of Dexter, and On Demand access to a third, await you. Dexter Morgan may be lying to everyone he knows, and he may be breaking the laws of humankind, but still: There will be a special jail in heaven for him and, in the meantime, a special place in the TV canon for his show.