Before Television's Absurd Obsession With Serial Killers, There Was Dexter

Before Television's Absurd Obsession With Serial Killers, There Was Dexter
Image:Frazer Harrison (Getty Images)

In the history of rewatches, there have only been two series that I’ve watched more than three times from pilot to questionable ending. The first is

The Tudors, the best historical fiction ever to air on a prestige network. The second, Showtime’s Dexter, is a little bit more complicated to defend despite my having watched the entire series four times and now contemplating a fifth before the release of the rebooted limited series. Some day archaeologists will find Dexter’s series finale buried underneath hundreds of years worth of fan-fiction. They will wonder why anyone wasted hours of their life watching a show that so epically failed to stick the landing. But Dexter is a true diamond in the rough, a show that becomes more invaluable as we all find ourselves doing the same thing Dexter does throughout the series: desperately trying to be normal when everything is actually very fucked up.

While crime thrillers may not be everyone’s bag, they’ve become extremely popular in recent years. Before shows like Hannibal, Mindhunter, and The Sinner, there was 2006’s Dexter, spraying a trail of blood long before Penn Badgley became a beloved stalker-murderer in Lifetime’s You. Streaming currently on Netflix, Dexter’s premise is that Dexter, played by Michael C. Hall in his prime, is a serial killer in Miami who also happens to be a blood-spatter analyst for the Miami Metro Police Department. Outlandish, but no more so than the average police procedural. Due to a traumatic event that takes about a season and a half to reveal, Dexter is a sociopath with something of a conscious: he only kills “bad” people according to a code set forth by his late father Harry, who reappears in the series frequently as a ghost.

It’s a method of murder everyone can get behind, other than members of ocean clean up crews.

The “bad” people are criminals who have slipped through the system, though some of them were not sent to prison because Dexter purposely botched forensic evidence to take care of them himself. Before slicing into them with an electric power saw, in a room decorated with mementos that illustrate to viewers why the person on the table was bad, Dexter delivers a speech on morality, making sure the person knows exactly why they’re on his table. He then wraps all of the dismembered body parts into Hefty bags and tosses them into the ocean. It’s a method of murder everyone can get behind, other than members of ocean clean up crews.

But beyond murder, Dexter offers viewers hours of something that everyone can use: Michael C. Hall’s exquisite voice. Much of the show is spent listening to Dexter’s soothing internal monologue as he struggles to come off as normal as possible to his co-workers to hide his true identity. He is two-faced in the relatable way anyone has to be in order to survive in an office environment. The Dexter out in the world is friendly; he brings doughnuts into the office, he has inflection in his voice when he speaks. But internally Dexter has the kind of flat, affectless, voice that Calm app narrators envy. There is no feeling, no urgency, just Dexter muttering to himself, contemplating what a normal person would do in any situation.

internally Dexter has the kind of flat, affectless, voice that Calm app narrators envy.

In the show’s opening sequence there’s a series of extreme close-up shots of mundane morning activities: Dexter making coffee, Dexter putting on a shirt, and Dexter tying his shoes. I have never, not once, skipped over this sequence, and that’s because it’s a perfectly filmed, extreme close up of the dichotomy between Dexter’s real life and the life he’s forced to portray for others. Despite being a murderer, Dexter is just like everyone else. He has bills to pay, he keeps his one-bedroom apartment clean, he goes to work, and submits to familial obligations like meeting his sister’s revolving door of boyfriends. He hates all of these things but he does them because it’s what’s expected of him, and taking care of these social priorities gives him room to enjoy his murderous hobby. It’s like when I go to parties at my in-laws’ homes for important dates so I can bank more opportunities to stay home in the future and knit rather than socialize.

Plot-wise, the final season of Dexter is an absolute train wreck, ending with a notoriously awful finale that has deterred many newcomers to the series. Somewhere in the middle of season five, the show slowly but surely started making its way off the rails and found itself in absolute chaos. But going off the rails works for Dexter. It’s a show firmly rooted in absurdity! Think about it: a serial killer working in a police department and only a single person ever suspected him? Despite the fact the man was illegally purchasing tranquilizers, buying enough plastic on a weekly basis to envelope all of the planets, and worked on multiple cases that turned up cold when the main suspect mysteriously disappeared. How did no one figure this out sooner? When you set the bar that high, the only thing left to do is burn it to the ground.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin