TV Review: 'Dexter' is dark humor in shades of gray

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Even if you see the world in stark black and white, it might be difficult to dislike Dexter (Michael C. Hall), a murderous Robin Hood who steals life from the sinful to seek justice for victims who died at their hands.

Peter Iovino
Michael C. Hall plays a forensic specialist who's also a killer with a strict moral code in the new Showtime series "Dexter."
Click photo for larger image.

'Dexter'

When: 10 p.m. Sunday, Showtime.

Starring: Michael C. Hall.

"Dexter," an addictive new Showtime series (10 p.m. Sunday), is enjoyably challenging TV. Its lead character is an anti-hero to rival "The Shield's" Vic Mackey, but the show is not avert-your-eyes-bloody (much less so than FX's "Nip/Tuck"), and it has a sense of humor, often emanating from Dexter's ever-present voice-over narration that lets viewers get a glimpse inside his twisted mind.

Bright, personable and articulate, Dexter is that guy whom neighbors would be shocked -- SHOCKED! -- to discover has been arrested for murder. Actually, Dexter is more socially well-adjusted than most killers, and he's not even a loner. He's dating a beautiful single mom, Rita (Murrysville native Julie Benz), who's "in her own way, as damaged as me," Dexter says. Rita has an abusive relationship in her past that prevents her from having a sexual relationship. That's fine by Dexter, who proclaims, "I don't understand sex, the act of sex. It's always seemed so undignified."

At his job as a blood-spatter expert for the Miami police department, Dexter is an easy-going, diligent forensic specialist who's well-liked by his co-workers, including his cop sister (Jennifer Carpenter) and his boss, Lt. LaGuerta (Lauren Velez, "Oz"). But he manages to run afoul of Sgt. Doakes (Erik King), who finds Dexter creepy and contemptible (if only he knew just how creepy and contemptible).

In Sunday's premiere, Doakes is the show's most glaring false note -- too suspicious of Dexter and too vocal about his dislike of the guy. Subsequent episodes reveal Doakes to be more dimensional; he's not just a foil for Dexter.

Flashbacks show Dexter as a child, learning "the rules of Harry" from his understanding foster father, played by James Remar. Harry was a Miami detective who recognized his son's homicidal tendencies and tried to channel his proclivities toward the pursuit of justice.

Hall's performance is remarkable for its controlled nature. As Dexter, he erases memories of his last role -- "Six Feet Under's" uptight, gay mortician, David Fisher -- playing a character who believes he's so emotionally detached that he must fake all pleasant human interaction. It's a challenging, almost double role, requiring Hall to play to viewers who know Dexter's secret and those around him on screen who do not. Hall handles it with the necessarily subtle aplomb.

"Dexter" is based on the novel "Darkly Dreaming Dexter" by Jeff Lindsay, who heartily approves of Showtime's interpretation of his book, and Hall's performance, in particular. Lindsay said he was inspired to write the story after attending a Kiwanis meeting as a guest speaker.

"As I looked out across the room, the idea just popped into my head that serial murder isn't always a bad thing," Lindsay said at a July press conference, generating laughs at his morbid sense of humor, which is also evident in Showtime's series. "If that seems a little flippant, I apologize, but it really did happen that way."

By the end of "Dexter's" 12-episode first season, viewers will learn what made him a killer. But will Dexter ever get his due? Producers haven't plotted that far into the future.

"Every week Dexter explores a part of humanity or something that's a very human bit of behavior," said executive producer Sara Colleton. "We've always sort of laughingly said, 'Year five, if we are so lucky, he's finally going to become fully human, realize what he's done, and kill himself.' But other than that as a joke, we haven't really contemplated his comeuppance because he has a very strict moral code that he observes. Within the confines of that, he's a very moral person."

Hall understands how viewers might feel some internal conflict while watching "Dexter."

"It's not black, it's not white," he said. "Dexter is a cowboy who wears a 10-gallon gray hat. People should be torn. I think it fosters a sense of conflict, 'Oh my God, I'm rooting for someone who is doing something that I, along with pretty much everybody else would, on paper, suggest is reprehensible.' "


TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Ask TV questions at www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Q&A.


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