BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- As Showtime's "Dexter" (9 p.m. Sunday) returns for its second season, the nicest serial killer you'll ever meet, Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), is on a break from killing because he's had little opportunity.
Dexter's nemesis, Sgt. Doakes (Erik King), is watching him like a hawk; his sister, Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), suffering the after-effects of her torment at the hands of last season's "bad" serial killer, Dexter's brother, has moved in with Dexter; his girlfriend, Rita (Murrysville native Julie Benz), suspects Dexter of framing her ex-husband and sending him to jail.
By the end of Sunday's episode, airing before the second-season premiere of Showtime's "Brotherhood" (10 p.m.), the body parts Dexter threw into the ocean have been found and FBI agent Frank Lundy (Keith Carradine) arrives to head up the search for this new serial killer, who's dubbed "the Bay Harbor Butcher." This adds a new challenge for Dexter -- avoiding suspicion as his co-workers search for, well, him.
Next week's episode shows Rita gaining a backbone but also revealing the pathology that led her to be abused by her ex-husband. Doakes' suspicions about Dexter also appear to reach a resolution in the first four episodes of the new season. But it's the danger of Dexter being found out that permeates these episodes, upping the pressure and keeping the series as tense and twisted as it was in season one.
"We decided to turn our biggest card up -- what happens if Dexter's bodies were discovered? -- and chart that course throughout the season," said executive producer Daniel Cerone at a July press conference.
But the heart of "Dexter" is the anti-hero lead character's humanity, despite his desire to kill only those who are murderers themselves. Although he denies having emotions, viewers saw in the first season that he feels more than he claims to feel.
"Pretty quickly in the beginning of the [new] season, he's going to explore who he is," executive producer Clyde Phillips said. "He learns things about his past that heretofore had not been apparent to him as he more deeply excavates what he thought was the soil beneath him and learns about his father and his past and that key relationships in his life and what he thought was true perhaps wasn't so true. Combine with that an emerging sense of his own humanity. But you can't take him all the way there because then we don't have a show anymore. But the light will start shining in a little more on him."
What makes Dexter such a likable character is that he lives by a code he attributes to his later father, Harry (James Remar). Dexter only kills people who in his mind deserve to die -- murderers.
"I think it's very important for the show that he does kill people who deserve it," Cerone said. Producers have given some thought to having Dexter make a mistake and what effect that might have on him.
"We don't want him obviously killing somebody who doesn't deserve it out of impulse or something," Phillips said. "But we have explored the notion of his having killed someone without properly vetting that person and perhaps making a mistake."
When: 9 p.m. Sunday, Showtime.
Starring: Michael C. Hall.