Wednesday, September 10, 2008
No Politics Week (Hopefully*)The WorstBest TV Series
THE EVILS OF CABLE. If you're an uncritical supporter of the Media Research Center and allied organizations, prepare to be riled. It's no secret that a lot of conservative groups are united in condemning the Showtime series Dexter:
“Dexter,” the celebrated Showtime series about a sympathetic-seeming serial killer, went under the knife ahead of its broadcast debut Sunday night on CBS. The curse words were replaced and the most visible moments of gore were truncated.
But some critics believe the drama does not belong on broadcast television, with or without the edits, for a fundamental reason: the storyline encourages viewers to root for a mass murderer.
“They intend to air material that effectively celebrates murder,” stated the Parents Television Council in a message to members two weeks ago. “The biggest problem with the series is something that no amount of editing can get around: the series compels viewers to empathize with a serial killer, to root for him to prevail, to hope he doesn’t get discovered.”
The council, a conservative-leaning group that regularly mounts campaigns against programming it perceives to be offensive, has rallied supporters to call their local CBS affiliate and file complaints. It says it has collected 17,000 complaints in the past two weeks.
Everything the PTC is quoted as saying about the series is true, but only up to a point. There really is considerable artistry involved in this unusual dramatic offering, and I am inclined to defend it not just as entertainment but as a fascinating discourse on morality, human nature, and the human condition.
Longtime readers of this site will be aware that I was no fan of HBO's The Sopranos, and the superficial similarities between The Sopranos and Dexter -- glorifying criminal behavior by depicting it as a metaphor for run-of-the-mill family dysfunction -- is obviously sufficient for the most righteous among us to look no further. But that's my problem with hard-line Christian watch groups generally. They're happiest when painting with a broad brush, and if we left entertainment of all kinds up to them, we'd all soon expire of boredom and mediocrity. Their preferred music would consist of those sickly-sweet Christian boy band CDs advertised on the Hallmark Channel, and all movie and TV production would likely be terminated in favor of "Murder She Wrote" reruns and rereleases of the oldest, most banal of Dean Jones Disney movies.
Just as the behavior and politics of contempoary Hollywood stars is a legitimate flashpoint for conservative anger at the excesses of the left, the repressive, humorless, and appallingly prudish demands of the MRCs and PTCs are the single most legitimate cause of liberal paranoia about the crypto-fascist tendencies of the right.
So let me make a case for Dexter as a show that adult Christians might find intriguing and thought provoking if they can get past their kneejerk prejudice against anything that isn't saccharine, preachy, or continuously uplifting (uh, boring).
Yes, Dexter is a serial killer. His cover is a job as a forensic blood expert in the Miami police department. And he kills quite often, with no sign of remorse. (And miraculously, no sign of David Caruso.) But he has less in common with Tony Soprano than he does with Raskalnikov, the protagonist of Doestoevski's Crime and Punishment. His character is a brilliantly conceived contradiction in terms -- an admitted sociopath raised by a man who drummed this terrible fact of his nature into him and taught him how to channel his worst impulses into areas that would do the least damage to the innocent and to his own prospects for survival. Which means, above all else, that Dexter has been educated as an observer of so-called ordinary people, as a painfully self-conscious alien in camouflage trying always to understand what he sees in order to better accommodate his behavior to what is normal and accepted. He is also -- due to his father's unrelenting instruction -- a highly disciplined person with an absolutist (imitation of a) moral code. He is driven to kill. But he cannot kill unless his victim is guilty of heinous crimes against the innocents whom Dexter is sworn not to harm himself.
This is a very complicated moral universe. And for the viewer, it can be a completely unexpected bonanza of insight. We are given the opportunity to watch humanity, i.e., ourselves, from the outside, from a perspective which openly declares that it doesn't have and doesn't understand human emotions and human responses to love, fear, injustice, hurt, and the desire for happiness, however conceived. All Dexter has is a father who bequeathed to him, well, commandments stipulating what he can and cannot do. The people he watches with such unflagging curiosity and bewilderment are making that stuff up for themselves, as if their own fathers (and mothers) were merely some starting point, a kernel they carry within and grow themselves and their behaviors out of, as they see fit. I don't want to overdo it, but it's entirely possible to see Dexter as an Old Testament kind of guy getting a good long look at all the baffling individual interpretations of the heirs of the New Testament.
It is in the conflict between these two mentalities that all the drama of Dexter originates. The long arc of the series is that Dexter keeps moving toward the experience of "normal" humanity as his camouflage embeds him deeper and deeper into the contexts of family, romance, and parenthood. He imitates behaviors and, in fact, experiences real human emotions he cannot appreciate because he has been so effectively taught to believe these are beyond him. In other terms, he is so gripped by his belief in the Original Sin of Dexter that he cannot even contemplate the possibility of salvation or what salvation might feel like.
A few words about production before I continue. The part of Dexter is played by Michael C. Hall, whose performance is worth a whole row of Emmies. His wry voiceover narration captures both his remoteness from others and the metronomic relentlessness of his curiosity about what it is that makes others good while he struggles to survive against his own model of himself as purely evil. The writing is also incredibly sharp. Most of the scenes seem to end a line before any character utters the next, obvious, expected banality. The direction and cinematography never editorialize; we, like Dexter, are somehow part of the staging -- detached observers of all kinds of behaviors, from the virtuous to the vile, and never invited in close enough to feel like participants in the human (non-Dexter) circus. No lingering closeups, no sentimental pauses, no protracted reaction shots. But no jump-cut, fake-suspense hurry, either. Paced by Dexter's spartan narration, the scenes keep marching along. We see treachery, violence, sex, flirtation, the mixed messages of love-hate romances, and professional infighting as a mere sequence of events that leads ultimately to consequences, some of which are precipitated by Dexter and some of which are not.
Now. Back to the question of salvation. Contrary to every impression I might have given, this show is neither nihilist nor devoid of hope. There is nothing overtly religious about Dexter, but its modern nature-versus-nurture argument is neatly embedded in Dexter's biography as an easily comprehended stand-in for the oldest debates about original sin. There is an absolutely horrifying seminal experience responsible for Dexter's pathology, so vivid, so revolting and unspeakable that it effected the same dehumanization of his biological brother, which leads to an agonizing evocation of Cain and Abel. Moreover, Dexter himself not only battles his worst impulses but, impossibly for a true sociopath, continues to advance in the direction of his only fear, the chaos and dangerous complications of getting ever more deeply involved with the others: those unpredictable -- and frequently nasty and selfish -- ordinary human beings he knows could bring about his death by lethal injection. Multiple times in the course of the series he risks his own life and well being for others, including his stepsister and near total strangers. Along the way, he begins to recognize that he might indeed possess some moral sense that is not automatically inferior to the human beings he lives with.
That's why we root for him and hope he escapes to live another day, another season. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the series ends with him settling into the chair of his execution, but by the time that happens, I would be surprised if Dexter hasn't realized that some power exists which is capable of forgivng his sins because he does belong to the world of human beings, regardless of what he was taught to believe about himself in childhood.
On top of all that, the dialogue is funny, the characters sharply and realistically drawn, the acting beyond reproach, the plots intricately woven and beautifully paced, with subplot arcs nested within the grander conflicts that provide minor resolutions which sometimes merge with mighty cliffhangers, and the whole reacquaints us all with the nature of the sin within ourselves, because when we share the satisfaction of Dexter's obsessive justice, we are reminded that his original sin is ours, too, which may be the real reason the hard Christian right hates this masterpiece of a TV series so much.
Rent it on DVD. If you find you despise it, so what. If you like it, maybe you'll have helped the rest of us avoid the specter of 392 Hallmark channels on our Hi-Def cable TVs.