Television. Really? For a discerning Christian, television might seem to be a vacuous, mind-numbing, timesuck—a guilty pleasure at best. The general thesis of Neil Postman’s examination of television, Amusing Ourselves to Death, argues that the medium of television is disastrous in proportions described by the likes of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, that it is our trivial pleasures that eventually will do us in as a culture. Each of us can, no doubt, identify something that is troubling about the habit of television watching. Neil Postman, however, wrote in a different era. Now in the age of internet piracy, iPod videos, and Netflix’s “Watch It Now” online feature, television broadcasting has had to expand, retract, shift, and maneuver in reaction to a never-ending development of technology that gives more and more control to the consumer—when she will watch, if and how she will pay.
Despite all the clutter and confusion, the good news is that while Neil Postman’s book is prophetically invaluable as we discern what, how, and why we watch television, there is an emergence of newer television programming that is worth watching. It might even be fair to make an argument that HBO’s The Sopranos has marked the beginning of a Television renaissance. Ironically it is the uncensored content of cable networks like HBO that has given artistic license to the creators of these programs. While primetime television is further drowning in a shallow pool of so-called reality based shows, HBO and Showtime offer a few good ol’ episodic fictions that demonstrate a more definite capacity to engage the real reality. And that I even need make that last distinction is tragic in and of itself, a symptom of why we need clear discernment in our engagement with popular culture.
I offer Showtime’s ratings-record-breaking Dexter as an example of a show worth its fifty minutes. This show does not reach the heights of The Sopranos or The Wire, nor does it compare to the sophistication of AMC’s Mad Men. Yet, Dexter is worth examination as an artifact of the times simply because it has been Showtime’s highest rated series since its beginning in 2006. So the question is this: why?
The premise of the show is its greatest attention-grabbing asset. Dexter Morgan is a serial killer who kills only other killers who have slipped through the justice system and quite literally gotten away with murder. Normally such a storyline would weed out many a squeamish soul, but the show’s creators have managed a genre-bending amalgamation of romance, mystery, and drama that tempers the thriller into something even my wife looks forward to week after week. By season four, Dexter is thoroughly domesticated with a wife, two step-children, and a infant of his own. One print ad for the show presents Dexter with his baby boy wearing a t-shirt with the phrase, “My Dad is Killer.” This kind of tongue-in-cheek winsomeness is indicative of Dexter’s successful market appeal.
Dexter is visually pristine and even sanitary in the same way your typical prime time, major network drama is shot. Its setting, Miami, is portrayed in all its vibrant colors, its piquancy, its lively music. Dexter, then, does not have the feel of a story about a serial killer. In fact, in several episodes throughout the four seasons, Dexter Morgan does not kill anyone. Further, the murder scenes themselves do not revel in gratuitous bloodletting. If anything, it is the nudity and foul language typical of many of Showtime’s programs (Deadwood, for example) that is overdone, not the violence. This is not to say that Dexter’s murders are not grizzly or unsettling. What we are shown is enough to remember there is still a monster lurking beneath his seemingly harmless and domestic exterior.
It was Harry, his foster father and a police detective, who discovered Dexter’s sadism during his adolescence and who chose to instill in him a strict code of when and how and who to murder. Don’t get caught. Remain aloof and distant. Dexter develops a kind of alter ego that is akin to the naïve and simple mindedness of Superman’s Clark Kent. He keeps the murders clean, almost surgical. Dispose of the mutilated body parts permanently. He drops the weighted trash bags off the side of his motorboat named “Slice of Heaven.” Harry’s code keeps Dexter’s vigilante savagery secret, and Dexter and his foster sister both grow up to work for the Miami Metro police department, like their dad. Debra becomes a detective while Dexter is a blood spatter expert. He has, then, ready access to criminal databases and police evidence which help him hunt un-convicted murderers.
Dexter’s broad appeal doesn’t rely on gruesome violence. The show uses the premise of a vigilante murderer not to glut the viewer on death but, ironically, to explore questions about life. The duality of Dexter’s character, father and husband by day, killer by night, serves as an episodic morality tale. The show’s premise could have remained a gimmick limited to the shock value of blood and gore, but instead lead actor, Michael C. Hall, deftly plays the character of Dexter as both likeable and creepy in a way that takes us into the depths of a psychological drama. The narrative’s momentum is driven as much by his character as it is by the rise and fall of each season’s plot line. And here we have it all: a complex, tragic anti-hero caught up in playful and creative mysteries with universal, significant life-question themes pulsing under the surface.
What could be a more important life question than redemption? In each episode we find ourselves sifting Dexter Morgan to see if we might sympathize with him, to find anything worth redeeming. In season two he feigns a drug addiction, a ruse to misdirect Rita, his girlfriend at the time, from his true dark identity. In an AA-like group meeting he shares openly about his “addiction”: “I just know there is something dark in me. It’s there always. This dark passenger. And when he is driving, I feel alive.” We sympathize with Dexter because each of us has our own darkness. We hope for his redemption because if Dexter can change, then perhaps we can as well. If something worth saving exists in a murderer, then, hopefully, something worth saving exists in us.
We live in a society of unprecedented news coverage of violence. The tacit rule of newsrooms seems true: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Whether in the form of local crime or suicide bombings in the Middle East, our psyches are bombarded with astonishing amounts of death. One common and regular feature of news coverage is the “motive unknown” killings that leave us reeling at the edge of the dark chasm of senseless, meaningless violence. Dexter allows us vicariously to bring these killers to justice. Each un-convicted murderer’s death is a judgment day: Dexter cleanly binds the murderers to a table with plastic wrap; pictures of the killer’s victims hang around them to be reviewed. Before Dexter kills, he wants each murderer to know he or she has been found out and that justice is being exacted. This is the moral ambiguity of great literature where readers are allowed—even prompted—to explore the illicit arenas of the self. Perhaps you were in some small way gratified that Smerdyakov killed Fyodor Pavlovich? Or that both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth eventually die? Or that Buck is able to bone-crushingly defeat that bully dog named Spitz? Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, and Jack London explore the pathology of killers because we need a way to come to terms with horrific evil, to attempt to create meaning out of the meaningless. For some of us, such speculative flights of the imagination might serve to lead us further away from violence, toward pacifism or against capital punishment because perhaps even murderers can be rehabilitated.
Early in the first season Dexter in his ever-present voiceover remarks, “I have no feelings, but if I did, they would be for my sister.” This seems to be a convenient way for viewers to understand how he is able to live with his murderous self: he is inhuman. The rules of his father’s code dictate that Dexter continue to see himself this way, essentially as a monster. He must maintain the appearance of a regular guy while remaining emotionally hidden and unattached from other people. Dexter reasons that Rita, mother of two, divorced from a sexually and physically abusive drug addict, is an ideal girlfriend incapable of real intimacy because she is, he asserts, “in her own way as damaged as me.” Yet as we watch Dexter act out the roles of husband and father from one season to the next, we see that he is indeed capable of great feeling. We see this feeling growing so deeply it becomes apparent his family is becoming a liability. Which is the true Dexter and which is the lie? The “dark passenger” or the loving husband and father?
In order for Dexter to entertain such a question, he must investigate his father and the code. If he cares for Rita and the kids, if he has real feelings for them, then perhaps he is human. If Dexter has the capacity to give and receive love, then perhaps his whole self-understanding, the self-conception shaped by his father, is wrong. This is a common experience of coming of age, a process of sorting through what our parents have taught us to decide what we still believe to be true. For most of us, this process is scary, but for Dexter, it is dangerous. We are left to discover whether Dexter is headed toward becoming more human or more of a codeless, senseless killer. This is the dramatic twist of each season but especially of the most recent season four which is, incidentally, worth seeing if you’re interested in comedic actor John Lithgow (formerly of Third Rock from the Sun) playing the most heinous murderer to appear on Dexter yet.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Dexter’s creators is that Dexter could easily pass for mere entertainment. There is little work required from the viewers to enjoy themselves, yet there is still much for a person to dig for and ponder. Again, Dexter ought not to be compared with David Simon’s masterful five seasons of The Wire, a show I am glad to plug at any time because it is a show you cannot watch without your brain strapped on, a show so compelling it continues to do better in DVD sales than it ever did in Neilson ratings. Nor does Dexter pack as much punch as Helen Mirren’s Prime Suspect, another set of murder mysteries worth seeing because of its excellent writing, performance, and ability to address important social issues. Yet Dexter represents entertainment that’s inching toward trusting the intelligence of its viewers. Whether or not Dexter is for you, this is a kind of thoughtfulness we should be grateful for in the marketplace of popular culture.
Joshua Banner is Minister of Music and Art at Hope College. He is a contributor to the forthcoming For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts due out in March by Baker Books.