Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Slice of Life - Charting Dexter

By Martha Reed

I’ve found the best way to watch TV is to turn off your television.

When you hear about a great cable series like Sex and the City or The Sopranos, hold off on it until the DVD comes out and then schedule an indulgent weekend when you can watch three or four hours of straight programming free from commercial interruption. I usually wait until the middle of February, when the gutters are full of slush and it’s cold and nasty outside, and then I brew up a pot of tea and settle into my favorite comfy chair. It’s the best. I tried this a couple of years ago when I hosted my own personal Lost weekend, and now, this weekend past, I curled up and dug into the Showtime series Dexter.

Let me tell you first off that when I read the first two Dexter books I knew right away a whole lot of people weren’t going to be happy with the Dexter character. It’s hard to justify finding entertainment value in a hero who is a serial killer, and honestly, no one ever really tried it before except maybe - just maybe - when Thom Harris invented Hannibal Lecter. Oh sure, BH (before Hannibal) we had examples of human monsters like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho or the thrill killers in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope, but this type of psychopathic character was more fascinating as a paragon of deviant behavior than as any example of sly humor.

I’m willing to argue that there’s a tipping point in Silence of the Lambs where readers are so skillfully brought to the realization that there is a crazy kind of logic behind Hannibal’s insanity that they found themselves sympathizing with a monster. I know it happened to me, and I’ll admit I caught myself smiling when Hannibal decided to invite the despicable Dr. Chilton to (be) dinner. That precise moment, for me, was the beginning of what I now see being more fully explored in Dexter.

Yes, Dexter Morgan is a monster. He’s cold, he’s calculating, and he’s emotionally clueless, but the distinction that makes Dexter funny is that he knows he’s missing something vitally important – an intimate attachment to another human being - and he wants it (or at least that’s what he professes). He’s a Pinnochio, a wooden boy trying to be real, and the humor is in watching Dexter try.

Why is Dexter so popular? Is it because in him we feel some human hope that he might still be redeemable? Or do we laugh with Dexter because we are all still trying to figure it out, we all still present our own protective masks to the world and that perhaps in Dexter we recognize a piece of our own lonesome selves?


Anonymous said...

I haven't seen Dexter, but in "Silence of the Lambs" the quintessential Hannibal scene, IMHO, is when he's in the cage and he reaches out and tries to touch hands with the character played by Jodi Foster. For me, that scene exemplifies that even his sick behavior is a twisted desire for contact.

Joyce Tremel said...

I hope I'm not the only person who has no sympathy at all for these characters. Entertaining or not, Hannibal and Dexter are killers. Fictional or not, there is no justifiable excuse for what they do. I don't get whatever it is people see in Dexter.

Annette said...

Joyce, I tend to agree with you. The only Hannibal Lecter movie I've seen was the old Michael Mann version of "Manhunter" (William Petersen AKA Gil Grissom of CSI fame, back when he was young and extremely cute, starred). While I drooled over Billy Petersen, I found nothing appealing in the Hannibal character.

I've read the first Dexter book (had to find out what all the hoopla was about), but have no desire to read more or watch the show. Flawed, wounded heroes are one thing. Sick, murderous ones are a whole other matter.

Anonymous said...

I think people like Dexter because he's the ultimate vigilante---a man who will defend the weak and innocent by killing the predators. And his internal struggle--trying to understand what real humane/human behavior is and will allow--is compelling, too. Will he ever recognize what's right and wrong? And if he does, will he stop killing the monsters who are worse than he is? It's a conundrum of conflicts that irresistible. Well, almost.---I can read the books, but I find the TV show too graphic and immediate. And I can't cope with torture of any kind. But what really grosses me out? The opening credits when he's cooking & eating his breakfast. It's sickening.

That he's been embraced by Americans today--that's the truly quease-worthy issue.

Anonymous said...

I talked to a friend of mine on the way to work, and she wondered if perhaps we watch Dexter because he's the Boogeyman - the ultimate remorseless soulless evil, and we like to tease ourselves by playing with that idea.

And William Petersen, I forgot about him in that movie. I couldn't take my eyes off him!