Serial killers are so entwined in the public’s imagination it was inevitable there would be a TV series about one, answering the puzzling question of what Hannibal Lecter might do in his quieter moments. Yet in doing so, Showtime has reminded us how antics of the deranged — even when constructively channeled into vigilante justice — aren’t really all that pleasant to watch. Credit “Six Feet Under’s” Michael C. Hall with sinking his teeth into this distinctive new role, but a creepy, tawdry tone should place “Dexter” in that dreaded “off-off-Broadway” tier in terms of appeal.
Based on Jeff Lindsay’s novel “Darkly Dreaming Dexter,” the series focuses on a Miami forensics expert who finds the town — characterized as it is by a low murder-solving rate — “a great place for me to hone my craft.” Alas, said “craft” is ritual murder, though thanks to his foster father (James Remar, very effective in flashback sequences), Dexter (Hall) has learned to put his homicidal impulses to good use, hunting down and eliminating killers and miscreants who have skirted justice or otherwise gamed the system.
Dexter is close only with his foster sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), a cop toiling in vice who yearns to transfer into homicide. He also has an emotionally damaged girlfriend (Julie Benz) who, mercifully, is as uninterested in sex as he is. Meanwhile, one co-worker, Sgt. Doakes (Erik King), can sense there’s something seriously off about the guy — an intuition Dexter actually admires.
Steeped in atmosphere and heavy on voiceover narration, the show kicks into a higher gear with a crime spree by another, as-yet-unidentified (through three episodes, anyway) serial killer who has spotted Dexter and is teasing him with clues. “I think he’s trying to impress me,” Dexter muses in the second hour. “And it’s working.”
Diving headlong into the black humor, Hall quickly dispatches any thoughts of his “Six Feet” character, which, by itself, represents quite an accomplishment.
In their desire to be provocative, however, the producers, director Michael Cuesta and writer James Manos Jr. approach the line between “edgy” and “distasteful” and, at least at times, drift across it, despite their relative restraint in terms of excessive gore. Dexter is meant to be more acceptable because he slays only those who deserve it, but the relish with which he pursues his work — wrapped in cellophane and coolly wielding an electric saw — feels plucked from a Stanley Kubrick outtake reel.
Granted, some of Showtime’s recent series have been a little squishy conceptually (“Huff” comes to mind), and no one can accuse “Dexter” of such wishy-washiness. So if brilliant, psychotic lunatics are your bag, by all means, climb aboard.
As for pay TV’s marching orders of trying to impress the critics, at least on this one, it’s not working.