"Dexter" hits the ground running, and then some.

Having closed last season with the mother of all finales, “Dexter” resumes minutes after that episode’s conclusion and (despite a change in showrunners) hits the ground running, and then some. These first three installments put both the title character and star-producer Michael C. Hall to the test, probing whether the vigilante monster who hid behind suburban bliss can maintain his veneer of normalcy when faced with a life-shattering crisis. Hall passes with flying colors even if his alter ego doesn’t, portending another killer year for Showtime’s signature series.

When we last saw him (and quit reading here if you have catching up to do), Miami Police blood-splatter expert/methodical killer Dexter Morgan had just found his wife Rita (Julie Benz) in a pool of blood, their infant son nearby. Devoid as he is of human emotion, Dexter is ill-equipped to react “normally” to such a devastating blow, exacerbating a rift with his suspicious tween stepdaughter Astor (Christina Robinson).

Worse, having one’s spouse brutally murdered tends to invite unwanted attention — including scrutiny from the FBI. Dexter’s numb response even begins to worry his faithful sister/fellow cop Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), who finds it increasingly difficult to rationalize his behavior, yielding strong scenes between the real-life husband and wife, while provoking suspicions in her partner, Quinn (Desmond Harrington).

Perhaps foremost, Dexter’s emotional roller-coaster proves time-consuming and distracting, making it hard for him to slip away and pursue his “own kind of therapy,” as he puts it — namely, eliminating those who deserve it, abiding by the “code” instilled in him by adopted father Harry (James Remar).

With producer Clyde Phillips having departed, “24″ alums Chip Johannessen and Manny Coto came aboard. Fortunately, they had the table bountifully set for them, and the mere sight of the homicidal Dexter toting a toddler around is its own kind of priceless.

Granted, the second and third hours don’t quite equal the first, which not only brims with pathos but flashes back to shed fascinating light on something that was always a mystery — how Dexter and Rita met.

“Dexter” will be hard-pressed to match the big twists that punctuated last season, but the latest campaign is off to an impressive — and impressively unpredictable — start. Few series (“Breaking Bad” comes to mind) are more adept at consistently keeping their audience off balance as to what happens next.

Indeed, in a TV landscape awash in the familiar, “Dexter’s” admirable commitment to that code might be its true killer app.

Dexter

Showtime, Sun. Sept. 26, 9 p.m.

Production

Filmed in Los Angeles by John Goldwyn Prods., the Colleton Co. and 801. Executive producers, Goldwyn, Sara Colleton, Chip Johannessen, Manny Coto, Scott Buck, Michael C. Hall; co-executive producers, Tim Schlattmann, Wendy West; supervising producer, Lauren Gussis; producer, Robert Lloyd Lewis; co-producers, Gary Law, Chad Tomasoski; director, Steve Shill; writer, Johannessen; based on the novel "Darkly Dreaming Dexter" by Jeff Lindsay;

Crew

Camera, Romeo Tirone; production designer, Jessica Kender; editor, Stewart Schill; music, Daniel Licht; theme, Rolfe Kent; casting, Shawn Dawson. 60 MIN.

Cast

Dexter Morgan - Michael C. Hall Debra Morgan - Jennifer Carpenter Joey Quinn - Desmond Harrington Vince Masuka - C.S. Lee Lt. Maria LaGuerta - Lauren Velez Angel Batista - David Zayas Harry Morgan - James Remar
With: Julie Benz, Shawn Hatosy, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Christina Robinson, Preston Bailey.

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