‘Dexter’ Injected Fresh Blood, Brand at Showtime

Departing series put the cabler on the map, and developed its style of outsize characters on the edge

It is a truism of the television biz that a single hit show can turn a network around. For Showtime, the dawn of “Dexter” in 2006 didn’t so much turn the ship around as it charted a course for the future.

In so doing, the show built a platform that allowed Showtime to inch its way out of the shadow of the other big pay cable outfit on the block, HBO. Because the series about a Miami police blood-splatter expert who moonlights as a serial killer — one who preys on other murderers who manage to escape justice — was such a milestone for Showtime, it’s no surprise that there have been tears shed during the long goodbye of panels, parties and retrospectives this month leading up to “Dexter’s” Sept. 22 finale after eight seasons.

“This was not just a tentpole show for us — this was a brand-defining show,” said Showtime chairman-CEO Matthew Blank.

Blank admits to having doubts when he first read the pilot script developed by then-Showtime entertainment prexy Robert Greenblatt. Blank and his boss, CBS Corp.’s Leslie Moonves, knew that the pilot was expertly crafted, and that star Michael C. Hall would be able to provide emotional grounding for an out-there premise.

“Dexter’s” Dexter Morgan wasn’t the first flawed antihero of the modern cable drama era. HBO already had Tony Soprano and “Deadwood’s” Al Swearengen running riot, and “The Shield’s” Det. Vic Mackey was on the case for FX.

To stand out from the pack, Showtime had to find its own spin on a larger-than-life character who could produce gasp-inducting moments while still being human enough for viewers to care about. Showtime found it in Hall’s haunted eyes, every time he reached for the Saran wrap, the knife roll and his iconic “kill suit.”

Not to be overlooked (even though it has been by Emmy voters) is the importance of Jennifer Carpenter’s role as Morgan’s tough-talking sister Debra, which added emotional dimension to Hall’s character. A strong ensemble cast of supporting players (including David Zayas, C.S. Lee, James Remar, Desmond Harrington and Lauren Velez) helped the show to turn on a dime from bloodsoaked killing scenes to the gallows humor of cops and detectives at work.

“At the end of eight years, I feel like we were still making something (worthwhile),” Hall observed at a Sept. 12 panel session at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. The show also survived changes behind the scenes among showrunners and key writers. By all accounts, that’s a testament to the tone that was set by Hall.

“We maintained a working environment that was collaborative and all about telling the story — that and nothing else,” Hall said. “I’m proud of that.”

When “Dexter” quickly began gaining pop culture traction, on the heels of a good critical response the previous year to “Weeds,” the combo-effect emboldened the Showtime programming team to develop its own signature style of show built around outsize characters on the edge: think “Californication,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Shameless” and “Homeland.” This led to a more focused strategy than it had employed with past original series, which ranged from gay drama “Queer as Folk” to black family vehicle “Soul Food” to fantasy vehicle “Dead Like Me” and a string of forgettable comedies.

“Dexter” drove subscribers to Showtime, but it was also the first Showtime-owned series to do any real business for the company in international markets and in homevid sales. All of those factors helped fatten the bottom line, and proved to be a calling card for Showtime in the creative community.

As Blank and Showtime entertainment prexy David Nevins delivered hugs and handshakes to cast members and producers at the Sept. 12 gathering, the exec, who has led Showtime for nearly 25 years, could not emphasize enough what “Dexter” hath wrought.

“It absolutely played a critical role in defining the Showtime brand,” Blank said. “The brand that is so strong today was not strong at all nine years ago.”

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