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Ever since it first aired in 2006, Dexter has continuously paid dividends for its network, Showtime, drawing in huge viewing figures, critical acclaim and fully merited award recognition for its taut, supremely crafted and morally duplicitous sagas following the existence of TV’s favorite serial killer.
That essential entertainment, however, is on the wane. Like another of Sho’s flagships, the polar opposite comedy drama Californication, it has hit severely choppy waters that threaten to not merely rock the boat but see it flounder on the rocks of mediocrity. We are, of course, speaking of the much derided and debated Season Six.
Dexter’s seventh year opens next week on Sunday 30th September on, amid much expectation and fervent anticipation, a cliffhanger. If it is to have any hope of hitting the heights it did consistently for four wonderful cycles, it must improve. Here are five ways it needs to do just so.
(Obvious Season 6 Spoilers)
Tightening the Bolts of Plotting
One of the major issues that Six suffered was just how noticeably loose the writing and storytelling had become, a serious flaw particularly notable when a second viewing was undertaken. Even since Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter was first put on the small screen with the first season, the show, like its protagonist, has relied heavily on meticulous, obsessive attention to detail.
The show has fallen into lethargy in this regard. Last season saw the A-plot trundle vacuously for six episodes, and then slowly pick up speed, then pop rather than bang like an anticlimactic, rain sodden firework display. The Big Bads (The Doomsday Killers) appeared from the offset, exchanging vapid and vague lines of dialogue with no real depth or purpose, moping around various Miami locations with little sense of purpose, occasionally snagging a victim but mostly just spouting ominous one-liners that missed the mark. The truth is that such sagging, snail’s pace scenes would have ended up on the cutting room floor had they not featured special guest stars Colin Hanks and Edward James Olmos.
This comes off as a half hearted attempt to repeat the unique approach displayed by Season Four, in which the year kicked off with John Lithgow’s Trinity Killer appearing in the opening scene. While effective then, it falls decisively flat this time around. This in itself was a new trend, since the previous major killers Dexter faced in the show’s history all remained in the shadows until the time for confrontation was nigh. Before then, anticipation was built up by witnessing the destruction they left behind, heightening the desire to meet them in person. Six’s half hearted mid-season plot twist doesn’t justify the utterly disposable scenes we’d previously been subjected to.
This malaise spreads into the various subplots too. Episodes grinded to a frustrating halt for lengthy, unsuccessful stabs at drama that stank of filler; Mos Def’s Brother Sam character was introduced as a person of interest for Dexter, then became a plot anchor despite being well portrayed; the introduction of uninteresting minor characters not serving to the main story screamed of pointlessness; the writing team’s inability to weave the show’s signature gallows humor into proceedings resulted in various scenes of needless time wasting.
The major problem, when you break it down, is a lack of content. Were Season Six to have employed the same brevity seen in earlier seasons, the run would have lasted about five episodes. Much deeper, juicier and more tantalizing substance is gravely needed.
Giving the Characters a Purpose
Relevant to the last point is the part played by the show’s cast of main characters. Despite being a show about one man, right from the start Dexter has given time and affectionate attention to each of the major players. Remember the duped Doakes storyline concerning a drug cartel in the first Season? This had no connection to the A-Story, but gave us insight into the character, a chance for some investment. Likewise Deb’s relationship with Lundy in Season Two, and Quinn’s feud with the titular character in Four.
Six made the regulars suffer in favor of giving face time to newcomers with nothing to say. Despite being a fan-favorite, Angel Batista was given less to do than his previously unmentioned babysitting sister Jamie, while his partner Quinn’s main contribution was getting drunk. Deb at least became the department head, though this posed a noticeable and clumsy break from realistic machinations, but the worst victims were Maria LaGuerta and Harry Morgan.
The explanation for the latter being so badly neglected can be accounted for by the final point, but LaGuerta’s long absences from screen and purpose are far harder to account for. Promoted upstairs, she only ever serves as an antagonist to Deb, returning to the snarking personality which was successfully shed by years of character development. Her role in proceedings is nil, and her depth is even less than that. This is a complex, superbly played out character who now appears to have become the bane of the writer’s room, someone who they desperately want to write out due to a lack of ideas.
All of this would be forgivable were it justifiable. It would be blithely ignorant and biased to claim that the show has never sidelined its characters for long stretches, but this was always due to a lack of time, and usually prolonged spells were ended with said character arriving in the plot with a bang, providing an essential part to the whole. This never happened in Six, where Dexter’s colleagues were consistently portrayed as incompetent cops with nothing to say. It doesn’t help that they were being subbed out for…well, filler.
Getting a Better Handle on Dexter’s Job Remit
One of Season Six’s most infamous moments, a brief development that made eyes roll and snorts emanate from mouths, is a truly horrendous cop out of convenience when Dexter appears compromised, with the police about to move into a crime scene featuring a mural depicting him as the Devil, linking him to the case and seemingly providing a fountain of unanswerable questions. Instead, he is informed that “we were waiting for you”. Miami Metro Homicide were sitting on their hands outside of the house, awaiting a single forensics officer’s arrival, giving him ample chance to destroy the evidence. Either the department enacted huge, illogical changes to procedure between scenes, or the show just shattered the illusion of portrayed entertainment.
While this is the most obvious example of the various contrivances the show has fallen into of late, perversely it is not the worst offender. The various other signs that Dexter has at some point been given a free role within his department is far more damning. Throughout the show, we have seen that Dex’s position as blood spatter analyst occasionally gives him opportunities to manipulate proceedings, but it’s a limited placement of power. It mainly gives him an excellent hiding place, and some leeway to swan off on ‘field research’ while actually pursuing his own interests. Having him grounded in this reality is essential in both providing some authenticity to the set up. Six blew this out of the water by conveniently forgetting what exactly his job entails.
The results are endlessly frustrating. We see Dex conducting an autopsy, most definitely not his job, and discovering a clue that a coroner never picked up on. Later, he examines crime scene evidence that is surely Masuka’s responsibility, and again finding a hint that leads him, not the police, towards one of the killers. The end of the episode Horse of a Different Color is the worst display of this problem; Dexter finds a painfully obvious blood trail that everybody else failed to spot, then being the first to hear a suspicious noise, and finally is the only person to notice the strange behavior of a by-stander who proves to be one of the killers. Not only is Dex portrayed as a superhero crime solver, his colleagues are shown as being completely useless. No wonder their crime solve rate is so miserably low.
If the writer’s are to produce material which doesn’t read like dotting fan fiction, more self-discipline is required.
Wholesale Improvement of the Inner Monologue
The dwindling quality of a show’s writing can usually be best displayed by direct comparison between the earlier and later efforts, and it is saddening that one of Dexter’s most famed, and celebrated narrative tools, the inner monologue narration, does not stand up to much scrutiny in the more recent seasons.
Particularly in the first season, the voice over, wonderfully constructed and delivered by Michael C. Hall, was a joy to listen to. Not only did it provide ironic humor by showing the contrast between Dexter’s genuine reactions and attitudes compared to his meek alter ego’s spoken replies, but it also gave an at time uncomfortable glimpse into his psyche as a murderer. It meant that a series that takes in numerous narrative viewpoints could also contain a first person perspective for the key issues and also helped build up a bond with the protagonist.
By contrast, Season Six’s voice over was a subject of neglect, exploitation and cheap afterthought. It includes numerous pieces of plot exposition, meaningless and ill-thought out stream of consciousness, and lazy establishment of the character’s motives and intent. But even then, it is also seemingly forgotten about as a tool of storytelling. A great example is the season opener, in which it’s shown that Dex has bought the apartment adjoining his, creating a super-house to enable more space for his infant son, Harrison. Rather than touch upon this in narration, a painful info-dump of a conversation between Dexter and Batista takes place, an exchange existing to establish a new piece of information that never sounds like real dialogue.
Worse still, we never get a sense of what Dexter is thinking or where he is emotionally. In the episode ‘Nebraska’, in which he allows his dark passenger to take the wheel, a great opportunity to see a new, chaotic and unrestrained Dexter is wasted. The narration sounds like it would in any other episode. From this, it seems that nothing has really changed, that his psyche has taken no hits and not altered to accommodate a very different influence on his tortured mind. This lack of due care and attention simply has us wondering why he’s doing the things he’s doing.
Of course, giving meaningful soliloquies may be too hard to pull off when you’re not…
Providing an Arc for Dexter
Each season of the show has carried an underlying theme reflected by the main arc followed by Dexter, a rich character journey which is geared towards long term development.
In Season One, despite it being the show’s effort to establish the people and places of the story, main focus is placed on Dexter’s sense of identity. Season Two follows this up with uncertainty and a long hard look at his purpose, Season Three orientates towards change and Four is always about balance and responsibility. Even Season Five manages to strike up a recurrent motif, though if it is a little heavy handed and narrow by contrast, dealing with loss and redemption.
Season Six…doesn’t have one. You could make the argument that faith is supposed to be the ongoing theme, but if this is truly the intention it is a very weak effort, a blind shot that hopes egregious use of religion will cover the lack of growth. It’s a bad sign when a series about a man beset by demons on all sides opens a season with a monologue explaining just how wonderful and carefree his life is. This lack of conflict is something alien to the show, and positively jarring when you consider that the last time we saw him, Dexter was only tentatively starting to heal following Rita’s death.
It doesn’t get much better. Brother Sam is supposed to bring a degree of belief and positive energy into Dexter’s darkness, but after getting killed this influence is promptly dropped. The aforementioned Nebraska road trip shows a dichotomy of chaos and order that lasts only as long as the episode’s running time. Dexter’s passionate chase of the main villains lacks a genuine motive, and if anything shows that Dex is regressing as a character, becoming a reckless and blindsided homicidal maniac who openly competes with the cops. This would be more interesting if it didn’t contravene everything about Dexter’s MO even before all the harsh lessons he has been taught over the show’s run.
Ultimately, the Doomsday Killers have no meaningful connection with Dex, he has no reason to pursue them so fervently, and his decision to do so leads to complications that have no long term complications other than the cliffhanger ending. There has been no impact made on him throughout proceedings, and by the time the final scene begins he is exactly the same person that we caught up with in the opener. This lack of growth is a keystone of standalone episodic television, not serialized ongoing narrative; if Dexter Morgan is to grow, and the show with him, he has to be given some very tough lessons very soon.
Considering that his secret has just been blown, and millions will rapturously observe as this pans out, this at least may be addressed. At least, so you’d think…
Sunday 30th September’s the night.