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Dexter: Investigating Cutting Edge Television

on Wed, 10/06/2010 - 00:00

While cable subscription stations have raised the bar on original television series in recent years, they have also pushed the boundaries on the nature of traditional narratives. Because of their status as pay channels as opposed to network television that is broadcast for free over the airwaves, HBO and Showtime are subject to a lower level of scrutiny by the Federal Communications Commission in regards to content. Although nudity, violence and explicit language are thus fair game for the shows that they produce, the two channels have also taken advantage of the relaxed guidelines to explore series that feature lead characters of a dubious nature. From Tony Soprano on The Sopranos to Nancy Botwin of Weeds, these are not the types of “heroes” found on traditional television. Then there’s Dexter on Showtime. The vigilante-like serial killer, despite an obvious “anti-hero” persona, has amassed a large fanbase, critical acclaim and—most astonishingly—a sympathetic quality that allows viewers to not only “root” for Dexter Morgan but identity with him as well.

The premise of the series, coupled with the “hero” versus “anti-hero” nature of Dexter Morgan’s personification, makes Dexter ripe material for academic dissertation. Publisher I.B. Tauris has therefore released a collection of essays about the show as part of its “Investigating Cult TV” series of books. Edited by Douglas L. Howard, Dexter: Investigating Cutting Edge Television (2010) is filled with numerous treatises that discuss and dissect the Showtime series from such vantage points as the show’s structure, ethics, character relationships and place within various narrative genres.

“Never before has serial killer pop culture been so mainstream, so accepted in American society as with Dexter,” David Schmid comments in his essay, “The Devil You Know: Dexter and the ‘Goodness’ of American Serial Killing.” “As such, Dexter represents a turning point in the willingness of Americans to embrace the serial killer as one of their own, as the personification of essentially American values.” Schmid goes on to argue that American culture and society has always had a fascination with murderers, dating all the way back to the Puritan Age and public executions. There is a moral dilemma that goes along with such fascination, however, one that the producers of Dexter have been able to resolve through the originality of their storytelling techniques.

Dexter Morgan, for instance, may be a serial killer but he only kills other murderers. In another essay contained in Dexter: Investigating Cutting Edge Television, “From Silver Bullets to Duct Tape: Dexter versus the Traditional Vigilante Hero,” Stan Beeler compares Dexter to other characters derived from American culture, both real and historical. “The very foundations of the United States depend on a tale of revolt against unjust taxation,” Beeler writes. “It is not, therefore, surprising that the mythology of the nation as expressed in its popular culture abounds with tales of men who, when faced with evildoers wrapped in the protection afforded by a weak or corrupt legal system, take justice into their own hands.”

For both David Schmid and Stan Beeler, the popularity of the Showtime series stems from a deep-rooted aspect of an American belief, one that has been played out in comic books such as Batman, the Death Wish movie franchise starring Charles Bronson and television shows like The Lone Ranger. David Schmid, however, offers additional aspects of Dexter that subconsciously assist its audience in working through any moral dilemma regarding the main character. He mentions two specific instances, for example, where Dexter Morgan’s actions display both a “proto-feminist” and “progressive” nature. In the episode “Shrink Wrap,” Dexter’s victim is a psychiatrist who has been manipulating strong women into committing suicide, while in another episode, “Love American Style,” the antagonists are a married couple who have been exploiting—as well as murdering—illegal Cuban immigrates. Dexter Morgan isn’t solely interested in keeping the streets of Miami safe for white males but for everyone, regardless of race or gender.

Other characteristics of Dexter discussed by David Schmid include how the lead character follows a moral code that dictates his actions; that the trauma and tragedy experienced by Dexter as a young boy shaped the murderer inside as opposed to simply becoming a deviant of society; and the fact that each season of the series establishes a “good-versus-evil” dichotomy with Dexter Morgan portraying the “good” while facing off against an enemy that is morally bankrupt and thus worse than the “hero” of the story.

This is not to suggest that all of the essays contained in Dexter: Investigating Cutting Edge Television paint the character of Dexter in such heroic and positive terms. Douglas L. Howard, for instance, compares Dexter to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with Harry Morgan, Dexter’s adoptive father, playing the role of Victor Frankenstein and the lead protagonist as his horrific creation. While Victor was motivated to find a way to overcome death following the loss of his mother, it is police detective Harry’s frustration at watching too many criminals go free on technicalities that drives him to shape Dexter into a vigilante killing machine. And like Victor, it is only after Harry witnesses his creation fully formed and not merely as some abstract notion that he realizes the true consequences of his actions.

“For all of the lessons that he teaches Dexter, the final lessons are Harry’s, and these are the lessons of Frankenstein,” Howard concludes. “Violating moral and social laws in the name of an ideal does not lead to retribution or vindication. Justice is not served by injustice, and death does not lead to rebirth.”

Dexter is that rare television show that not only entertains but raises thought-provoking and morally ambiguous questions as well. Despite being a serial killer, Dexter Morgan is in many ways a mirror image of each of us—a complicated human being trying to find his place in the world while balancing his perceived values of what constitutes good and evil. The roots of the series run deep in American popular culture in addition to our nation’s history and reflect the competing light and dark natures of both. Dexter: Investigating Cutting Edge Television thus offers an illuminating dissertation on not only the Showtime series Dexter, but society at large as well.

Anthony Letizia

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