Serial killers have had it fairly good in movies. Norman Bates managed to star in four major feature films (not counting a crappy remake of the original and a TV movie). Dr. Hannibal Lecter has had an even better career in film, starring in five different movies. But on television serial killers have never had it very good. At best they can only hope for the occasional TV movie or miniseries, or perhaps a guest appearance on one of the Law and Order or CSI series. That is, until now.
Of course, there is a very simple for this. Serial killers are not exactly sympathetic characters. For all that we might enjoy watching movies featuring the likes of Bates and Lecter, ultimately we still regard them as villains (at least I hope that most of us do). After all, murder is one of the greatest crimes known to man, and committing a series of them marks one as the ultimate evil. It would seem, however, that Showtime's series Dexter has found a way around this. Yes, Dexter Morgan is a serial killer, but he not quite like any other to ever appear in film or television. You see, Dexter kills other serial killers...
Michael C. Hall plays Dexter, a police forensics specialist with an unusual pastime. Dexter hunts (and ultimately kills) serial killers he believes have escaped justice. He conducts his life according to what he calls the Code of Harry, the code of his foster father (a well regarded police officer) who reasoned that there are those who deserve to die and directed his foster son's homicidal tendencies towards those with, well, their own homicidal tendencies. To this end Dexter only kills those who have murdered more than once, those serial murderers who have escaped justice. In one episode he even passes up a chance to kill a defenceless innocent for precisely that reason--the man was innocent and it would be wrong to kill him. To a large degree this makes Dexter a sympathetic character. After all, I rather suspect most of us have longed to see serial killers and mass murderers from Ted Bundy to Charles Manson get "what they deserve." It is hard not to root for Dexter as he stalks and, in the end, kills his latest, inhuman quarry.
While we might sympathise with Dexter in his pursuit of those who have escaped the long arm of the law, there is much about Dexter that is disquieting. He is so detached that he hardly feels anything. One gets the feeling that he really does love his foster sister Debra and his girlfriend Rita (although that love is hardly romantic by any stretch of the imagination), he does not know how to express that love. Such ordinary human activities as hanging out with friends, birthday parties, and even sex puzzle Dexter. What is worse, while the ordinary person would express some distaste at even killing the likes of Norman Bates or Hannibal Lecter, Dexter actually enjoys his homicidal hobby--from stalking his prey to ultimately killing them (usually very slowly....).
In many respects Dexter is very much a one man show. The series simply would not work without the talent of Michael C. Hall. Hall is all too perfect as Dexter, a man at home flaying the body of a mass murderer, but out of place in a bar. One of the best things about the series is Hall narrating Dexter's internal monologue, in which he reveals his thoughts about his life and life in general. While Dexter is to some degree a one man show, it features one of the best ensembles on television. Erik King delivers a very good performance as the gruff Sgt. Doakes, the one man on the police force who doesn't admire Dexter's brilliance in forensics (indeed, he often calls Dexter "sicko"). David Zayas also gives a good performance as Angel Batista, the detective who not only admires Dexter's skill in forensics, but considers Dexter a friend. Perhaps the best actor in the cast besides Hall is Julie Benz as Dexter's girlfriend Rita. Utterly ordinary in every respect (although hardly unattractive, she is no beauty queen either), Benz makes Rita a very realistic and sympathetic character as a woman who hardly suspects that her boyfriend regularly slices up serial killers.
Dexter is an intelligently written series that opens up some interesting questions about morality. Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves whether Dexter is actually better than other serial killers because he kills those who have murdered repeatedly and escaped justice. Does the fact that he actually enjoys his murderous activities make any difference? Does it make him a less moral or ethical person than those of us who do not kill, for any reason? These are questions that I suspect only those who are steadfastly against any sort of killing would have difficulty answering. And they are questions that only a well executed, well written, and well performed series such as Dexter would dare to ask.