Dexter seems nice enough. He's got a nice job, a nice girlfriend, a nice apartment, a nice life. But it's all a convenient cover for his not-so-nice hobby—killing people. Then he dismembers their bodies and dumps them in the harbor. He's a serial killer driven by a hunger he can't understand and a lust for blood he refuses to deny. Does it matter that Dexter only kills other killers? Serial vigilantism is a messy pastime, but the guy brings doughnuts to work. How bad could he be?
Born on the premium cable channel Showtime, Dexter has found new stalking grounds on network TV. The controversial move to CBS has raised eyebrows. After all, Showtime's blood-spattered cult hit makes CSI look like Hannah Montana. Just how much would have to be cut from a show about a serial killer for it to pass as prime-time network television?
Apparently, not much.
Oh, CBS did slice away some content. Gone are the bevy of f- and s-words heard in the pay-cable version. It also cut out footage of a torture-porn Web site, and slapped bras on a handful of bare-breasted drawings. But nearly all the blood, gore and terror remain. And there's not much one can do about Dexter's problematic ethos, which has implications far beyond a bunch of obscenities.
The Parents Television Council took note and, on Feb. 20, called on CBS' sponsors and affiliates to yank their support of the show. President Tim Winter said, "When each new day brings a headline news story about yet another senseless mass-murder in America, how could CBS make such an irresponsible programming decision? ... The broadcast industry must grasp the significance of the role it plays by desensitizing and validating violent and unlawful behavior."
That isn't an overstatement. The show doesn't just ask audiences to like the guy. It compels them to. He's instilled with a twisted sense of right and wrong in that he only kills folks who "deserve" it: rapists, pedophiles and drunk drivers who literally got away with murder.
"Some people express a sense of guilt that they are drawn to the show," Dexter star Michael C. Hall told USA Today. "Maybe the guilt is more intense because they find themselves identifying with and liking the guy."
But take away the show's sharp writing and hip moral ambiguity and Dexter turns out to be little more than a gussied up version of the Saw movies. The hero is a monster. The fact that he dispatches other monsters doesn't change that.
Dexter pretends a lot. He smiles. He plays with his girlfriend's kids. But he's most at home wielding a meat cleaver or a power drill. When it comes right down to it, Dexter is about rationalizing unconscionable behavior. Don't let teens become voyeuristic accomplices.
Episodes Reviewed: Feb. 17, 24, Mar. 2, 2008 (CBS); Season One Episodes 1-4, 12 (Showtime)