Dexter: The First Season

(2006) *** 1/2 Unrated
651 min. Showtime. Cast: Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter, James Remar.

/content/films/3304/1.jpgAccepting people just the way they are has been a societal chestnut for quite some time—just ask Jesus...or Mr. Rogers—though many have yet to learn the lesson others understand: that it's wrong to judge someone for what's in their nature. But what if someone's nature includes a compulsion to commit terrible acts? Even if we can avoid judging them, surely we cannot accept them. They need help, and they have to learn to change their ways. The Showtime series Dexter challenges comfortable assumptions about human nature by positioning as its hero a compulsive serial killer. Deft writing allows Dexter to be an anti-hero for the new millenium.

Dexter Morgan (canny Michael C. Hall of Six Feet Under) had an extra cross to bear during puberty: the dawning awareness of a compulsive urge to kill. Luckily, Dexter's late foster father Harry (James Remar) was a cop with a sensitivity to his son's plight and the smarts to devise a plan of action. This plan—which Dexter has come to call "the Code of Harry"—acknowledges that Dexter cannot stop himself from killing, but redirects the impulse to vigilante justice (and careful self-protection). In Harry's mind, Dexter can right the wrongs of the justice system, get the ones that got away. "Killing must serve a purpose," Harry says. "Otherwise it's just plain murder." As a grown man, Dexter followed in his father's footsteps by joining the Miami Metro Police Department as a blood-spatter analyst, alongside his stepsister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), a beat cop who dreams of becoming detective. Dexter's job puts him in a position to discover appropriate prey, and gives him the knoledge and wherewithal to avoid long as he follows Harry's precautionary code.

Based as it is on the novels of Jeff Lindsay (developed for television by James Manos Jr.), and with plotlines developed over short-form seasons, Dexter has a winningly novelistic narrative. Each of the first season's twelve episodes has a degree of self-containment, but there's also no doubt that the season is a continuous story that's carefully worked out to provide satisfactory resolution by season's end. Also, Dexter capitalizes on a technique that's all the rage on television these days: first-person narration, and no show does it better than Dexter. The hero confides in the audience all the thoughts he cannot say to anyone in his life: not Debra, with whom he's otherwise tight, and certainly not his steady girlfriend Rita Bennett (Julie Benz, in an expertly modulated sunny-sad turn).

In Season One, at least, Dexter claims to "have no feelings at all," likening himself to the donut box at the end of his morning jaunt around the office: "Just like me--empty inside." Though it's clear the forensics tech gets off on artful splatters of blood and poetic justice, Dexter is well-liked by his colleagues, with the exception of Sergeant James Doakes (Erik King), a bulldog who smells Dexter's secret. The overarching story of Season One—apart from establishing Dexter's world—is the investigation of serial murderer The Ice Truck Killer, who Dexter admires as "an artist." As Dexter works the case, an intimate relationship develops between himself and the killer: one that's at first remote, but increasingly intimate and ultimately face to face, as Dexter learns a terrible secret that links himself to this shadow of Dexter's self-justified lifestyle. It's a thrilling enough story, but the character of Dexter is what's truly fascinating. Thanks to Hall's brilliant performance and a stable of top-notch writers, Dexter is going strong, heading into a fourth season (and counting) of ingenious twists.

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 3

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1

Street date: 1/6/2009

Distributor: Paramount Home Entertainment

On Blu-ray at last, Dexter: The First Season puts all twelve episodes onto three discs. The picture quality is excellent: on rare occasions a bit grainy, noisy or hot, but generally sharply defined and right in line with the series' surreality of light, shadow and color. The HD source is, of course, clean and clear—and a noticeable step up from DVD.

The set's primary bonus features are two commentaries. There's a commentary on "Return to Sender," with cast members Jennifer Carpenter, David Zayas, Lauren Velez and Erik King, and another commentary on "Born Free" with producers Sara Colleton, Clyde Phillips and Daniel Cerone. The cast commentary gives a good sense of the camaraderie one might witness on the set; the actors are playful and friendly. And though Hall's not present, he recently married Carpenter, so, um, you know they get along. The producers' commentary is more informative about the series' development (especially in adaptation from the source material) and production, but beware of spoilers that figure into future seasons of the show.

The Blu-ray set turns out to be a bit skimpy when it comes to bonus features, most of them having been shunted to BD-Live status. So if your player is hooked up to the internet, you're good to get the new featurette "The Academy of Blood—A Killer Course," the twelve-minute "Witnessed in Blood—A True Murder Investigation" found on the DVD set, a Michael C. Hall podcast, the first episode of Dexter: Season Three, and the first two episodes of the new Showtime series The United States of Tara.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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