One of my favorite TV mindgames is the one where a showrunner backs his program into a seemingly untenable corner in a season finale and then either opts not to return or gets replaced, leaving somebody completely different to have to figure out an escape strategy.
TV Review: Showtime’s ‘Dexter’ returns for Season 5
It happens with some frequency, either intentionally or unintentionally.
Think of the mess that Aaron Sorkin left for John Wells on “The West Wing” after the fourth season finale, with the kidnapping of the first daughter and the subsequent Constitutional power crisis.
Think of the mess that Amy Sherman-Palladino left for her unintended successor in submarining the core romantic relationship at the end of the sixth season of “Gilmore Girls.”
Clyde Phillips (and departing executive producer Melissa Rosenberg) left a similar mess for “Dexter” writing staff at the end of Season Four.
But “Dexter” has never been steered by one single voice in the way that Solkin or Sherman-Palladino steered their shows and even with Phillips no longer manning the writers' room permanently, there's still a significant amount of staff continuity.
It's no wonder, then, that after seeing three Season Five episodes of “Dexter,” I can assure you that new showrunner Chip Johannessen and his team have stared down that last cliffhanger and faced it in oft-interesting ways. While not without significant flaws, “Dexter” appears to have set itself up for another intriguing season.
[More after the break… I'll be keeping spoilers to a minimum, but obviously don't click through if you want to remain completely fresh. And obviously the review will discuss the events of last season's finale.]
There are pockets of “Dexter” fans who were more enamored of Season Four than I was. Yes, I thought that John Lithgow gave a terrific performance, but I didn't think it was any more or less terrific than other times he's put on his psychotic acting cap. I thought it was great work, but I wasn't shocked by it in the way that some people were. But the season closed amazingly strong, probably from the Thanksgiving-themed “Hungry Man” on. That led up to the finale, which was an undeniable punch to the gut with the death of Rita, a character who may have annoyed some fans, but whose place in Dexter Morgan's life was pretty integral.
There were any number of ways that Johannessen and company could have copped out. They could have resumed three weeks later. Or six months later. Or a year later. They could have skipped every aspect of the imminent grief and tragedy in favor of propelling the narrative forward to a different place. You almost could have forgiven them for launching a new season with a new status quo and maybe peppered in the occasional flashback to show us how the pieces were put back together again.
Instead, the premiere picks up exactly where we left off. Rita's still exsanguinated in the bathtub. Baby Harrison is still drenched in blood. And Dexter is still having a difficult time processing what went down.
Perhaps that's why, when law enforcement arrives, Dexter's first words are “Rita's inside. It was me.”
That's not a great start for Dexter, but even if he didn't immediately implicate himself, “Dexter” is aware that in cases of this nature, smart money always investigates the husband first. So Dexter is unavoidably a suspect and, lest we've forgotten, Astor (Christina Robinson) and Cody (Preston Bailey) are still off at DisneyWorld with their grandparents.
The first episode or two back find “Dexter” continually addressing moments that really could have been skipped over. It's almost a TV/movie standard approach that if a conversation is too awkward, we'll see the lead up to the conversation and the aftermath of the conversation, but we won't hear the actual words. But Dexter has to tell Rita's kids about their mom's death and there's no cutting away. There's no cutting away when Dexter has to make funeral plans (returning Michael C. Hall to familiar “Six Feet Under” ground) or when he has to make a graveside speech. And, as a result, the first couple episodes of “Dexter” are quite difficult to watch at times. “Dexter” has never been a show that cared much about the comfort of its viewers and these early episodes are marvelously squirmy. They're also more serious than usual, especially if dark humor was one of the aspects you most value in “Dexter.”
Fans recall that Dexter's relationship with Rita began as one of convenience, that it was only meant to make him look normal from the outside. The new season begins with Dexter battling what that relationship did to him on the inside. Did Rita humanize him? Was Rita making Dexter who he was supposed to be or was she the impediment preventing him from being himself? Dexter's about to find out in typical Dexter style, with violence, bloodshed and plenty of interaction from James Remar's Harry.
Without getting spoiler-y on you, I can say that early episodes capitalize on Dexter trying to find time to grieve in his own way, while also facing the prospect of being a single dad. It's a contrasting set of emotions which, and this hardly seems possible, demonstrate yet another previously unwitnessed gear in Michael C. Hall's performance. Like Jon Hamm in recent “Mad Men” episodes, you can almost sense Hall's awareness that the Emmy race will be wide open next year and somebody who isn't Bryan Cranston is going to win. There are moments at the end of the “Dexter” premiere that rank with the very best work Hall has ever done and he's given good scene partners in Jennifer Carpenter and also in Robinson and Bailey.
Much has been made of this “Dexter” season not having a single Smits/Lithgow-style Big Bad, but that doesn't mean Dexter isn't on the prowl and episodes two and three have a Little Bad, with an amusing scenery-chomping Shawn Hatosy. In the early-going, Dexter is also too busy concentrating on his family to be allowed back at work.
That's where things go astray in the early-going, as Deb, Quinn (Desmond Harrington), Angel (David Zayas), LaGuerta (Laren Velez) and Matsuka (C.S. Lee) are left on their own. One option would have been to just trim out the supporting characters for an episode or two. Instead, the writers send the supporting characters off on their own for an ongoing investigation of a series of ritualistic murders with an eerie religious component. If we wait long enough, I don't doubt that that investigation will dovetail with Dexter's life in some way, but in the short term, his secondary plotline is a dismally uninteresting failure and my attention wavered for every second Hall wasn't on screen. The only interest in the non-Dexter plotlines is Quinn's increased suspicions about Dexter, a distrust so logical that I found myself liking Harrington's performance for the first time.
Although Showtime never hesitated to promote this season's new guest castmembers, publicity did a good job of not revealing the characters played by the various guest stars or when they'll arrive on the scene. I don't know if other critics will honor the spirit of that restraint, but I will. I'll only say that there appears to be some interesting casting coming up.
The fourth season finale of “Dexter” was jarring, but it was also a necessary step to shake up the rhythms of the show a little. “Dexter” returns as a slightly fresher show, without doing any damage to the character fans love. I enjoyed the first three episodes back and I imagine most fans will feel the same.
“Dexter” returns to Showtime on Sunday, Sept. 26.