Quick: Without going through episode-by-episode in your mind, tell me the overarching theme that unified Season 5 of “Dexter.”
If you ponder long enough, you’ll see ideas of forgiveness and reinvention and finding new ways to see yourself, often through the eyes of others, but you’d never be able to respond to my challenge with an instant one-word answer.
Now that you’re in the mood, quick: Without going through episode-by-episode in your mind, tell me the overarching theme that unified Season 4 of “Dexter.”
Again, there’s no way you’re going to shoot off an instant answer, but if you ponder the whole John Lithgow arc, I’m sure you’d notice musings on assimilation, on how successfully or unsuccessfully any of us can cover our inner monsters with a facade of civility. Or something. [I would accept “Fatherhood” as the season’s theme.]
I could go on, but these weren’t meant as Zen koans or as trick questions. Some TV shows do brazen season-long thematic arcs quite well. I’d point to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as a fine example of a show that, if you waited long enough, would always find a way to unify the Big Bad, Buffy’s journey and many of the supporting journeys. But most shows, even highly serialized shows, either bury seasonal thematic arcs deep under the surface — it’s something that’s on the board in the writers’ room, but maybe not a literally articulated piece of every episode — or they just don’t bother at all. I’d generously say that “Dexter” fits into the latter category, especially since “identity” has always been the show’s uber-theme, writ so large nothing else would even be necessary.
Well, somebody in the “Dexter” production team decided that this season would be a little different. They decided that the sixth season of “Dexter” was going to be about religion and not just in a casual way. “Religion” is at the heart of the core “Dexter” plotline for this season, but also at the center of the B-story and the C-story this season. It’s been the center of the art/poster campaign and it’s been the center of most on-air promotions.
And it’s excruciating.
“Dexter,” as a series, does so many things so consistently well, but it turns out that bludgeoning viewers with issues of faith and spirituality isn’t one of them. After a lively and appealingly hilarious premiere (airing on Sunday, October 2), “Dexter” goes entirely off the rails with two episodes hobbled by clumsy victims-of-the-week and then crushed with endless repetition of the core theme: Yes, “Dexter.” We get it. This season is about religion, but if it’s not going to be an intelligent or thoughtful treatise on religion, I’d kinda prefer the series return to just being gristly and entertaining, rather than ponderous and dogmatic.
More after the break…
I’m not exactly sure how soon we’re picking up after the events of last season and the departure of Julia Stiles’ Lumen (I’ve resigned myself to the reality that my interpretation of last season’s finale was both far better than what the writers intended and also wrong).
That means that “Dexter” has done what “Dexter” always does: The deck has been reshuffled a little, but the status quo has been restored. Maybe LaGuerta’s in a new job and maybe Matsuka is auditioning new interns and maybe Deb is finding different things to swear about, but all is totally business-as-usual at Miami Metro. And all is business-as-usual for Dexter as well, with all of the regular killing and dumping and occasional nurturing for Baby Harrison.
But Baby Harrison isn’t a baby anymore. He’s walking and talking and he’s ready for pre-school and at Batista’s urging, Dexter and Deb decide Harrison would be best served going to a Catholic pre-school. The shocking catch: Dexter isn’t actually a particularly religious guy.
What does he believe in?
“I suppose I believe in a certain set of principles… A set of rules on how to conduct myself in the world so I don’t get into trouble,” Dexter explains.
And after that moment, we’ve gotten three straight episodes of religious nattering. But “Dexter” has almost nothing to say about religion. So far, Dexter hasn’t even become self-aware enough to realize that Harry’s Code, as he described it to Deb above, is basically the way millions of people would describe their own connection to any system of beliefs, whether religion is a set of rules on how to conduct yourself to stay out of trouble or a set of rules on how to conduct yourself to get into Heaven. It’s annoyingly obvious and I’m terrified that I’m going to watch “Dexter” for 13 episodes and he isn’t going to uncover anything more profound than that.
In lieu of ever moving the bigger story forward — perish the thought the writers ever have to cope with letting Deb in on Dexter’s Secret — “Dexter” has always been extremely smart about injecting exactly enough new blood to keep the entire system from stagnating.
Season 2 brought in Keith Carradine (and Jaime Murray). Season 3 brought in Jimmy Smits. Season 4, probably the show’s finest season to date, brought in John Lithgow. Season 5 introduced Julia Stiles and Jonny Lee Miller. [Sidebar: After protestations from the writers that Season 5 wouldn’t have a Big Bad, Miller’s Jordan Chase was clearly last season’s Big Bad and he was terrific. I don’t understand how Emmy voters remembered Julia Stiles, but ignored Miller.] It’s been a great strategy to reinvigorate the show each year and also to lure big-name actors who relish the chance to drop in for a short cable season in exchange for a likely Emmy nomination.
This is one department in which “Dexter” has never had a misstep.
Our big additions this season are Edward James Olmos and Colin Hanks as an erudite religious nutbag and his religious nutbag protegee. Before you get all “How dare you call somebody a religious nutbag?” I’m going to politely retain the right to call Book of Revelations-addicted serial killers with a particular interest in the Rapture “religious nutbags.” The characters do some creepy and disgusting stuff, but through three episodes, it’s hard to view them as being anything other than badly written flip-sides to Dexter’s theological journey. These two guys have exactly enough nuance to be a “Criminal Minds” killer-of-the-week and I don’t mean that as a compliment. The Olmos/Hanks arc is one that I’m already desperately uninterested in and I’m hoping that a bigger dramatic conflict is introduced, shoving those characters to the side.
There are a few new characters who are slightly better already. The Artist Formerly Known As Mos Def is actually very effective as Brother Sam, a former criminal who may or may not be there to prove the redemptive power of faith to Dexter. I’ve always found Mos to be a mumbly, laconic, energy-sucking screen presence, but he’s utterly engaged in this role. Also showing a new side is “Heroes” veteran Brea Grant, playing one of Matsuka’s students, an attractive young lady with a very deep interest in forensics. Also joining the cast, but not until the third episode, is Billy Brown (“Death Row” Reynolds from “Lights Out”) as a new departmental hire.
As I mentioned earlier, the “Dexter” premiere, titled “Those Kinds of Things,” is actually a very good episode. Dexter goes to his high school reunion in an episode that reminded me pleasantly of “Grosse Pointe Blank.” “Dexter” has occasionally lost track of its earlier roots as a dark comedy, but this is probably the show’s funniest episode in years, even if I had some qualms about the kill-of-the-week. It’s a great episode for Michael C. Hall, who gets to delve into goofiness, without ever making Dexter less of a psychopath.
The two subsequent episodes lack the same focus and, unfortunately, lack the same humor. Dexter’s naval-gazing has always worked best when cut with sharp writing and Hall’s trademark deadpan, but facing God, Dexter is too earnest and Hall’s deadpan comes across as flat. They’re two of the weakest “Dexter” episodes in memory, though a couple things happen right at the end of the third episode that could conceivably pay off eventually.
Even if those kernels become something better eventually, I still don’t have a good feeling about the gestating season. I don’t care about Olmos and Hanks and I especially don’t care about whether Dexter decides that Harrison should receive religious instruction. And, as usual, I’m not going to keep watching “Dexter” to find out what’s coming in the continued adventures of LaGuerta, Batista and Quinn.
Frequently Showtime’s trademark drama, “Dexter” suddenly seems destined to spend the fall as that drama you watch to kill time before “Homeland” is on.
“Dexter” premieres at 9 p.m. on Sunday (Oct. 2) night.