The auteur theory is alive and well on the small screen, albeit not in the same way as you’d see in the movies.
Folks like David E. Kelley, Stephen Bochco, Aaron Sorkin, David Chase, Joss Whedon, David Simon, Matthew Weiner, Alan Ball, Josh Schwartz, Shonda Rhimes or Cuselof may not get a “TV Show By” credit before the start of each episode, but the industry’s super-powered writer-producers and showrunners are generally considered to be the arbiters for the voices of many of our favorite shows.
Mostly it’s the creators whose names are associated with the oversight of excellent programming, but sometimes you get somebody like Howard Gordon, whose association with “24” has been so long-term that I link the FOX thriller’s success or failure to him. And sometimes these uber-powerful figures go that extra step and also direct, but not necessarily. Aaron Sorkin has never directed an episode of any of his shows, nor has David E. Kelley.
It’s an illusion, of course. Yes, we get the legends of a Sorkin or a Kelley ultimately handwriting whole whole seasons on notepads. But for the most part, American television is characterized by the image of the writers’ room, of a group of talented collaborators capable of turning out 13 or 22 episodes per season. The adherents to the British model are few and far between, though there are anomalies like Showtime’s “The Tudors,” which will go to its grave with only Michael Hirst as a credited writer.
Yet as I look over my Top 31, every single show has a single name or a tiny cabal of central names who enjoy the credit when things succeed or take the blame when the whole endeavor goes off the rails.
Well, every show but one.
Coming in at No. 23 of my list is Showtime’s “Dexter,” apparently TV’s most glorious bastard.
[More after the break…]
“Dexter” is just a strange critter by contemporary TV standards, defying many of the unwritten rules of TV auteur theory. The show was based on the first book in a series by Jeff Lindsay (a literary series “Dexter” has improved upon at nearly every turn). The pilot was written and developed by James Manos Jr. Subsequent showrunners have included Daniel Cerone, Clyde Phillips and, currently, Sara Colleton.
The series is in its fourth season now and it has never lacked for excellent writers, including Drew Z. Greenberg, Melissa Rosenberg, Scott Buck and more. And those writers have been lucky enough to have their interpreted by a roster of some of the most talented directors on TV — a group featuring Miguel Cuesta, Keith Gordon, Marcos Siega, John Dahl, Tony Goldwin, Nick Gomez and Ernest R. Dickerson.
And with all of those showrunners and writers and directors, Dexter Morgan, Miami blood spatter expert and serial killer, has basically always sounded the same, either in his laconic voice-overs, his searching conversations with his deceased father, his interactions with his colleagues or attempts to relate to loved ones.
It’s almost as if Dexter himself, not some brilliant egghead with a laptop, were the controlling voice of “Dexter.”
Part of me wants to say that “Dexter” resonates with viewers because he’s a little bit like all of us. He wants to be good at his job. He’s struggled to be a good son and a good brother and in the past two seasons, he’s struggled with being a good husband and a good father. The feeling of “difference” and the desire to be obscure that difference and pass for normal could be viewed as a metaphor for almost any behavior that deviates from the accepted banality. And no matter how ostensibly normal you are, who doesn’t want a quiet little corner to occasionally retreat and work on miniature trains or watch football or strap a serial rapist to a table with plastic wrap, collect a drop of their blood, butcher them and then dispose of the body?
Dexter’s kinda f***ed up.
Almost like “House” (but almost nothing like “House”), “Dexter” is the story of a man who isn’t going to change. As we’ve seen on many occasions, “Dexter” has a condition and the life he’s living is actually the best management of that condition. He’s killing people who deserve a lifetime of incarceration at the very least and, depending on your political bent on the death penalty issue, may even deserve to have their lives ended.
Movies and television are full of people willing to skirt the edges of the law to get justice. We cheer as Batman circumvents the Gotham police force to bring down the worst of the worst. We look the other way as Patty Hewes manipulates the system to bring down corporate wrongdoers. We don’t care that House decimates thousands of years of medical ethnics or that Jack Bauer goes rogue and works outside of the government. Those are people we don’t even think of as criminals. We don’t even think of those people as criminals. With somebody like Omar from “The Wire” or Tony Soprano, we couldn’t look the other way, but we also chose not to care. It’s nothing new, but The Aughts may go down as a Decade of Lovable Lawbreakers. But Dexter Morgan is, on body count alone, the worst of the worst.
We love Dexter anyway. Heck, we *choose* Dexter.
It’s Michael C. Hall’s show, built around his ability to go from knowing smirk to soulless death mask to caring concern with the minimum of noticeable effort or change in vocal intonation. He’s funny and terrifying and even, at times, quite sweet. His universe is populated with a few interesting characters — I’m a sucker for Jennifer Carpenter’s foul-mouthed Deb and C.S. Lee’s equally profane Masuka — and a few characters who aren’t nearly as compelling (David Zayas and Lauren Velez are victims of characters who seem to play out the same arcs every season).
But under no circumstances should “Dexter” still be going this strong in its fourth season. How many times can Dexter nearly be found out? How many episodes can end on seemingly the identical cliffhangers? To call “Dexter” structurally repetitive would be an understatement and yet the familiar thriller beats, played out over and over and over again, haven’t ceased to be suspenseful.
The writers have been clever about mixing up Dexter’s season-long adversaries. In the second season, we had Keith Carradine’s Agent Lundy, the sort of old school justice lawman who, in a different series, would have made for a great hero. We wanted Dexter to escape his clutched, but not necessarily to kill him. That can’t be said for Jimmy Smits’ Miguel Prado, who went from upstanding litigator to creepy nutjob with a speed that defied credulity, but remained entertaining. This season, Dexter’s faced John Lithgow’s Arthur Mitchell, an equally prolific, but less appealingly domesticated butcher. In each case, the adversary has brought up a different side of Dexter, whether he found himself admiring them, befriending them or hoping to learn from them. That little annual twist in the show’s overall dynamic has prevented staleness from setting in. I, for one, have no idea what’s going to happen in this Sunday’s fourth season finale and I can’t wait to find out.
I could talk about Romeo Tirone’s Miami noir cinematography, a mixture of evocative lighting and colorful Florida accents, or the slick editing or catchy music, but there’s one thing that sets “Dexter” apart from the other shows on this list.
“Dexter” has the best darned opening credits on TV. Other current candidates for that title might include “Mad Men,” “Chuck” and even the new HD-ready credits for “The Simpsons,” but I’ll take “Dexter” every time. Set to Rolfe Kent’s main theme, the credits are a portrait of the brutality of everyday routines, whether shaving, frying an egg or forcing your head through the top of a white t-shirt. I’ve been behind on “Dexter” for much of this season and I’ve sometimes needed to fast-forward through the credits just for the sake of time, but I’ve felt a little pang of regret each time I’ve had to let the images flash by.
No show on this list has fluctuated more before finding its final placement. “Dexter” was as high as 12 and as low as 29 in various drafts.
I think I’m happy with where it ended up and I hope I’ve given some indication of why “Dexter” stands at No. 23 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade.
Up tomorrow? How did Yoda put it? “When 900 years old you reach, look this good you will not.” Yeah. Tomorrow’s show is like that.