Review: ‘Dexter’ season 7 is a big change, for the better

I’ll be damned. “Dexter” has sucked me back in.

I had fallen out of love with the Showtime  drama a few years back, feeling that the series was too afraid to change its status quo to remain interesting. There were no stakes, no danger, and the series even moved away from earlier suggestions that we weren’t necessarily supposed to be rooting for Dexter even as he only killed the bad guys. Can’t have moral ambiguity on the network’s biggest hit, can we?

Even though “Dexter” had turned into a more macabre, extended version of a CBS crime procedural (“Criminal Minds: Bay Harbor”?), I kept watching for Michael C. Hall’s performance, for the black humor, and for the guest stars I hoped would be as well-used as John Lithgow, and not as clumsily as Jimmy Smits. I thought I had  made my peace that the series was going to run in place for as long as it was profitable, but I quickly lost interest altogether in the sixth season, dropping out not long after someone (I think it was Todd Van Der Werff) suggested to me that the evil mastermind played by Edward James Olmos was a figment of Colin Hanks’ imagination, in the same way that Dexter talks to Harry. It was one of those things that hadn’t occurred to me, but once it did, it was so blindingly obvious that I didn’t have the patience to wait for the “Dexter” writers to reveal the truth late in the season. I bailed, realized I didn’t miss the show (particularly during a season that even the most devout fans complained to me about), and assumed I was done.(*)

(*) To answer a question I’ve gotten on Twitter, while I’m ordinarily a serialized drama series completist – you watch it all in order, rather than jumping around between seasons – this is a case where I was totally fine coming back after having missed almost a full season, and I imagine viewers who didn’t watch the problematic fifth either will be fine. This is a rare instance where the “Previously, on ‘Dexter'” sequence should be enough.

But that sixth season ended with Deb finally witnessing one of Dexter’s kills, and the possibility of seeing the series deal with the ramifications of that – and seeing guest stars like Ray Stevenson, Jason Gedrick and, especially, Yvonne Strahovski – got me to sample the three season 7 episodes Showtime sent out for review. (The new season debuts tomorrow night at 9.)

And they’re quite good.

Much like the most recent season of “Nurse Jackie,” these early episodes demonstrate just how much potential “Dexter” was wasting by avoiding consequences or paradigm shifts. Without going into too much detail about exactly how Deb reacts to seeing Dexter with a bloody knife in his hands, or how much she learns about his activities, I’ll say that her knowledge, and the way it alters Dexter and Deb’s relationship, shakes the series out of the doldrums it’s been in for several years now. The change in the heart of the series is so interesting that I didn’t even mind whenever the action would shift to some of the lamer supporting characters (and in at least one case, a character I generally have no use for is given something compelling and non-tangential to do), nor at the more on-formula scenes involving Stevenson as a potential big bad from Ukraine. Strahovski doesn’t show up until late in the third episode, but by then I was so engaged by the Dexter/Deb story that I had nearly forgotten to expect her.

There are too many other big cable dramas on Sunday for me to write about “Dexter” regularly anymore, but I’ll be watching again, to my pleasant surprise. To borrow a line from my “Nurse Jackie” season finale review, See how much more satisfying this show can be when there are consequences?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at