CORRIDOR OF MYSTERY
CORRIDOR OF HORROR
VOL. 9, No. 5
WILL THE REAL DEXTER PLEASE STAND UP?
MICHAEL C. HALL
as that old cut-up, Dexter Morgan
Serial killer hero different
in books and TV episodes
By RON MILLER
By far the most creative and unusual fictional hero in America today has to be Dexter Morgan, the blood splatter analyst who works for the Miami Police Dept.'s forensics lab by day, but spends most of his nights as Florida's most successful serial killer.
Already "Dexter" is the most popular series on the Showtime pay-TV network, which completed a second season of the hit show last month. On Feb. 17 "Dexter" makes his commercial broadcast network prime time debut on CBS with the first of a batch of episodes from the first Showtime season. CBS took the unusual move of buying rerun rights to a cable television series because it is running out of original programs, thanks to the long-running Hollywood writers' strike.
(Cautionary Note: Don't believe the hype that this is the first time a broadcast network has run repeats of a cable show in prime time. The Fox network did it years ago with another Showtime hit, "It's Gary Shandling's Show.")
What the CBS viewers will see is not the real "Dexter" because most of the nudity, profanity and bloodletting has been edited out. Still, I'm guessing "Dexter" will draw a sizeable crowd of viewers anyway since it's awfully entertaining without those spicy elements that keep reminding you you're watching uncensored cable television when you watch "Dexter" on Showtime.
But there is one character who definitely will lose a great deal of her uniqueness because of the CBS censors: Dexter's sister Debra (played by Jennifer Carpenter), a police officer blessed with the foulest mouth in the continental U.S. Her almost constant use of four-letter words brings a stylish counterpoint to the low-key and almost freakishly clean diction of Dexter (Michael C. Hall). If the CBS version of "Dexter" is sponsored by a soap product, it would make sense to show Deb's mouth being washed out by that brand of soap at the start of each rerun episode.
That aside, I don't think the pruning of sex, profanity and gore from Showtime's "Dexter" will make fundamental changes in the concept. Anyway, they had to trim something o make room for commercials, which "Dexter" doesn't have on Showtime.
Much more fundamental are the changes made in the "Dexter" concept by Showtime when the books by Jeff Linsday are adapted for television. After three novels--"Darkly Dreaming Dexter" (2004), "Dearly Devoted Dexter" (2005) and "Dexter in the Dark" (2007)--readers have a much different perspective on the character than they would get from the TV series. And, by the way, I'm saying the original books' version of "Dexter" is different, not better.
For instance, in the books, Dexter is "accompanied" on his night prowls by The Dark Passenger, an amorphous entity that talks to Dexter and counsels him on when it's time to pay a visit to an intended victim. Dexter doesn't "see" his Dark Passenger as serial killer Kevin Costner did in last year's movie "Mr. Brooks," in which Costner was tag-teamed by a "mentor" (played by William Hurt) that only he could see. The TV series has made little of the voice in Dexter's head, but The Dark Passenger becomes so important to Dexter in the books that he nearly comes unglued when it deserts him in the third novel, "Dexter in the Dark," and leaves Dexter to cope by himself with homicidal followers of the ancient God of Evil known as Moloch, who has targeted Dexter for extinction.
Frankly, I think Showtime was smart to play down The Dark Passenger. I think it would get in the way of the normally brisk TV storylines. What Showtime's writers do is better: They show occasional flashbacks to Dexter's youth in which his late adoptive father Harry Morgan (James Remar) serves the same purpose as The Dark Passenger, giving him guru-like advice that Dexter remembers in the nick of time to use in the current adventure.
Both readers and viewers know that Dexter was "inspired" to develop a love of killing and dismembering people by a childhood trauma: He was present when a murderer violently killed Dexter's mother right in front of him. He was saved from total damnation when Harry, the Miami police detective who adopted him, recognized Dexter's fascination with murder while Dexter still was a child.
Rather than try to rehabilitate the boy before he stepped up from "working on" animals and started carving up people, Harry decided to turn Dexter into an instrument of justice in a society too often denied real justice. Before he died, Harry managed to channel Dexter's desire to kill and focus it on the really bad guys. Harry created a system of "rules" that Dexter now follows as an adult. The paramount rule is to kill only those who really deserve it. That's why Dexter doesn't prey on pretty girls or hookers who reject him, but instead tracks down and kills the serial killers the police aren't able to nail within the law.
In the novels, Jeff Lindsay promulgates the notion that the sort of horrifying experiences Dexter had as a child often ignite homicidal sparks in children, which may blossom as they start to grow older. Lindsay's books have made it clear that Astor and Cody, the small daughter and son of Dexter's girl friend, Rita, are little Dexters in the making, thanks to the brutality they witnessed when their father, a drug-dealing criminal, used to abuse their mother in front of them.
In the third novel, Astor and Cody are even pestering Dexter to take them along with him on his night prowls for victims. Cody, in particular, seems to have some psychic connection to Dexter and early on recognizes him as a soulmate. So far, the TV series has avoided any such taint on Rita's kids. I hope they don't start following the books in that regard. I think the TV audience would find serial killer kids totally unpalatable.
In the books, sister Debra also knows about Dexter's after hours "hobby." In the TV series, she does not. (Her name also is spelled "Deborah" in the books.) I also think that works better, giving Dexter nobody who really understands what a complex life he leads. In the novels, Dexter constantly thinks of himself as not really a human being. He considers himself almost a different species of creature, but one of Harry's "rules" was to try to always seem as "normal" as other people, often a tough assignment for a man who lusts to kill.
In the first novel, one of the most important characters in the TV series dies. I won't spoil the books for you by telling you who it is, but the TV series has kept the same character alive for two seasons. One of the major developments of the second TV season was the surveillance of Dexter by Sgt. Doakes (Erik King), a Miami police colleague who suspects Dexter is a killer. What happens to Doakes in the TV show does NOT happen to him in the books.
Another major plot thrust of the second TV season was the romance between Debra and Special Agent Frank Lundy of the FBI, played by guest star Keith Carradine. It was a tense relationship because Lundy headed a special task force with the mission to find the serial killer who, in reality, was Deb's own brother, Dexter. This romance takes place in the second novel, "Dearly Devoted Dexter," but the Lundy character is named Kyle Chutsky in the book. The Chutsky/Lundy character was overhauled for the TV show and comes out of the relationship in much better condition than he does in the book.
Showtime also has sexed up the relationship between Dexter and his girl Rita for the TV screen. Dexter really isn't interested in sex because he really gets turned on by his serial killer activities, not sex acts with women. He's faking it with Rita in order to appear more like a normal guy. Rita, who was sexually abused by her former husband, is fine with Dexter's gentler approach and doesn't suspect he's gentle because he isn't really into it. However, the TV show seems to suggest Dexter is beginning to enjoy it just a bit more than he did before. Since Rita is played by the absolutely gorgeous Julie Benz, I can understand Dexter's growing interest perfectly.
A crucial character in the storyline of Season Two of the TV show is Lila (Jaime Murray), an Englishwoman Dexter meets at an AA-type meeting of addicts. (Rita thinks Dexter is a drug addict, rather than a murder-addict, and presses him to seek help through a rehab program.) Lila becomes Dexter's mentor, then his lover and, ultimately, thirsts for a chance to join him on his night prowls. She touches off the dramatic events that close the second season.
Lila does not appear in any of the novels. Nor do lots of other characters, including Rita's mother, Gail (guest star JoBeth Williams), who comes to visit her daughter and takes an instant dislike to Dexter in the TV series.
After seeing every episode of the first two seasons, I'd say more than half the story developments so far have been original to the series. However, the books have moved Dexter much further along in his relationship with Rita. In fact, there's a wedding scene in the last few pages of "Dexter in the Dark."
My overall opinion is that the TV "Dexter" has done a very good job of maintaining the integrity of the character, even though you will find lots of differences in him and his fellow characters in Lindsay's novels. I wasn't real keen on the metaphysical turn the storyline takes in the third novel, so I'm hoping Lindsay brings Dexter back to basics in the next novel, assuming there will be one.
For those of you who haven't sampled "Dexter" yet, even though it's now on free TV, I need to assure you that the show is not what it sounds like--a sort of weekly visit with a nice, friendly Jack the Ripper. "Dexter" has a very whimsical side to it and the character maybe isn't all that different from a much-approved traditional character like "Zorro."
The only real difference is that Dexter doesn't just slash a "Z" in the bad guy's shirt with his sword and let it go at that. Dexter uses a bone saw and a fine set of surgical scalpels and has all kinds of witty and amusing things to say while slicing and dicing the bad guys into kibble. That's the 21st century for you.
©2008 by Ron Miller. The photo from "Dexter" is courtesy of Showtime. This column first posted Jan. 21, 2007.
Ron Miller is a former nationally syndicated television columnist and the author of "Mystery! A Celebration," the official companion book to PBS' "Mystery!" series. He currently writes about television mysteries for MYSTERY SCENE magazine.
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