Character growth is the hardest thing to finagle on a TV show. You, obviously, want your characters to grow and change in some way or another, but you want that change to simultaneously feel organic and earned, not forced. It’s particularly hard when the center of your show is a character who can’t change too much, lest the premise of the show become completely invalidated. This is why most television shows end up softening the characters at their center. If they started out as basically good people, they become saints. If they started out as prickly or even loathsome people, they become gentle curmudgeons. And if they started out as outright villains, they eventually become villains in the service of a greater good.
The problem facing Dexter at this point is that its title character – a cold-hearted sociopath who’s channeled all of that cold-heartedness into the pursuit of a moral code above all else – can’t grow too much, lest he somehow (and improbably) stop being a sociopath and take away the show’s central hook. At the same time, he needs to change somewhat, or the story will just always be the same thing over and over and over. The main thing that’s hurting the fourth season so far is that the show is trying to split the difference and is, instead, creating a main character without teeth. It’s the difference between what the show was in its first two seasons – a dark drama with complex morals about just how far we’re willing to go to see our streets ridded of crime – and what Showtime has always promoted it to be – a darkly funny fish out of water drama about a guy with an interesting hobby. (One of these days, I’ll have my rant about how bad the promotions for this show have been. But not today.) For all of this season of Dexter’s praiseworthy bits – and there are many – the series is still straying too close to the latter half of that equation for my tastes in its Dexter-based storylines.
Take tonight’s Dexter storyline. If Dexter is the friendly, neighborhood serial killer, this season is leaning a little too hard on the former two parts of that phrase. Tonight, Dexter didn’t kill anyone – which is fine – instead getting trapped in a too-goofy game of trying to blend in in suburbia with his new neighbors and figure out a way to thwart the neighborhood watch. It’s not that this storyline is without promise. Dexter having to deal with hyper-vigilant neighbors and try to just be “one of the guys” has potential as a storyline, but the show is playing much of it in the most obvious way possible. When Dexter tried to scare some sense into the local teenager he thought was the neighborhood vandal (turned out the teen’s dad was the culprit), he ended up falling afoul of the aforementioned neighborhood watch, on the run in a kooky chase sequence, trying to not get caught as he raced through suburban backyards.
Look, satirical suburban settings are as played out as anything nowadays, but Dexter had a chance to come at the whole thing from a new angle. If Dexter becomes an outsider in his little neighborhood, his neighbors are really going to become a danger to his extracurricular activities. So his normal need to blend in, to force the social interactions, becomes even more paramount. But where this could play with a sort of creeping unease, it’s mostly playing for broad comedy, a choice that makes it feel like an episode of Desperate Housewives so far, and that’s not a tone that really works for the show. A scene like the one where Dexter tries to blend in at a neighborhood barbecue and nearly fails miserably should just have much, much higher stakes than it does at present.
That said, there were other moments where Dexter’s inability to quite grasp normal human interactions put him in greater danger than he might normally be in. I think it’s particularly interesting that by having Astor come up on her adolescence, the show is forcing Dexter into a corner in his own home. When Rita’s kids were just kids, Dexter could relate to them, since their emotions were necessarily broader and less developed than adult emotions. But now that Astor is going through the most emotionally tumultuous time of anyone’s life, Dexter is running out of ways to relate to her. He has to start play-acting with her like he has to with everyone else, and that’s a storyline that has a lot of potential going forward, especially as Dexter’s relationship with Rita’s kids has always felt a little underdeveloped.
The thing that’s keeping me pretty sure that this season will top season three at this point is the simple fact that the plotting is much cleaner than last season’s plotting was. Last season took a while to reveal what it was going to be, and the path toward the “Jimmy Smits: Serial Killer” arc was pretty messy. This season, the way the show is revealing the diabolical nature of the Trinity Killer is playing out with a ruthless confidence that’s reassuring. Even though John Lithgow is only appearing in a handful of scenes in each episode, his presence looms large over every other moment of any given episode, and Lundy is proving a pretty good opponent for a man who works hard to keep some of his murders looking like suicides or accidents. While Lundy has some clumsy moments – like telling Deb he was happy Trinity had struck in Miami in this episode – the cat and mouse game here is working pretty well. It feels like everyone involved knows exactly where the Trinity storyline is headed and is confident that it will be worth the long build-up.
It’s just that everything else around the Trinity storyline isn’t quite clicking yet. While I can’t wait for Trinity and Dexter to meet up – just to see them compare notes – I’m not engaged with any of the other storylines, from the LaGuerta and Angel hook up to the tourist killer to Quinn’s attempts to buy off Dexter (another social interaction Dexter keeps botching) to Deb’s ambivalence about her relationship with Anton. The fact that the people around Dexter have always been the show’s weakest link is something you’d think the show would have figured out to either solve or minimize, but it’s still floundering to give them something to do. It doesn’t help that, at the same time, Dexter’s main storyline is a weird combination of goofy comedy and overwrought satire, which is nullifying one of the show’s best aspects. And yet, every episode of the show contains just enough momentum that I find myself wanting to watch the next episode straight off. Which is something, I guess.
- On the other hand, Masuka’s truck was a great sight gag. Of course he drives something like that.
- The motivations for the end of the vandalism storyline felt a little forced. Dexter’s caught the guy, sure, but he’s just THAT ashamed and upset about it?
- Good discussion about Rita in the comments last week. I get that the character is now basically just defined entirely by the fact that she’s a wife and a mom, and that’s really too bad. But at the same time, I don’t think that’s something to take out on the character herself, but, rather, the people writing her. Though I could see an argument for killing her thanks to that “Karma Chameleon” performance.