Creator: James Manos, Jr.
Starring: Michael C. Hall, Julie Benz, Jennifer Carpenter, Erik King, C.S. Lee, Lauren Velez, James Remar, David Zayas, Keith Carradine, Jaime Murray
Original Airdate: 2007
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Frequently referred to as the "best show on television," I caught my first glimpse of Showtime's Dexter when an edited version of its first season aired on CBS two years ago. After discovering that moniker wasn't far off the mark, more time passed than I'd like before I was finally able to catch up with the second. But boy was it worth the wait as this is one of those rare instances where a sophomore season is not only superior to the first, but superior by a decent margin, taking everything that worked so perfectly before and raising the stakes. It helps that it's built around a premise that's basically a lightning rod for suspense, putting the audience in the brutally uncomfortable position of viewing a serial killer as a functional member of society with rational thoughts and feelings who (at least by his standards) abides by a strict moral code. His name is Dexter Morgan and he's a forensic blood spatter analyst for the Miami Metro Police department who only kills other killers, though you could argue his true victims are his friends in the family who remain in the dark about his secret life.
The actor responsible for making this show such a thrilling experience is Emmy Award winner Michael C. Hall, who plays Dexter with a mixture of humor, sympathy and rage. Dexter's meticulous approach to both his real job and secret one, make him an expert at covering his tracks, but this is the season where he starts to starts to get sloppy. So sloppy and stupid that for the first time he's in legitimate danger of being uncovered and you wonder episode by episode how he can possibly get himself out of the enormous mess he's made. The hunter now becomes the hunted as Dexter's walls start to close in on him. The first season introduced us to this character's double life, but this is the season when they actually collide.
With Dexter still torn up with regret over murdering the one person he thought truly understood him (his biological brother a.k.a "The Ice Truck Killer") in order to save his sister, Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), he starts the season a shell of his former self, seemingly unable to kill again. As expected, that attack of conscience doesn't last long as his department starts uncovering the dismembered bodies of murderers he's been throwing in the bay in trash bags and he has to deflect their investigation and the evidence away from himself. Now dubbed (none too flatteringly) the "Bay Harbor Butcher," Dexter is still wrestling with inner demons, like his complicated relationship with his late foster father, Harry (James Remar, seen in flashbacks) and his desire to be solid provider for loyal girlfriend, Rita (Julie Benz) and her two children. At her urging and to curb suspicion of his true addiction, he enters a 12-step narcotics anonymous program where he strikes up a dangerous relationship with his sponsor, the flirtatious but psychologically unstable Lila (guest star Jaime Murray). This and the Butcher investigation led by FBI Special Agent Frank Lundy (guest star Keith Carradine) is the driving force behind all the action this season.
The moral question of Dexter killing only killers (more to fulfill an insatiable appetite than provide a public service) was grazed upon in the inaugural season but here every facet of that dilemma is exploited to its fullest potential. Hall is an expert at conveying this conflict, betraying neither end of the character's complicated emotional spectrum and subtly conveying dry humor with his observant, deadpan voiceovers sprinkled throughout the show. As the authorities inch closer to linking Dexter to the crimes we finally get to see the public reaction and fallout to what he's done, which ranges from full fledged disgust to hero worship (directly alluded to in the episode, "The Dark Defender" where Dexter imagines himself as a masked superhero). Of course, the irony of that image is that by leading this double life he's hurting those closest to him, who like himself are in law enforcement to stop the kind of vigilante justice he's dishing out by playing judge, jury and executioner. That his colleagues Lt. Maria LaGuerta (Lauren Velez) and only true "friend" Det. Angel Batista (David Zayas) now know the crimes and are rapidly closing in on a suspect, wrecks havoc on Dexter's psyche, in addition to escalating his long-standing feud with the perpetually pissed off and suspicious Sgt. James Doakes (Erik King), the man who's come closest to discovering his secret.
Nearly all the supporting characters are given much more to do this season as a result of the case being intrinsically tied to Dex's crimes and the actors playing more than rise to the occasion. I gained a greater appreciation for what Benz brings to the table as Rita, a role that can initially come off as just the dry, dutiful girlfriend but as the stakes raise and Dexter's two worlds clash you realize it's her sweet, innocent portrayal that's separating them and causing much of the show's tension throughout the season. As viewers, we can handle Dexter being found out for his crimes, if not for what it would do to her and the kids. Not to mention it would end the series. Similarly, Carpenter does her best work in the series so far as Deb, still psychologically reeling from the events of last season but given a really well thought-out sub-plot that follows up on that vulnerability. It's developed so fluidly that you don't realize how well the seeds were planted for her storyline by the writers all along.
In their guest starring turns, Murray's very pale and very British Lila is deviously entertaining and the perfect female counterpart to the "dark side" of Dexter, but it's Carradine as Agent Lundy who steals the spotlight as the kind of smartly written authority figure that's increasingly hard to come by in serialized crime dramas. Someone who's simply great at their job, wanting to lead in the calmest, most efficient way possible instead of just blowing smoke and barking orders. Carradine makes the wise choice of playing him as a regular guy, who just so happens to be in charge of a manhunt for a serial killer. There's a good chance not even Dexter has the tactical skills necessary to out maneuver him.
If there's a drawback to the season it's that it's so suspenseful and builds so much momentum that by the time we reach the finale it's almost impossible to deliver a payoff that could clear the ridiculously high bar the series' creators set for themselves. As a result, the action peaks slightly too early and much of the last episode is spent trying to tie up loose ends. But that's a small complaint as it concludes pretty much the only way it can when you consider the show still has to continue after this. As revelatory as Hall's demented Jekyll and Hyde performance is in the title role, an overlooked star is the show's musical score (composed by Rolfe Kent) and opening title sequence, which in a few short shots brilliantly encapsulates the protagonist's lifestyle.
It's somewhat ironic that the premiere season based entirely on Jeff Lindsay's 2004 novel, Darkly Dreaming Dexter isn't as strong as this one which veers from the source material, taking only the inspiration from the Dexter novels to craft an original season-long storyline arc. Its first season was perfect but this is better and it'll be extremely difficult for the writers to top it (though I've heard Season 4, featuring John Lithgow's Emmy-winning performance, comes close). Given the current state of movies it's no wonder actors are lining up to appear on something like Dexter, which is smarter and more gripping than most of what you'll see in theaters.