Wednesday, July 14, 2010

TV on DVD: Dexter (The Complete Third Season)

Creator: James Manos, Jr.
Starring: Michael C. Hall, Julie Benz, Jennifer Carpenter, C.S. Lee, Lauren Velez, David Zayas, James Remar, Desmond Harrington, Jimmy Smits
Original Airdate: 2008

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

If the third season of Dexter had a subtitle it would be, I Love You, Man, as the show spends the majority of its time focusing on a bromance. Taking an approach that's starting to become popular among serialized dramas, a guest star literally takes over the season and though the actor in the role gives a performance that warrants such attention, the writing isn't quite there to support it. Of the Dexter's three seasons, this one's by far the weakest (or let's just say the least best) and for the first time the previously flawless series starts to show some chinks in its armor. There are definitely some issues with it, almost as if the writers decided to take an extended lunch break and let the actors make up for many of the creative lapses in judgment.

A huge risk is taken in allowing a new character full access into Dexter's twisted world and exposing his "secret," deviating from the template of the previous two seasons and making this feel like a completely different show. This does make for some compelling viewing but unfortunately also insures the season can end only ONE WAY, robbing the series of much needed suspense. In stark contrast to season 2 where I was on pins and needles wondering what would happen next, this time I didn't once believe Dexter would meet any kind of physical harm or his crimes were ever in danger of being exposed to his friends and family. Also not helping is the promotion of certain supporting characters to more prominent roles that are sloppily developed, specifically two jokes for authority figures. It's tough rationalizing that they'd be in charge of any investigation, even this weaker season-long case that seems lifted from CSI:Miami. But while this is clearly a steep decline in quality from the previous seasons, viewed in context it's still probably better than most of what's on TV these days. It just entertains more as a buddy sitcom than the gripping drama we've been spoiled with.

After narrowly avoiding being uncovered as the "Bay Harbor Butcher" last season, Miami's Metro's blood splatter expert and part-time serial killer Dexter Morgan (Hall) is caught in another mess this time after accidentally killing an innocent man while hunting down a drug dealer. Even worse, this innocent victim just so happens to be the younger brother of hotshot Assistant D.A. Miguel Prado (guest star Jimmy Smits). In trying to gain Miguel's trust and keep any suspicion off himself, Dexter does too good a job, unintentionally making himself a new best friend and killing partner. Initially reluctant, Dex starts to warm to the idea of letting him see his "dark side" and Miguel soon becomes fully immersed in his brutal world. Of course, the major problem is the hot-headed, selfish Miguel doesn't play by the same rules, has no idea how to cover his tracks and is merely using murder as a means to clean up his grudges. It's a given Miguel will start to go into business for himself and possibly drag Dexter down with him. A predictable collision course is set from the very first episode of this season, which places heavy emphasis on the necessity of the "code" passed to Dexter from his father, Harry (James Remar). This doesn't register at all for Miguel, a control freak who's just primarily interested in eliminating people he doesn't like, whether they actually killed anyone or not.

The fun in this main story arc comes from seeing the relationship between the two develop and weigh on Dexter's conscience, making him question his purpose. In almost a comic way Miguel comes off as that annoying friend you're not sure if you want to get rid of, and if you are, you still don't know how you'd do it. Except Dexter usually doesn't have any problems with that last part. The storyline works but it isn't suspenseful in the least because we know where it has to go and even the exact path it'll take to get there. Smits is fantastic in the role but you almost get the impression it was all for nothing right from the start, almost like his character was merely an entertaining placeholder to keep us occupied until the fourth season. Miguel being written as such a goof likely hurt Smits Emmy chances as well because despite the dramatic firepower he brings, you almost can't help but laugh at the character's actions. There were many points during the season where I actually caught myself chuckling out loud and that couldn't have been the intention, at least all the time.

The "Skinner" case Miami Metro is investigating that ties to the murder of Miguel's brother isn't all that intriguing mainly because Dexter isn't as personally connected to it as he was the Butcher case last season, which makes sense considering that case DIRECTLY FOCUSED ON HIM with his entire life hanging in the balance. To make up for this they've concocted a myriad of sub-plots for supporting characters and some of them are really silly, walking a thin line between drama and soap opera. Lt. Maria La Guerta (Lauren Velez) is front and center this season, once again making overly emotional decisions based on personal feelings that would get any law enforcement official anywhere fired from their jobs in a heartbeat. Along for the ride is Angel Batista (David Zayas), now inexplicably promoted to Sergeant after last being seen turning in his badge due to rape charges. He's given a ridiculous storyline involving prostitution that's truly the low point of the whole season.

Velez and Zayas are strong actors and technically earned the increased face time they received but the writers saddle their characters with so much baggage and personal issues that they're just not credible as leads of a criminal investigation. As a result, Dexter is never in danger of being found out. It's a good thing for characters to have insecurities and vulnerabilities but give them too many and they start to become a joke. You really feel the absence of Keith Carradine's Agent Lundy, an investigator at Dexter's intellectual level who pushed him further than anyone had last season and was much more believable as the lead of a major investigation. That he's set to return in the fourth season is very good news and couldn't come sooner.

Dexter's sister, Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) also comes off weaker (and whiny) this go around and the possibility of her being promoted to detective seems truly horrifying given the number of laws she's broken and how often her temper gets in the way. Her romantic entanglement with an informant feels tacked on by the writers rather than earned and is a far cry from the more interesting relationship she was involved in last season, when Carpenter was coming off her best work in the role. The addition of Desmond Harrington to the cast as Deb's new partner, Joey Quinn is a good one that creates a fresh dynamic, even if his subplot and back story is dropped as quickly as it's brought up. But no one has it worse than Julie Benz as Rita, who's reduced to basically just picking out wedding dresses. Unlike last season when they were both being ripped apart by Dexter's double life, there's no real conflict between them and I'm starting to think Rita may have run her course as a character. With her marrying Dexter and a baby on the way I'm just not sure what else can be done with her at this point that we haven't seen already.

If I'm guilty of making the problems seem slightly worse than they are it's only because the bar was set so high by the writers with the first two seaons that it was almost inevitable they wouldn't be able to maintain that kind of momentum. By recommending it I'm probably grading on a curve but the show never failed to keep me entertained and it features the best acting on television, specifically from Hall, who never lets you forget this show is about Dexter battling his dark impulses. To that end, the bromance between him and Miguel serves its purpose, even if the season as a whole lacks the suspense and cohesive focus present in the previous two.

On the bright side, this does seem like it's just a lull so I wouldn't be surprised if the series rebounds from it fairly quickly provided the writers fix some of the nagging issues with the supporting characters and center the action around another case that pushes Dexter over the edge personally. The arrival of John Lithgow as a guest star in Season 4 could be a return to that, as just on paper the idea of that actor as a serial killer seems like it should be a guaranteed success and hopefully breathe some new life into the series. In the meantime, Dexter's third season works as only an entertaining diversion.


Daniel said...

Spot on rundown of this season, really thought the entire season's plot and subplot was a massive misstep. Like you said was still throughly watchable just a grade down from the previous seasons which were top notch. Didn't help that I'd heard all the great buzz about season 4.

Looking forward to season 4 once it hits disk!

jeremythecritic said...

Watchable and entertaining for sure, but definitely a disappointment for any diehard fan of the series. This was a BIG step down but I'm hoping it recovers in Season 4.