Tuesday, October 19, 2010

TV on DVD: Dexter (The Complete Fourth Season)

Writer/Producer: James Manos, Jr. 
Starring: Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter, Desmond Harrington, Lauren Velez, David Zayas, C.S. Lee, James Remar, Julie Benz, John Lithgow, Keith Carradine, Courtney Ford
Original Air Date: 2009

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

What a comeback this is. After Dexter's mediocre third season in which the writers seemed to hit a brick wall and nothing much of interest occurred, they've come out this time with guns blazing, as the best show currently on television has now officially aired its strongest season yet. In terms of pure edge-of-your-seat drama it's unmatched and what's so surprising is that it comes just as you'd think the well of ideas would start to run dry for its intriguing premise. Some of the little (and they were only little) nagging issues that plagued the show through the course of its run are completely eliminated by inventive writing and performances that are firing on all cylinders. While it doesn't feel as meticulously plotted as seasons 1 and 2, that works to its advantage since a break from the familiar structure was definitely called for. We were due for some surprises and got them. Going in I heard a lot about John Lithgow's guest starring turn that justifiably won him an Emmy, but nothing could have prepared me for just how astonishing he is here. It's tempting to give him full credit for this season's success (and don't get me wrong he's a HUGE part of it) but doing that undermines the writers and other actors who  all greatly contributed to these 12 game changing episodes.

It would be inaccurate to say the fourth season picks up where the third left off since nothing really happened in the third. There's no fallout to speak of and what's interesting about this season is how it fleshes out so brilliantly an idea that was only brushed upon then relegated to buddy comedy fodder in the last one. The idea of someone entering the picture that forces Miami Metro blood spatter analyst Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) to really examine the practicality of continuing his secret life as a serial killer of murderers in spite of how the lying has so hugely effected his relationship with wife Rita (Julie Benz). Now with a new baby boy, Dexter is tempted more than ever to finally rid himself of "The Dark Passenger" he's been carrying inside since he and his little brother witnessed their mother's death as children. Continuing on like this is risky not only for himself, but his family, who he selfishly continues to endanger at the expense of his addiction. The return of now retired FBI Special Agent Frank Lundy (Season 2 guest star Keith Carradine) sets in motion a chain of events that forces Dexter to make that choice between his two lives. Lundy is back in Miami hunting the previously unidentified "Trinity Killer," AKA Arthur Mitchell (Lithgow) a serial murderer who's been killing in patterns of threes for 30 years in an effort to cleanse himself of a childhood trauma similar to Dexter's. Unlike Jimmy Smits' Miguel Prado, who infiltrated Dex's world last season, Arthur is no joke but a serious and dangerous threat who's every bit his match, even more ritualistic and is capable of completely destroying him. And very much unlike last season when we knew exactly how everything would end, there are twists and turns, as well as legitimate doubt whether Dexter will even be able to get this monster on his table by the finale.

Upon hearing the long underrated Lithgow was cast for this season I knew there was little chance it would turn out to be anything but an enormous success given his track record. A veteran stage and screen actor widely known for his comic skills (racking up a handful of Emmys on 3rd Rock From The Sun), he's rarely been given the right opportunity to display how equally effective he can be in dramatic roles.  In a terrifying turn that alternates between massive mood swings, he's essentially balancing two separate personalities. One is church-going family man Arthur Mitchell, who spends his free time building houses for a Habitat for Humanity type projects across the country and cringes at the sight of a hurt animal. The other is the "Trinity Killer," a sadistic monster so mentally ill and unstable that's he's actually convinced he's murdering innocent people for the greater good. Just juggling these polar opposite personas would be tricky enough for any performer but Lithgow effectively merges them and the scenes where he physically and emotionally terrorizes his own family are so harshly realistic it's difficult to watch. Your heart's in your throat knowing he really could pass for that friendly guy you chatted up at church last week, or worse yet, your neighbor.

The quest to put Trinity down for good becomes personal for Dexter on a number of levels, but with it comes the horrifying realization that Arthur's future could be his if he continues down his current path. Hallucinations and flashbacks of his deceased father Harry (James Remar) and reminders of his "code" have been prevalent throughout the series' run but this is the most mileage they've got out of it yet as it practically feels like he's on the case with his son, guiding his conscience. Once again viewers are put in an uncomfortable spot, having to ask themselves whether Dexter really is any better than the scum he's killing, even though he clearly wants to be and we want him to be. It bares mentioning every season how incredible Michael C. Hall is in the title role but sometimes he can be so convincing I annoyingly catch myself wishing Rita would just stop nagging Dexter and let the poor guy lead his life. That is until I remember he's out every night.... murdering people! To an extent, I can actually sympathize with television watch groups complaining that the show condones vigilantism and violence, but fortunately that doesn't make the writing on the show or Hall's work any less brilliant. Disturbingly, it only confirms the show has done its job and it should be up to the viewer to sort out what's right and wrong.

Unlike Dexter's silly "bromance" with Prado last season, his friendship with Arthur is practically a suicide mission and it was a relief to see the Miami Metro police department portrayed as competent law officials that Dexter again must stay a step ahead of to cover his tracks. As Deb, Jennifer Carpenter delivers her best acting work yet in the series, conveying a mix of toughness and vulnerability as she's forced to recover from another jarring personal tragedy. Carradine's stay as Lundy is shorter this time around but maybe more important as the character continues to make an impact long after he's left. Given their track record last season, I cringed when the writers appeared to be embarking on a romantic sub-plot involving LaGuerta (Lauren Velez) and Batista (David Zayas) but it's surprisingly well handled and isn't treated as the throwaway storyline I expected it to be. Detective Joey Quinn (Desmond Harrington, now a regular) not only sparks a feud with Dexter but begins a relationship with investigative reporter Christine Hill (guest star Courtney Ford) that doesn't go where we expect at all. At first, Ford's role doesn't seem like much to start but as it evolves into something a lot more complex and challenging, she steps up and delivers in a big way. Of everyone, her multi-dimensional performance is most at risk of being unjustly overlooked amidst the deserved hype of Lithgow's, and it's almost impossible to believe that before landing this gig Ford was actually about to quit acting. It's a good thing she didn't, as she shouldn't have any problems finding work now.

As strong as the series' first two seasons were, the only problem was that their story arcs concluded about an episode too early and things were always tied up a little too neatly right before the finales. Here, you're feeling the tension and suspense right up until the unforgettable closing image. Though the shocking conclusion to this season was spoiled for me beforehand, the best news is that there actually is a shocking conclusion and a real cliffhanger that forces you to tune in for Season 5.  I won't say this development was long overdue but it was due and I'm glad they did it because it changes everything. Suddenly, a whole new set of possibilities have opened up for the series. In many ways this season of Dexter brings the show full circle, ending almost exactly as its premiere began, and what happens next is anyone's guess.

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