The Return of “Dexter”

“America’s favorite serial killer is back.”

So goes the announcement in the promos for the latest season of the hit show “Dexter.” Who could have predicted that Showtime’s dark comedy/thriller series, revolving around a serial killer turned detective, could have become so popular? Internationally renowned? Ubiquitous, even?

And can it keep up its winning streak?

The show follows Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), a rugged, good-looking, blood spatter analyst for the Miami Metro Police Department. Having witnessed the brutal murder of his mother in childhood, Dexter was adopted and raised by a police officer (James Remar) who was horrified to learn of his new son’s dark obsession with murder. Realizing that young Dexter’s habits could very well land him in the electric chair one day, he took it upon himself to shape Dexter’s murderous penchant with a “code,” which helps Dexter to focus his homicidal impulses on those who “deserve” it.

For the entire series Dexter attests that without this “code” he would just be another monster, and it’s an easy rationalization to buy. His character is made acceptable to a general audience and even likable, as I find myself routinely sweating for his well-being, wanting this murderer working for “social justice” to get away with his deeds. Dexter is clearly an offbeat protagonist, and the series could probably be sustained on his character alone, but the writers have wisely chosen to surround him with a range of charismatic, dynamic characters who add complexity to the main heart-pounding plot.

The score is of cinematic quality and deserves recognition in itself. It is never noticed, only experienced, as it should be. It completes the show’s macabre eeriness.

The key to the show’s success lies in the relative plausibility of the premise. Everything seems to be adequately explained and every factor accounted for. For example, Dexter never gets caught because his job is to solve murders, albeit sloppier ones than his, and he picks up on the other miscreant’s mistakes.

But how does the show fare after being dragged out to a fourth season? Can it stay fresh or should it have been “Dextered” with dignity?

This season features special guest John Lithgow, whom you may recognize as the flamboyant goofball Dick Solomon from “Third Rock from the Sun.” Lithgow plays Walter Simmons, the “bad” serial killer who, unlike Dexter, kills “innocent” people. He is regarded as the most successful serial killer in history, having continued to murder women for thirty years while evading capture. His most un-Dexter-like trademark is that he leaves his bodies out in the open — as Dexter says, Simmons must be “supremely confident that he will never be captured.”

(When Dexter goes out serial-killing, he ceremoniously covers a room with saran wrap and pictures of his subjects’ victims; he then ensnares the killers on a flat surface like a table, rendering them helpless against his knife and ritualistic blood sampling from the cheek. Classy.)

Walter Simmons is the first serial-killer antagonist in the series since the first season. His manner is reserved and quiet, having accepted solitude to compliment his moral nullity. Despite Lithgow’s capable performance, I am distracted by remembering his goofy days in comedy, making his casting a possible mistake for this respectably dark-themed series.

Another new aspect of this season is that Dexter also has to struggle with the presence of a new baby in his life, a son whom he endeavors to raise as unattached to his obsession as possible.

“Dexter” takes you on a roller coaster ride of surprises and superbly calculated twists and turns. It  is not for the squeamish — it features a fairly noxious amount of blood, nudity and swearing. But for those with the stomach for it, this is one of the most satisfying, competently-done crime thrillers out there.

There's a new "Dexter" every Sunday at 9pm on Showtime.

There's a new "Dexter" every Sunday at 9pm on Showtime.