Showtime's 'Dexter' a Lethal Cutup

Clearly, Michael C. Hall likes to play guys who usher others into the afterlife.

The 35-year-old actor earned an Emmy nomination as funeral home director David Fisher in HBO's critically acclaimed series "Six Feet Under." Now, in "Dexter," he's helping to bring bad guys to justice -- by murdering them.

In this new Showtime series, which premieres Sunday, Oct. 1, Hall plays Dexter Morgan, a seemingly charming forensics expert for the Miami Metro Police Department, where his sister, Debra (Jennifer Carpenter, "The Exorcism of Emily Rose"), is also on the force.

What not even Debra knows, however, is that Dexter's easygoing demeanor is an act. Orphaned as a child, Dexter was adopted by Debra's dad (James Remar, seen in flashbacks), a cop who eventually made a sickening discovery: His little boy liked to kill small animals.

Determined to find a way to deal with his son's deadly compulsion, Dexter's dad gave the boy reluctant permission to unleash his blood lust from time to time, but only to dispatch unredeemable bad guys. Otherwise, however, he instilled a strong moral code in young Dexter.

That's why Dexter's adult job, as a blood-pattern expert on a crime team, is so perfect: It brings him into contact with candidates ripe for his unconventional brand of justice.

"I think Dexter takes some satisfaction in the fact that he has been presented with an opportunity through his foster father to take unique responsibility for his darkness," Hall says. "Would that we all made lemonade out of the lemons we were presented in our life -- although obviously, he's presented with a pretty hefty lemon.

"I think the flip side of that is he, maybe on some level, wonders what or who he'd be had he not had that person shine a light on his darkest secret and tell him that he still had the potential to be good."

Jeff Lindsay, who created the title character in his novel "Darkly Dreaming Dexter," bristles at the suggestion that Dexter is cruel or sadistic.

"I think it's very unfair to refer to Dexter as sadistic," Lindsay says. "I think he shows remarkable restraint and really, really murders without sadism of any kind. Perhaps a certain ritual enjoyment, but I don't think that's sadistic at all."

Indeed, Hall suggests, the scenes of Dexter's murders -- which do not feature explicit gore -- reveal the few moments when Dexter is free to remove the mask he wears around other people.

"I think he feels a release [when he kills]," the actor says. "There is a certain kind of tension that builds up, and his compulsion drives him to relieve that tension. There is a calm, a sense that perhaps that is the one time that he is not lying to the world. But it's not always the same.

"Through killing killers, I think Dexter is killing himself again and again, or that part of himself, at least. There is a unique intimacy that he has with his victims that he could not possibly have with anyone else, in that he sees his own monstrosity in these monsters he is killing. But also, he doesn't have to lie to (his victims). They're not going to tell anyone, because he's going to kill them and chop them up. So he is able to present them with an unmasked version of himself."

During his off-duty hours, Dexter spends much of his time with Rita (Julie Benz, "Angel"), a lovely but exhausted young mother still nursing the psychic wounds from a terribly abusive former relationship. Because of that earlier trauma, Rita isn't eager to have sex, which makes her an ideal partner for the broken-inside Dexter.

"That's why it's relatively safe for Dexter to play out this relationship," Hall says. "Dexter has committed to setting things up for himself in terms of the person he is presenting to the world that will enable him to give the impression of normalcy. It's only when those things are threatened or begin to fall apart that he will more fully experience his real connection to them.

"I don't want to give away what's going to happen, but if you play-act an emotion or cultivate a persona for long enough -- and Dexter is a guy in his 30s -- the distinction between what is presented and what is authentic becomes blurred. That's another part of what's interesting about this character."

If Hall sounds psyched about his new role, he also looks strikingly different from the pasty-faced David Fisher, more robust and handsome. It's a transformation that startled Lindsay.

"He [looked] totally different on 'Six Feet Under,'" the writer says. "I wasn't convinced until I visited the set, and the first second of the first scene I saw him shooting, I went, 'Oh, my God. That's Dexter.' I mean, he absolutely nailed it. I ... had tried to imagine how I would portray the character if I was acting it, and I didn't know until I saw Michael doing it. He's terrific, he really is. He's all an author could hope for."

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