Murder, with an explanation

Times Staff Writer

“Dexter,” the grisly dark comedy series premiering Sunday on Showtime, employs some of the same surgical instruments and hues as FX’s “Nip/Tuck” but covers an entirely different metier.

Lipo, serial killing -- I suppose I quibble. Dexter is Dexter Morgan (“Six Feet Under’s” Michael C. Hall), a predisposed-from-childhood predator who, under the tutelage of his late father (James Remar), a Miami detective, has blossomed into a serial killer for good, as opposed to evil.

Meaning, he kills other killers before they can go on killing. This he does at night, and on his own time, since by day he works as a blood-splatter expert for the Miami Police Department and could totally put in for overtime.


Dexter’s method of killing is ritualized and meticulous -- a brief chat followed by an injection to the neck, which knocks out the victim until he wakes up on a rubber sheet and strapped to a table, covered in Saran Wrap and ready for carving and storage. But first: Dexter makes a neat little slash mark to the cheek to draw a blood sample, which he keeps filed at home in a collection hidden in his air conditioner.

The first time around it’s all pretty pay-cable cringe-worthy (the camera from the victim’s point of view, the drill descending), but from then on “Dexter” is more about making us identify, of course, with a psycho killer’s completely ordered world and dedication to his craft.

Atmospherically, the show makes you sweat, the stains on the back of Dexter’s shirt the kind of palpable detail this series obeys. It’s a series about forensics, but balmy as opposed to airbrushed, featuring a sicko on the inside, a boyish guy who comes to work with doughnuts for everybody, like an eager-to-please intern.

The case that comes to consume Dexter involves the offing of Miami prostitutes, the killer -- in a shout-out to our antihero--drains their bodies of blood. It’s the beginning of a flirtation that extends to fingertips encased in ice and a doll’s head left hanging in Dexter’s freezer at home.

It’s a cat-and-mouse game times two, Dexter both keeping clues a secret while also helping his sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), a cop, follow them.

What does all this add up to other than a seamier version of “Monk”? “Dexter,” based on the novel “Darkly Dreaming Dexter” by Jeff Lindsay, wants us to grin at Dexter’s ability to assimilate into Miami’s atmosphere of excess in the same manner that Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley moved among patricians abroad and “American Psycho’s” Patrick Bateman symbolized the blamelessness of 1980s Wall Street.

From the start, it’s mostly on Hall to seduce us, and he’s so artful with the material that he consistently elevates it. There are things about Dexter that might set off gay-dars -- the kempt apartment, the toned physique, the ill-defined sexuality -- or perhaps it’s just that Hall was so ineffable as David Fisher, the archly funny gay funeral director he played for six seasons on HBO’s “Six Feet Under.”

Here the hair’s grown out and he’s wearing this slightly removed, too-wide-eyed Norman Bates gaze, sublimating his carnal desires in killing and food.

To that end, the weakest parts of “Dexter” are explanatory flashbacks in which, like a superhero’s father, Dexter’s pop recalibrates his son’s violent destiny for societal good).

Ultimately, the show becomes tethered to the unlikely relationship between Dexter and his girlfriend, Rita (Julie Benz), a divorced mother of two still recovering from having been raped repeatedly by her deadbeat ex-husband. It’s here that “Dexter” rewards your patience, going from somewhat gratuitous psycho-killer riff to fully fledged relationship drama -- an asexual man, a traumatized woman.

“Oh. OK, thanks,” Dexter says at the sight of Rita venturing to disrobe for him.

“You’re welcome,” Rita says shyly.

It’s all he can think to say. Or feel to say. She’s afraid he’ll leave her over the sex, and he’s afraid to have it. Why can’t more TV shows be like this?

“We have an elephant in the room, and its name is sex,” Dexter will say later of their mutual difficulty with physical intimacy. There’s a bigger elephant in the room, of course, one that you assume will make its presence known in due time. In the meantime it can still play kind of cheeky, the idea that one show’s McDreamy is another’s Dexter.



Where: Showtime

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)