A warmer-blooded killer emerges

Times Staff Writer

When viewers last saw Dexter Morgan, the charming vigilante serial killer had a few problems. He had been forced to murder his long-lost brother. His nice, normal girlfriend was starting to wonder what had happened to her ex-husband. A colleague at the Miami Police Department was stalking him to expose what he suspected was Dexter’s secret double life.

Dexter had learned that his foster father’s code that allowed him to kill might have been a lie. And he had begun to experience something like. . . feelings.

Season 2 takes that world of gore and soul-searching and runs with it, said writers and producers of “Dexter,” which airs tonight on Showtime. While Season 1 took its cues and plots from Jeff Lindsay’s book “Darkly Dreaming Dexter,” Season 2 treads new ground -- in Showtime’s signature off-center, morally compromised but friendly manner.

“Last season, the writers harvested the juiciest parts of the book,” said executive producer and writer Clyde Phillips, sounding a morbid, Dexter-like note. “This year we had to start fresh.”


Dexter’s only ally, Lt. Maria LaGuerta (Lauren Vélez), though killed off in the book, was allowed to live on-screen. But the writers cranked up the tension with a new character, an FBI agent (Keith Carradine) who is dedicated to solving Miami’s mysterious murders and who works in the same office with Dexter (Michael C. Hall) and his foster sister, Debra (Jennifer Carpenter). Sgt. Doakes (Erik King) is ever more watchful.

And just to pour on the stress of romantic complications, the writers couldn’t help asking: What if Dexter meets the right woman? Dexter’s new friend, Lila (Jaime Murray), is an artist who impresses him with her dangerous risk-taking; she likes to talk to him about their shared addictive behavior.

The blessing -- and the curse -- of Season 1 was that most of the time, Dexter had no one (besides his victims) to talk to; he had to speak to the audience in voice-over, said executive producer and writer Daniel Cerone. “To us, some of the best scenes last season were the scenes where Dexter wasn’t in his head. The idea was to create a character this season where Dexter could explore who he is,” while dealing with mounting emotional complications, he said.

The producers had expected more controversy over the show and were surprised viewers so readily embraced the character of a serial killer. As Showtime works steadily to attain the reputation that HBO has had for top-quality pay cable programming, it has pursued morally gray themes and characters that might not be allowed on broadcast networks.

But after Season 1, “Dexter” became the network’s top series, a nose ahead of “Weeds.” While some viewers watch out of an appreciation of the horror genre, others have said they root for Dexter because he goes after murderous criminals who’ve escaped justice.

“The affection for the character is not in spite of Dexter’s emotional autism, it’s because of it,” Hall said. By the end of the first season, Dexter hadn’t evolved enough emotionally to appreciate his own trauma. In the new season, he continues to evolve, though he’s still far from normal -- Dexter is forced to choose situations that challenge him to “crack himself open in a way,” he said.

Playing a likable serial killer is like walking a tightrope, Hall said. “I’m creating a character who’s sympathetic, but not giving short shrift to the reality of what he does.”

Many people credit Hall, a theater-trained actor, for pulling off a unique and believable character and were shocked when he was left out of the Emmy nominations. Hall shrugged it off. “I’d rather be notably snubbed than an also-ran,” he said.

The writers said they also feel as if they are walking a tightrope by making a killer into a hero. “It’s a tremendous responsibility,” said Cerone. To assuage his fear that some unhinged viewer would commit a copycat crime, he said he injected a copycat killer into Season 2. Dexter, he said, doesn’t like that.

“That’s our way of saying, ‘Don’t try this at home,’ ” Cerone said.