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Reviewed by Bob Westal
ased on Jeff Lindsay’s novel, Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the first season of Showtime’s acclaimed series introduced crime fiction’s most morally ambivalent detective, ever – a very well brought-up psychopath and forensic blood-splatter analyst whose sole intended target is other serial killers. The first season concentrated on the various modes of dispatch of several despicable characters, as well as the disturbing manhunt for “the Ice Truck Killer” – who seemed to be benefiting from inside information about Dexter Morgan’s m.o. The upshot of that was enough of a test of “The Code of Harry” – a secular religion for killer sociopaths taught by Dexter’s deceased policeman adoptive father (James Remar, a series regular in frequent flashbacks). In its second season, the knife is twisted still further when the remains of Dexter’s old victims start popping out of the water and Dexter finds himself the Big Bad of his own series. Also, the traumas of last season seem to have created a psychological block – he’s now having a problem exercising his judge/jury/and-especially-executioner pastime.
That’s far from all. The once vague suspicions of a permanently angry coworker, ex-Navy Seal Detective Doakes (Erik King), start coming to a head, and genius FBI supercop Agent Frank Lundy (Keith Carradine) is brought in to head up the search for “the Bay Harbor Butcher.” Dexter’s personal life becomes even more of a minefield when Rita, his loving but emotionally scarred girlfriend (Julie Benz), makes some incorrect assumptions and sends Dex off to Narcotics Anonymous, where he finds a sponsor some men would gladly die for – and, well, they might. Lila (Jaime Murray) is clearly trouble in a black dress and ultra-sexy British accent, but Dexter is too understandably fascinated to see it. And there’s also the matter of the emotional hangover from the prior season, embodied by Dex’s loving but traumatized and impulsive detective sister (Jennifer Carpenter), who winds up sharing his apartment and playing dysfunctional Oscar to Dexter’s Felix. Oh, and just in case the superhero/secret identity analogies weren’t strong enough, someone has turned the Bay Harbor Butcher into a costumed comic book crime fighter, “the Dark Avenger.”
For all its plot complications, “Dexter” is really a series of dark humored moral quandaries masquerading as a clever variation on the cops ‘n serial killers subgenre. Half the fun is feeling morally implicated and drawn into likable Dexter’s unique blend of sadism and rough justice and wondering how, and if, he can solve his problems without breaking his unusual moral code. This time around, our sympathies get even more twisted as Dexter finds himself temporarily “in recovery” from his violent addiction. Deprived of kills, the seemingly considerate and good-natured Dexter starts to show some real cruelty. Even this liberal opponent of capital punishment was silently crying out for Dex to resume his righteous slaughter; it’s so much more fun to watch him chase and off serial killers than being mean to people who actually love him – and who he just might (or might not) be able to love in return.
A common complaint with “Dexter” is that the supporting cast of characters is weak, at least in comparison to Michael C. Hall’s absolutely first-rate lead performance in a demanding and obviously complex role. (Our own Jason Zingale’s review of “Dexter: The First Season” makes this point.) I see things differently, but it’s true that last season’s main antagonist turned out to be a disappointment. Things look up considerably in this regard in Season Two as Dexter is given a pair of very worthy adversaries, with Jaime Murray’s sexy but frightening Lila and Keith Carradine (“Nashville,” “Deadwood”) lending some star charisma to the possibly too-good-to-be-true Agent Lundy. In addition, arguably the thinnest character of season one – the inexplicably Dexter-hating Detective Doakes – is fleshed out considerably, allowing actor Erik King to add some much needed shading to all that intensity.
There were some other major changes between the show’s first two seasons – the departure of director Michael Cuesta (“L.I.E.,” “Six Feet Under”), and the decision not to use Jeff Lindsay’s sequels to the first Dexter novel as the basis for upcoming seasons. However, the tone and quality of the show has remained remarkably consistent, so those who dug the mostly excellent first season should definitely not hesitate to catch up with the further adventures of the world’s most kindly psychopath. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean you actually have to purchase the box set…
Special Features: The three-disc release of Season Two proves once again that Showtime thinks self-promotion and special features fall into the same category. Though the included podcasts are a nice addition, they’re not exactly headlining material, while the “Blood Fountains” featurette and Dark Defender web series are a sad attempt at fleshing out the extras. The ability to watch the first two episodes of Showtime’s “United States of Tara” and “Nurse Jackie” is appealing, but because you have to do through the usually slow BD-Live, it simply isn’t worth your time.