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FALL TV PREVIEW | `DEXTER'

Character vivisection

On Showtime's new series, Michael C. Hall plays a serial killer who's one of the good guys. He's cunning. He's funny. `I like the guy,' Hall says.

September 17, 2006|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

AS the lead in the new Showtime series "Dexter," Michael C. Hall has devoted many hours trying to understand his character, Dexter Morgan, a self-acknowledged sociopath who by day works as a forensic pathologist and by night sets out to vivisect and eventually kill those who have it coming.

"He claims to be without certain fundamental human traits," Hall said recently during a shooting break on an interior set of a police station at the Sunset Gower Studios. "He imagines himself as faking every human interaction. And yet there's something about him within the context of this world that's as human as anyone else."

A daring, macabre take on the traditional crime show, the series, set for 12 hourlong episodes and debuting Oct. 1, is Showtime's latest effort to find a breakout hit that might help close the subscriber gap with HBO. The last few years, Showtime's original series -- "Sleeper Cell," "Weeds," "Huff" and "Brotherhood" -- have generated critical praise but have failed to produce substantial ratings. CBS chief Les Moonves, who oversees the Viacom-owned cable network, recently chastised Showtime by saying its programming should aim to please viewers as much as critics.

"Dexter" producers deny they are under any pressure to broaden the show's appeal and say they believe the series remains in the traditional Showtime mode -- it won't be for everyone.

The pilot, set in Miami, uses key elements of Jeff Lindsay's 2004 novel "Darkly Dreaming Dexter," about a boy with a past so harrowing he can't remember it but that has left its psychological mark. Harry, his adoptive father, is a police officer who teaches Dexter to accept and use his murderous impulses for the public good. As the grown-up Dexter pursues his gruesome "projects" -- always following the "code of Harry" and slaying only those who have escaped official justice -- another serial killer with a similar style challenges the police unit where Dexter works as a blood spatter expert. The story line unfolds over the season.

Producers knew such a dark show couldn't last unless it were lightened with humor. Writers found it in Dexter's predicament. Caring about other people as much as lawn furniture, he has had to teach himself to be charming to get along in the world. He has read profiles of serial killers and skillfully avoids displaying those characteristics. But now and then, such as when he tries to develop a relationship with a woman, he can't help but make comic mistakes.

"He's obviously a very cunning and capable guy, but in certain instances there's an innocence about him that is potentially funny, potentially endearing. I like the guy," Hall said. "Would that we all took such responsibility for our shadow sides," he said with a short laugh.

Perhaps the largest surprise in "Dexter" is that viewers are intended to relate -- hopefully in a metaphorical kind of way. For one, there are the father issues. "He wonders 'Am I just some sort of aggregate of my father's idea of who I should be?' Which I think is something many men deal with."

And then, there is the universal struggle for authenticity. "In a way we all, to a certain extent, fake all human interactions," Hall said. In his air-cooled trailer, Hall appeared muscular and relaxed, his hooded brown eyes open and soft, his mood affable. Of course, he observed, his friendly persona could all be an act.

Though Hall said he strives for authenticity in his personal life, he was also at that very moment aware that he was speaking to a reporter and would not be the same if he were speaking to his buddy, his director or his mother. The key to playing Dexter, he said, is to realize that having cultivated so many personas, the killer is, in fact, an actor.

All that made Hall perfect for the part, according to Sara Colleton, executive producer along with John Goldwyn and show runner Clyde Phillips. "He's such a chameleon as an actor," Colleton said. "I couldn't imagine it with anyone else."

Before signing on for the part, Hall had to consider a few things: Did he want to make an open-ended commitment to another television show after five seasons as the gay mortician David on "Six Feet Under"? Was he willing to spend months, perhaps years within a compulsive character who is overly fond of human vivisection? What if he wound up typecast in bizarre roles surrounded by dead bodies?

"Because of a real consideration of what I was getting into, I didn't want to take the leap. I spent some time thinking about Dexter and the possibilities for the character," he said.

Hall believes "Dexter" has the potential for widespread appeal. It isn't an extremely violent show, he said, and what's more, a voice-over narration by Dexter implicates the audience in the action. "They're the only ones besides Dexter who know what he's up to and because of a relative objectivity might be able to speculate about Dexter as a person in a way Dexter can't. That's what makes it an engaging thing to consider as a viewer."

Editors will produce a broadcast-friendly version (possibly to air on CBS) by mostly dubbing out offensive language or reediting some gory scenes, Phillips said.

Because the first season hasn't finished, Hall said the tone and metaphorical levels of the show are developing. "It's emerging as its own animal."

Hall had more to say but stopped himself. "I want people to experience it as they watch it."

*

lynn.smith@latimes.com

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