Is there anything more poignant than a psychopath off his game?
Showtime's "Dexter" and "Brotherhood" immediately test a viewer's devotion by presenting similar scenarios in their season premieres. Undone by murdering his brother last season, Dexter (Michael C. Hall) seems unable to, well, consummate his need to kill the unrighteous, while on "Brotherhood," sexy thug Michael Caffee (Jason Isaacs) has been left partially brain damaged after the cliff-hanging brutal attack by troubled friend/police officer Declan.
So do we love these guys enough to root for a "healthy" return to their coldblooded murderous ways?
Pass the pompoms.
Two of the best shows on television, "Dexter" and "Brotherhood" are weekly marvels of writing, acting and conceit. In the first, Hall does the seemingly impossible: He makes real a serial killer who is as ruthless as he is sympathetic. Not since Anthony Hopkins gave us Hannibal Lecter have we had a murderer with such dinner party appeal.
Following a code instilled by his police-officer foster father, Dexter is as modern a character as it gets: the self-realized sociopath. Unlike his fictitious compatriots, Mr. Ripley perhaps, or Dr. Lecter, Dexter not only recognizes his condition (he is without feeling save the primal urge to kill), he also realizes it makes him a monster. But a monster with morals -- he kills only really bad people. By day a blood-splatter specialist for the Miami Police Department (hey, a fella's got to have a hobby), Dexter's only real emotional connection is to the murderers. Those folks, he understands. The rest of the world, including his sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter) and girlfriend, Rita (Julie Benz), remains a cipher.
As Season 2 opens, Dexter seems to have suffered something like an emotional breakthrough. Having discovered his origins, including a brother just as damaged as he is, he does not feel quite so isolated, and his polished surface is beginning to crack. Far from fitting his demographic, he is suddenly surrounded by women.
Debra -- who was almost killed last season by her boyfriend, the dreaded Ice Truck Killer -- is sharing Dexter's pad. Rita, meanwhile, is moving past her abusive past and beginning to ask Dexter questions a healthier woman would have asked long ago. Such as, why don't you answer your cellphone for hours at a time some nights? Carpenter and Benz are terrific, nailing down huge issues like fear, rage and devotion with ice-pick precise performances. Carefully returning the cap to the orange juice, Deb tells her brother she will be out of his hair soon. "And then chez Dex-tair can return to its original, semi-lived-in, museum-quality state," she says with the comfortable mockery of any sibling.
With so much more human interaction, it's not surprising that Dexter's many secrets are floating dangerously close to the surface, figuratively and literally, as the bodies of his victims become the subject of investigation. He is not, it turns out, the perfect machine of Season 1, a challenge for Hall and viewers. "This is the battle I've prepared for all my life," he tells us in his intimately monotone voice-over. Dexter's absolute otherness somehow alleviated the queasiness of a hero who not only kills but also enjoys a bit of torture first. As Dexter becomes more recognizably human, one longs for and dreads a cure for what ails him. Because Dexter at peace is the end of "Dexter." Fortunately, that doesn't seem to be happening any time soon.
Having a more traditional setup -- two brothers, one a politician, one a gangster, attempt to rule Providence, R.I. -- "Brotherhood" does not put quite as much pressure on its resident lunatic. The story began last season when Michael returned to the Caffee stamping grounds after years of presumed-dead absence and got right back to his old blood-drenched ways, much to the consternation of the rest of the family. That would be Tommy, the city council member defending his Irish working-class constituents with a fervor, and ethical elasticity, to match Michael's; his wife, Eileen (Annabeth Gish), medicating her stay-at-home boredom with dope and adultery; his mother, Rose (Fionnula Flanagan), the unionizing matriarch; and an assortment of childhood friends, thugs and politicos.
The brothers are, obviously, two sides of the same coin, a premise less than bright and shiny. But Blake Masters' scripts bring the characters and neighborhood to glorious life while never missing a beat in driving the plot.
Season 2 opens with Michael recovering from Declan's attack, clearly still affected. Last year, Isaacs managed to be sexy, needy and menacing simultaneously; now he somehow adds a "Charly"-like childishness to the package. Poor Michael; he can't put together a simple puzzle or remember where the breakfast bars are kept, and your heart breaks for him. Never mind that he murdered something like seven other mobsters at a pop last season.
Tommy, on the other hand, is all rage and despair -- Eileen has confessed her sins in the hopes of moving on, and we're so glad to see Gish get work we'll settle for not quite understanding why she did this. Likewise, Flanagan, who is as sharp and brittle as broken glass, with her disheveled 'do and Irish suspicion. "I don't trust him," she says of a cousin who turns up on Tommy's doorstep. As if her kids are model citizens.
But the more the merrier in this dance of loyalty and corruption. The idea of neighborhood, of family rooted deep and unmoving, is a vanishing one in this country. Our answer to all manner of problems is flight, re-invention and then, perhaps, return, but only as an observer. To watch these people struggle to remain is perhaps the greatest pleasure of "Brotherhood," simply because you don't see it that often anymore.
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)