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How to slice and dice a serial killer

TELEVISION : PRIME-TIME TV

Making Showtime's bare 'n' bloody 'Dexter' suitable for CBS called for some dexterous cutting.

February 17, 2008|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

High above Wilshire Boulevard, scenes from the pilot of "Dexter" were illuminating a tiny editing room. From a couch, Bob Greenblatt, Showtime's president of entertainment, considered the original version of the bloody series about a well-meaning serial killer -- and compared it to the revised version he'd made for CBS.

CBS will begin airing the 12 episodes of Season 1, or at least parts of them, tonight in another sign of how the networks are tiptoeing into edgier fare.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, February 19, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
"Dexter": An article in Sunday's Calendar section about the television show "Dexter" incorrectly said that Showtime and CBS are "sister networks under Viacom." While the CBS television network and Showtime are both part of the CBS Corp., they are not owned by Viacom.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, February 24, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
"Dexter": An article last Sunday about the television show "Dexter" incorrectly said that Showtime and CBS are "sister networks under Viacom." While the CBS television network and Showtime are both part of CBS Corp., they are not owned by Viacom.

"The things that are unconventional about it are still 100% there," Greenblatt promised as scenes of the Miami Police Department, Miami night life and Dexter's kill room unrolled.

Indeed, the severed head still bounced on the freeway and the mutilated corpse was still neatly laid out by the motel. But profanities, sexual foreplay, genitals secured with plastic wrap? Cut, cut and blurred, even though you couldn't see anything anyway. You just don't know what might show up on hi-def, Greenblatt explained.

In personally editing the series, the lanky, low-key executive found himself in an odd predicament. Under his watch, Showtime has earned a reputation for provocative but likable shows you'd never see on broadcast TV. Now he had turned the twisted and darkly humorous series about the Miami forensics expert/serial killer into something a broadcast network would find acceptable.

Just the thought of an edited version for broadcast made both fans and some critics cringe. Could it be done without killing "Dexter's" beating heart? And could any amount of editing make it proper for mass audiences?

In fact, Greenblatt said, CBS had fewer requested changes than he had expected. As sister networks under Viacom, Showtime and CBS had already considered collaborating on some projects. But as CBS watched the writers strike deplete its cupboards, it was agreed the time was right to let "Dexter" try the transition, the first full cable series to be repeated on a broadcast network. Even with the end of the strike, CBS will air all 12 episodes in Season 1. Showtime, meanwhile, will gear up to start production on Season 3.

Some of the cuts were indeed painful, but Greenblatt said he was happy to give "Dexter" the chance to be seen and appreciated by a larger audience. Because show runners were on strike before last week's settlement, he took over the editing himself.

Actually, "Dexter" fits in "very nicely" with other procedurals and thrillers on CBS, including the "CSI" franchise, "NCIS" and "Cold Case," which will lead into "Dexter," said CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler. "It's not that grisly of a show. It's more of a psychological thriller, beautifully executed, with terrific characters, and the writing is great," she said.

What fans love about the series, however, is that it would never be confused with "CSI Miami" or "Miami Vice." As played by Michael C. Hall, Dexter narrates his own story in a sardonic monotone that changes as his self-awareness expands. He is well aware the Miami police don't solve the majority of murders, thus leaving justice up to him and his unbidden and incurable antisocial urges.

As he goes about his business, he also describes his attempts to appear normal, such as forcing himself to find a girlfriend or bringing doughnuts to work. He justifies his sadistic deeds by killing killers only according to the "code of Harry," rules of acceptable murder as laid down by the police officer who adopted and raised him.

The tone and pace are hot and languid, like the city, and peopled with a nice cultural mix. They include humorously flawed colleagues, such as a female chief on the make, a Spanish-speaking detective whose favorite book is "The Secret," and Dexter's own naive and ambitious sister. All speak the everyday profanity of the harshest workplaces.

The editing process wasn't as daunting as it might seem, Greenblatt said. He started with an already edited and dubbed "clean" version that Showtime routinely makes of all its shows at the same time it is making the originals in anticipation of later syndication.

"Dexter," preparing to shoot Season 3, isn't yet ready to follow "Sex and the City" and "The Sopranos" into syndication. However, many decisions about what to cut had already been made in an overly cautious edit, Greenblatt said.

Still, he said he "looked at everything" and in some cases was able to put back words like "bitch." "Hell" and "damn" were also OK.

Replacing other profanities was the most technically challenging task. In the original pilot, Dexter and his nemesis, Sgt. James Doakes (Erik King), have a confrontational scene that sets up their cantankerous relationship. In it, Doakes uses the F-word six times. "We couldn't do that," Greenblatt said. At the same time, he said, "We didn't want to take them all out."

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