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TELEVISION REVIEW

An inevitable surrender to 'Dexter'

With the addition of John Lithgow as the Trinity Killer, Showtime's tale of a grisly Robin Hood just gets better -- and bloodier.

October 30, 2009|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

It's difficult to explain to someone who has never seen Showtime's "Dexter" why it is currently the most riveting and addictive show on television. When you try, you tend to sound a tiny bit psychotic.

"It's about this guy named Dexter who works as a blood splatter analyst for the Miami Police Department but is also secretly a serial killer," you say, adding quickly, "except he only kills bad people, the kind the law can't touch. He has this code of honor and he's played by Michael C. Hall, who is just amazing because he makes Dexter kind of lovable and, well, you just have to watch it."

You finish lamely, and your friend takes a couple steps back.

Fortunately, as "Dexter" wades deeper into its fourth season, there aren't too many people who haven't at least heard of it. Hall's recent marriage to Jennifer Carpenter, who plays Dexter's foul-mouthed, unlucky-in-love detective sister Debra, prompted a few headlines, and then Hall was nominated for another Emmy.

Now, the show has the added mainstream credibility of John Lithgow, beloved star of stage, screen and the children's book/CD circuit. Lithgow plays the Trinity Killer, a serial murderer as methodical and duplicitous as our man Dexter. The season opened, in fact, with a woman coming home to find Lithgow, stark naked, heaven help us, in her bathroom. He later cradled her terror-shaken body in the water and cut her throat, holding up a hand mirror so she could watch herself die.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, October 31, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
"Dexter": A review of "Dexter" in Thursday's Calendar section said John Lithgow's character had killed a woman by slashing her throat. The character cut her femoral artery, which runs into the thigh.

Chilling and yet perversely beautiful, it promised a most electric season, which as we head into the sixth episode, the show has more than delivered; with some 2 million viewers, Sunday's episode was the most watched in the series' history.

The viewership jump may be due to the recent cliffhanger in which Debra and her off-again/on-again lover Frank Lundy (Keith Carradine) wound up shot in a parking lot or it may be Lithgow once again channeling creepy duplicity. But more probably it's just the natural order of things -- inevitably, you must surrender to "Dexter" because it keeps doing things you don't think you will be able to watch in such a way that you simply must.

When the concept was first floated -- a grisly Robin Hood of serial killers -- many critics and viewers were understandably skeptical. But in adapting the novels of Jeff Lindsay, writer James Manos Jr. created not so much a jolly psychopath as the ultimate outsider. Darkly hilarious, "Dexter" is essentially the story of the ultimate misfit -- like Sheldon on "The Big Bang Theory," Dexter simply does not understand the language of emotion or the social cues that others take for granted. Guided by his adoptive father, Harry (James Remar), he relies instead on a code of survival, a code that has been tested over the last three seasons by various events, the most important of which is his growing love for Rita (Julie Benz) and her two children. After Rita discovered she was pregnant, last season ended with the two getting married.

Many of us spent much of the summer wondering how on earth the writers were going to navigate the murky waters of Serial Killer Dad. But we needn't have worried. In this season's early episodes, as the Trinity Killer went about his deadly business, poor old sleep-deprived Dexter was learning to multi-task. What new parent hasn't grappled with the difficulty of juggling family, career and lifelong obsession, be it music, writing, baseball or strapping murderers to a table with Saran Wrap and stabbing them to death?

At one point, in an early episode, Dexter fell asleep at the wheel and gave himself a concussion, which meant he couldn't' remember what he had done with the corpse of the guy he had just killed. Me, I tend to misplace my purse, but I could still relate. And the real guy/extraordinary circumstance of the show's writing and Hall's performance are so hypnotic that when Dexter finally found the sawed up bits, we all breathed a sigh of relief.

Dexter is, of course, dealing with a larger issue -- his love for Rita and the kids indicates that he is not so much an Other as he once thought. He still has to kill, but he discovers that he would rather be revealed than have his family harmed.

How, when or if such a disclosure comes is up to the writers, though one hopes they will leave it for another season; this one's jampacked already. Deb recently reunited with Lundy, the serial killer tracker from Season 2 now hot on the trail of Trinity. But hours after their big clinch, the two were shot down in a parking lot. But while others in the department suspected the Vacation Murderers, a pair of druggies preying on tourists, Dexter quickly realized it was the work of Trinity, with whom Lundy had recently had a chance encounter. (Watching Miami live in perpetual threat from any number of serial murders, you do feel a great amount of sympathy for the local tourist bureau.)

Dexter, in whom Lundy had already confided much of the Trinity research, is now determined to kill the man he believes shot his sister. To do so, he must insinuate himself into Trinity's life, which bears an uncanny resemblance to Dexter's own.

Deb, meanwhile, has her own integrity tested (Carpenter delivers a gut-wrenching breakdown scene), and Rita is beginning to think Dexter has something to hide.

There is also an unfortunate B-plot involving Dexter's boss, Lt. LaGuerta (Lauren Velez), and Det. Batista (David Zayas), but the least said about their ill-considered romance, the better.

Not that it matters; anything would pale in comparison to Deb's anguish and the scenes between Hall and Lithgow. Two haunted, ruthless men, and two masterly actors, pitted against each other in a match to the death. Forget "must watch" -- this season's "Dexter" is "can't wait" television.

--

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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