Season one on DVD.

Years ago, I read a review of Steven Spielberg’s A.I. that effusively praised the film for its exploration of the “programming” in our genes that makes us human. The writer argued that the A.I. robot-boy’s love for his mother is just as genuine as any child’s filial love because “love” is just a way of behaving, a way that could be wired into circuitry and flesh alike. I didn’t buy her argument, and I didn’t like the movie, largely because I wasn’t willing to leap past “But he’s a robot!” I didn’t see robot-boy’s behavior as love (certainly not when it was embodied by the creepy Haley Joel Osment), so even though I was intrigued by the notion of breaking down what “love” really is, I didn’t believe A.I. had done so.

But where A.I. failed, the serial killer drama Dexter, of all things, has succeeded brilliantly. That long-forgotten review of A.I. came racing back to me when I started watching the first season of the Showtime series via Netflix. Robot-boy is a poor medium for pondering what it means to be human, but the sociopathic protagonist of Dexter is perfect, and no one could be more surprised and intrigued by that than I.

Based on a novel by Jeff Lindsay, the show’s premise is unusually twisted. Dexter Morgan was adopted as a young boy after he was found abandoned at a bloody crime scene. Even as a little kid, he wasn’t quite right—unable to empathize or perceive social cues—and his father, Harry, a police officer, went to great lengths to teach him the basics of human interaction. Later, when neighborhood pets started disappearing and Dexter confessed violent impulses to Harry, his father recognized the early behaviors of a killer. He tried to satiate the teenage Dexter’s urges on weekend hunting trips, but slaughtering animals wasn’t enough, and finally, despairing, Harry decided to teach his adopted son to kill—but only people guilty of some terrible crime and only under certain circumstances, what Dexter came to know as the Code of Harry. As the show opens, Dexter is a forensics blood-splatter specialist by day and a serial killer of serial killers by night.

It’s an audacious, far-fetched set-up, but it works because James Manos Jr. writes such sharp, well-observed scripts (Dexter’s droll interior monologues are masterful) and because Michael C. Hall gives such a layered, meticulous, funny performance as Dexter. One of the essential characteristics of the character is that he always believes himself to be acting, merely playing the part of a nice guy, and Hall conveys that self-consciousness beautifully with little hesitations and secret smiles and moments of flatness. The supporting cast is strong also, particularly James Remar, who plays Harry in flashbacks, creating a truly remarkable portrait of unconditional love. Harry’s determination to mold Dexter into as good a person as a sociopath can be is heartbreaking; the strain of moral compromise lines his face, and his eyes ache with weary devotion.

I had expected Dexter to be an empty provocateur, but with Manos writing, and Hall and Remar in those critical roles, the show has far more depth than that. If Dexter acts as a loving brother, for example—helping his foster sister Deb advance in her career, encouraging her to be more assertive, listening to her problems—what prevents him from being a loving brother? We feel instinctively that “love” goes deeper than action (Dexter certainly thinks so, believing himself incapable of love), but Dexter challenges us to think about how and why that might be true, and to question whether our antihero is correct in his self-assessment.

Dexter’s obsession with authenticity is also thought-provoking. He scrupulously follows Harry’s teachings on appearing “normal” and believes that doing so makes him a fraud, an imposter among genuinely “normal” people. But unlike Dexter, we know that to some extent, everyone bends a little bit, to be polite, or to fit in, or to follow the rules. What would it mean to fully be “authentically” ourselves, and would a world of fully “authentic” people really be a better one?

Such brooding simmers underneath a deliciously suspenseful story arc, as Dexter realizes that an unknown serial killer is communicating directly to him through a series of ghoulish, theatrical crime scenes. Provocative and tense and perversely funny, the first season ends with a shocking but poetic finale. It might not be appropriate for network television (CBS’s recent airing of edited episodes was questionable), but for an audience mature enough to handle the premise and to sift through its ethical and philosophical quandaries, Dexter is a macabre but meaty treat.

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