Dexter Is Back, But Is He Back to His Old Tricks?

New Blood: DexterShowtime. Showtime. Sunday, November 7, 2009 at 9:59 p.m.

In a season full of remakes—or the more-hip-sounding “reboots”—of everything from CSI to Legends of the Hidden Temple, lashing out at the abysmal lack of creativity of television has become the metabolically-challenged equine of TV criticism, and my reviews have certainly been no exception. (Well, mostly.) But the latest act of video recycling is—maybe—not so easily dismissed.

Showtime’s Dexter: New Blood is a new version of its 2006-2013 drama about the world’s most amiable serial killer, Dexter Morgan, a Miami police blood-splatter technician in his daytime job, a ruthless exterminator in his nighttime play mode. Why Dexter left the air in the first place remains a mystery; it was the highest-rated program in Showtime history. Even its final days, it was drawing 6 million fans a week, an extraordinary number for a premium cable channel.

The original Dexter was a fascinating cat-and-mouse suspense show: Will the cops catch him this time? Will his target turn on him? This was a real possibility, because Dexter triedTo counterbalance his own palpable evil by killing only other serial killers. (For those of us living in Miami in those days, the show was also wicked social satire; only our hometown, we proudly observed, boasted enough serial killers that it needed another serial killer to keep them under control.)

But the blood-and-guts elements were threaded with wrenching and complex moral debates. Can good and evil really be measured out on a balance sheet? Even if Dexter was saving more lives than he took, did that get him off the moral hook, even a little bit? What did it mean that almost everybody who watched the show rooted for the charming Dexter, who was easily the most deplorably grisly character then on TV? (Even Tony Soprano mostly killed for profit or self-defense; Dexter did it because he liked it. He cataloged his victims on a collection of glass microscrope slides that he could take out for nostalgic reveries.)

The show’s writers never let Dexter off the hook; his friends and loved ones were inexorably stalked and punished by a karma even harsher than he was. Even the ghost (or hallucination?) of Dexter’s adoptive father, who tried to restrain his bloodiest excesses, gave up and disappeared. In the series finale—much reviled by critics and some fans (though not me) —Dexter is forced to mercy-kill his beloved and fantastically foul-mouthed sister, abandon his young son and girlfriend, and fake his own death in a Miami hurricane. In the final fade, he was hiding out in a remote forest in northern Oregon, a beflannelled lumberjack with lifeless eyes.

Nine years later, Dexter has returned to Showtime as Dexter: New Blood, a genuine reboot—that is, with some of the same characters, but in a different time and setting—without any more explanation than when it disappeared. Showtime desire for a new tentpole show for its schedule to fill the gap left when the counterespionage drama Homeland departed last year is doubtless a big part of the reason for the return. But the network is calling New Blood: Dexter a “limited series,” current TV jargon for what used to be called a miniseries, which seems to imply, sadly, that  it won’t be around for the long term.

Whatever the reason, the show is back, with its original executive producer (Clyde Phillips) and one of its original directors (Marcos Siega). And, of course, Michael C. Hall has returned as the title character, now working in a small hunting-and-fishing store in the furthest reaches of upstate New York under the name Jim Lindsay. (It’s probably no coincidence that the novels on which the original Dexter was based were written by Jeff Lindsay, one of the most lovably subversive people I’ve ever met in television. On a set visit when the show first went into production in 2006, I mentioned that I loved its not-very-latent hostility to Miami. Oh, no, we’re not mocking Miami, the Showtime PR people nervously assured me. “Oh yes we are,” Lindsay declared when I called him.)

Dexter’s exquisitely foul-mouthed and extremely dead sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) is there, too, assuming the ghostly conscience role his father once played, but tauntingly. (Her typical counseling: “You emotionally handicapped, crazy fuck!”) Nine years have passed, apparently without Dexter claiming another victim—but only through a superhuman effort on his part. The old Dexter lurks just beneath the surface, his eyes sparkling when his job requires him to sharpen a meat cleaver or a hunting knife, widening immeasurably at the sight of blood on the floor during a visit to the butcher shop. (And as expressive as ever when the show turns to its old double-entendre patter, as when the butcher gazes at his newly honed cleaver and assures him, “You’re a lifesaver.”)

But Dexter’s public self is the same sweet goof as ever. He’s even dating the town police chief (Julia Jones, Longmire), whose duties mostly consist of tracking down runaway pigs and stolen pecan pies. There are a couple of women reported missing from a nearby Indian reservation, but that’s mostly the responsibility of the tribal cops. And anyway, a serial killer seems unlikely to be sheltering in the tiny town … unless, maybe, Dexter has been toeing the line a little bit less strictly than we’ve seen?

More worrisome, perhaps, is the appearance of a stranger in town, a place so lost in space and time that folks at the local honky-tonk do county-and-western line-dancing to old Blondie records on the jukebox. The newcomer turns out to be Dexter’s teenage son Harrison (Jack Alcott, The Good Lord Bird), who after his stepmother’s death from cancer found an old letter in her things suggesting his father was still alive. Their reunion is not a happy one; Harrison, clueless about Dexter’s real nature, assumes he’s just a deadbeat who ran from fatherhood. Worse yet, a couple of incidents leave Dexter wondering if his DNA imparted the boy with something a lot more significant than eye color or nose shape.

Aside from the photography—director Siega this time around is not working with Miami’s bright sunlight and dance club energy, but the snow and repressively dark grays of the northern woods, and he makes the most of it—there’s nothing sizzlingly novel about New Blood. Even the idea of a sympathetic serial killer as a series lead is no longer new or even unique; Netflix’s You is working that same territory now.

What makes New Blood worth watching is the return of a couple of grisly old friends. Hall and Carpenter may be playing their characters the same old way, but that’s as memorable as ever. Their sweet faces and blighted souls—Deb may not have killed anybody, but she allowed Dexter to keep doing so even after she learned his true nature—are not only fascinating, but unnerving. The point of New Blood is the same as that of Dexter: that evil is real, even if sometimes elusive, and that it takes a torturous toll on everything aroundIt was. “My world has always been truth-adjacent,” Dexter notes at one point. We might not believe as much.