Showtime's "Dexter" is the TV equivalent of that little girl in the nursery rhyme -- the one with the curl right in the middle of her forehead. When it's good, it's very, very good. And when it's bad, it's...well, not horrid exactly. Just really disappointing.
But I try to cut this series some slack. After all, its central character is a serial killer. Talk about a high degree of difficulty. And, admittedly, nearly all the stuff involving the bloodthirsty Dexter (played brilliantly by Michael C. Hall) is usually pretty good. The highlight of last season was his attempt to establish a real friendship with unbalanced assistant district attorney Miguel Prado, played by the excellent Jimmy Smits. The problem was, everything surrounding the Prado plot kind of stunk (with the possible exception of Dexter's realization that his girlfriend Rita was pregnant with his baby). Also, the Prado stuff wrapped up in the second-to-last episode, meaning the finale was a bunch of mumbo jumbo about a killer who skinned his victims.
Given that disappointing wrap-up, I was less than enthused about the show's new season, which starts Sunday at 9 p.m.
I shouldn't have worried. Judging from the four preview episodes Showtime sent out, this has the potential to be the best season since the series' first. Since we last saw him absent-mindedly bleeding on his new bride at his own wedding, Dexter has fully ensconced himself in his role as father and husband. Rita, played by Julie Benz, has given birth to their new son, Harrison, and Dexter is now stepdad to Rita's two older kids. And, like many a working parent before him, he's determined to have it all. This means he must balance his new family with his day job as a forensics expert for the Miami police department, and his "side project" killing murderers who have managed to evade the law.
In the season premiere, Dexter's struggle isn't going well, as the addled dad botches a court appearance due to lack of sleep. Rest isn't coming any time soon. Dexter is quickly visited by a figure from his past, serial killer-hunting FBI Agent Frank Lundy (Keith Carradine, reprising his season two role). Lundy is on the trail of a murderer who has evaded him for decades and needs Dexter's help. The killer in question is nicknamed Trinity, for his habit of killing in threes. He's played by bracingly creepy John Lithgow who has only a handful of scenes in the first few episodes, yet still managed to scare the bejesus out of me.
Dexter is intrigued by the story of Trinity who, if Lundy is right, is the most successful serial killer of all time.
Meanwhile, the other stories are more successful this season than they were last time around. Dexter's foster sister Deb (Hall's real-life wife, Jennifer Carpenter) is trying to prove herself as a new police detective, while maintaining a new relationship and continuing to set records for profanity use. She's also sent into a tailspin by the return of Lundy, her former lover, though he insists he's just in town to track Trinity.
The rest of the characters are sort of background noise this time around, with the exception of an unexpected romantic subplot that I'm actually kind of enjoying.
Deb's partner Quinn (Desmond Harrington), continues to be a dull, grating drain, but, overall, things are in good shape.
There's a lot of serious, interesting examination of whether Dexter can balance his family and his dark desires. We've seen this explored before, but I think the arrival of a son -- the first flesh-and-blood relative Dexter's had since murdering his brother to protect Deb -- makes the conflict more difficult and more real. The story is explored extremely well in the fourth episode, in which Dexter stalks a cop who might have murdered her own family.
There's also a lot of humor, as lone wolf Dexter tries awkwardly to fit in with the other suburban dads in his neighborhood. In these moments, Hall's plastic smiles and deer-in-headlights expressions are things of beauty. Even when the show slips, Hall is always at the top of his game, showing us a man who has to playact at being human.
The show is flawed, but it's still one of the most challenging, and perversely entertaining, series on TV. I hope it maintains the complicated creepiness of these first few episodes. If it does, the season could be very, very good indeed.