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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Blood, grief and baby-sitters: Reviewing the new season of "Dexter"





Note: Please don't click through unless you've seen all of season four of "Dexter." There are spoilers below.

It's generally considered a good thing to end a season on a high note. But, sometimes, by whipping up a slam-bang finale, you can set the bar pretty high for your next season. That was my fear upon approaching the new season of Showtime's drama "Dexter," which starts 9 p.m. Sunday.

When we last left erstwhile dad/husband/forensic investigator/serial killer Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), his life had been ripped apart. He'd finally vanquished the Trinity killer (John Lithgow), only to return home from the slaying to find his wife Rita (Julie Benz) murdered in the bathtub -- Trinity's handiwork. It was a pretty shocking end to one of the series' best seasons.
My biggest fear was how the show would follow up on this major shake-up in Dexter's life. Would it confront the issue head-on, examining how Rita's murder has sent shockwaves through the "normal" life Dexter carefully constructed to hide who he really is? Or would it gloss over the tragedy, resolving it in a single episode and having Dexter move on to fight the next big bad serial killer?
Fortunately, it seems to be the former. The new season picks up where the finale left off, with a gobsmacked Dexter finding his wife dead and his baby Harrison in a pool of Rita's blood -- a quasi-recreation of the grisly tableau in which Harry originally found Dexter.
We follow Dexter as he attempts to process his grief, with mixed success (as you might imagine, the "anger" stage of grief for a serial killer is pretty extreme). He tries to move forward; tries to be a stepfather to Rita's children. But he doesn't really have the tools for it. Eventually, he feels the only way he can heal is to find a new victim and continue living out Harry's homicidal code.
It's a strong arc and Hall, as always, is excellent at essaying the balance between Dexter's homicidal urges and his ever-growing humanity. However, as always, that strong stuff is lost in a lot of background noise. There's some good stuff involving Dexter's strong-willed, foul-mouthed foster sister Deb (Hall's real-life wife Jennifer Carpenter) and her assumption of the role of Dexter's caretaker. And, of course, given his temper and detached manner, it's inevitable that someone will suspect Dexter of murder. No surprise, that person is the Dexter-hating Joe Quinn (Desmond Harrington), for once getting a quasi-decent storyline.
But I could do without stories about the new marriage between Dexter's colleagues LaGuerta (Lauren Velez) and Angel (David Zayas). And some of Deb's non-Dexter activities (including an icky burgeoning romance with another character) are a little dull.
Despite all that, the three episodes I saw are fairly strong. The show's powers that be have wisely decided to avoid having a single big bad villain this season (I suppose no one can top Lithgow's Emmy-winning work as Trinity). I'm hopefully that this means the focus of this season will be Dexter's healing process. So far, that seems to be the case. I hope the rest of the season doesn't let me down.

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