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'Dexter' stretches definition of justice

Published September 30, 2006

He'd rather not be known as that creepy actor guy who hangs around dead bodies in every role.

But then the chance came to play a blood spatter expert who happens to double as a serial killer of heinous criminals in a new Showtime series, Dexter.

So even though he'd spent four years among fake corpses in HBO's Six Feet Under, Michael C. Hall wasn't about to say no.

"It was kind of a leap of faith, or a risk," said Hall, who played repressed gay funeral home director David Fisher on HBO's in-your-face drama from 2001 to 2005. "I read something that said I'm more on the supply side now - he's a bit more proactive than the last character I played. Basically, I just like the moral ambiguity the character has. And I like him."

Turns out, lots of people like affable Miami police forensics expert Dexter Morgan, a charming guy who brings doughnuts to his co-workers, relaxes on his boat Slice of Life and can almost intuit how murders unfold, based on where the blood lies at the death scene.

But his good guy exterior hides a dark secret. Dexter has been compelled to kill others since he was a little boy.

His adoptive father, a perceptive cop with an, um, unique sense of justice, saw this compulsion in his son and trained the boy to target his murderous impulses at wrongdoers.

As viewers meet Dexter, he's managing his double life with aplomb. Convinced that he has a "hollow place" where most people's emotions reside, his world is split in two. By day, he uses yarn and forensic techniques to reconstruct the most horrific crime scenes; by night, he hunts those who hunt others, killing rapists, spree killers, child molesters and other criminals who have escaped justice.

He has a girlfriend who, as a survivor of an abusive relationship, can't bring herself to have sex - which is just fine with the emotionally detached Dexter. And as he fends off the attentions of a beautiful police lieutenant, he fools a building full of officers, until a new killer starts leaving bloodless bodies around the city with specific clues as a message to him.

"People fake a lot of human interactions, but I feel like I fake them all," he says, in one of many internal monologues that seem translated straight from the books by South Florida novelist Jeff Lindsay. "I'm a very neat monster."

Lindsay swears he got the idea for the series' first novel, Darkly Dreaming Dexter, after speaking at a Kiwanis luncheon and thinking "serial murder isn't such a bad thing." He still savors the fact that Dexter follows a strict ethical framework, developed by his father, called "the Code of Harry."

Prepare methodically. Choose carefully. And cover your tracks.

"Whatever it is that made Dexter a killer is not something you can argue with," Lindsay said during a July press conference. "But he's an extremely moral individual, as long as you take situational ethics seriously. He has earned the right to kill because he follows rules he has learned to live by."

"Soon, you'll be packed into a few, neatly-wrapped Heftys, and my own small corner of the world will be a neater, happier place . . . a better place," Dexter tells a child-killer trussed up in plastic wrap and gagged, just before he takes his only trophy: a drop of blood on a slide extracted from a cut on the cheek.

The show also extends the current streak of gory TV dramas set in Miami established by CSI: Miami and reinforced by FX's plastic surgeon drama Nip/Tuck.

What makes South Florida such a magnet for tales about blood, body parts and crime?

"It's just a happy, homicidal place," said Lindsay, a Miami native who compares working on his novels to writing about an ex-wife. "I think it's the contrast. It's tropical and colorful and it's got a great dance beat and somehow the headless corpses keep turning up."

Dexter focuses on what producers like to call the "anti-Miami." Neighborhood street fairs, working class apartment complexes and corner bars form the show's universe, rather than the ritzy clubs and hotels of Miami Vice.

"There's something kind of precarious about the city," said Hall, noting that hurricane-inspired, stratospheric insurance costs limited filming in Miami to the pilot episode and assorted outdoor scenes. "There's a real sense of transience, a haphazard lawlessness. . . . There really is a reptilian underbelly that seems the right setting for this show."

It's an ambitious undertaking for a channel known primarily as a fitful also-ran. From Family Business, its reality show about a family-run porn operation, to gay-themed series Queer as Folk and The L Word, Showtime's offerings have often felt like concepts HBO and even FX couldn't be bothered to produce.

But there's a quiet revolution underway these days. Weeds, its quirky dramedy about a suburban mom who's also a part-time marijuana dealer, has picked up steam on the strength of a delightfully absurd premise and appealing star Mary-Louise Parker.

Brotherhood, an Irish family crime drama, sets a Cain and Abel story in a working-class Rhode Island neighborhood. In Dexter, Showtime has an original series which might get some serious watercooler talk going.

"Dexter is a cowboy who wears, like, a 10-gallon gray hat," said Hall. "Would that we all made such lemonade out of the lemons we were presented with in our life. . . . Obviously, he's presented with a pretty hefty lemon."

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or

[Last modified September 29, 2006, 10:53:21]

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