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If a decade of television can be defined by the question “What is the absolute worst human being a TV show can make you root for?,” a persuasive argument could be made for the answer “Dexter Morgan.” When Showtime’s Dexter was at its peak, Dexter Morgan was the apotheosis of the prestige TV antihero. He had Tony Soprano’s darkly comic brutality, Don Draper’s sly duplicity and Walter White’s misguided morality, all pushed to a bloody extreme.
When Showtime’s Dexter was at its nadir, Dexter Morgan was a lumberjack.
With its bizarre logging conclusion, hurricane climax and a string of deaths that cheapened fan-favorite characters, the Dexter finale served the unlikely double purpose of casting a pall over the series as a whole and obscuring the reality that the show went off the rails well before the finale. To say the Dexter finale failed the show is to ignore all the Charlotte Rampling-relayed hijinks that preceded it in that last season, as well as the full season in which everybody had to pretend that they hadn’t immediately clocked that Edward James Olmos was a ghost, months before the show got around to revealing it.
Fortunately, in our deathless TV landscape of remakes, reboots and unrequired sequels, one need never accept a disappointing conclusion. For every Deadwood movie that provided much-needed closure for an abruptly truncated show, there are brand extensions that rewrite unpopular conclusions (Roseanne), essentially forget about derided endings (Will & Grace) or endeavor to answer questions nobody was exactly asking (The Many Saints of Newark).
Showtime’s Dexter: New Blood doesn’t pretend that Lumberjack Dexter, or any of his season eight misadventures, didn’t exist. With Clyde Phillips, showrunner of the exceptional first four seasons, back in the fold, the new limited series is a recalibration of what came before. It attempts to redeem some of the dumb aspects of the closing installments and to craft a more fitting resolution than one that finds a serial killer with 130-plus corpses to his name living out the rest of his life engaged in intermediate woodworking.
Based on four episodes, it can be said that Dexter: New Blood is neither as bad as seasons six through eight nor as good as seasons one through four. It’s a story about a man trying to move on and find a place in a new world, frustratingly told within a show that seems determined to pretend that nothing in the television landscape has changed at all.
It’s 10 years after the events of the finale, and Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) is living in Iron Lake, New York, working as a sales associate at a fish-and-game store under the name Jim Lindsay (a back-to-basics nod to Jeff Lindsay, creator of the Dexter novels). He’s trying hard to have an ordinary life, which involves building a friendly rapport with all the residents of the small town, dating the local police chief (Julia Jones’ Angela Bishop), and even making regular outings to indulge in line-dancing.
Knowing what we know about Dexter, it’s charming to watch Hall’s version of feigned normalcy, though any sense of freshness requires that you forget the premise of the original show: Dexter killed bad people by night and pretended to be a robotic Everyman by day. The only difference here is that “Jim Lindsay” wears a parka, reflecting the series’ transition from steamy, neon-lit, stucco-heavy Miami to the snowy, woodsy, bucolic Northeast.
This is a very different Dexter, one without sardonic voiceovers or the comfortingly vicious repetition of the breakfast-preparing opening credits. Don’t worry. The revamped mood won’t last long. As the series begins, Dexter is already having conversations with deceased sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter), who takes on a more profane and moral version of his Dark Passenger, the childhood trauma that defines him. Dexter wants to be a better version of himself, and Deb wants to help, but Dexter’s irritation with a wealthy jackass of a customer, who demands excessive firepower for an unremarkable hunting trip, just may push him to the brink.
Then there’s the unexpected arrival of long-absent son Harrison (Jack Alcott), who prompts a paternal crisis about nature, nurture and the inheritability of that Dark Passenger. Knowing what we know about Dexter, it’s charming to watch Hall’s version of insecure fatherhood, though any sense of freshness requires that you forget Dexter spent multiple seasons obsessing about how much of his legacy he was passing on to his son.
As you can see, Dexter: New Blood is trying to move the franchise forward and backsliding at the same time. That mirrors its protagonist, who has become very rusty at the very bad thing that used to come so naturally. If Dexter Morgan arrived on TV as part of a creative vanguard, he returns at the back of the creative pack. It isn’t that Dexter was ever exactly sui generis. He was always inspired by Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley and by countless pulp antiheroes whose attempts to retain social status ignite a downward spiral of criminality.
However, since Dexter ended in 2013, the show’s rhythms and overall template have become archetypal. Dexter Morgan worries here about how his DNA might impact Harrison, but the character’s DNA has become unmistakable in varied small-screen contexts: the depictions of real-life serial killers in The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story and The Serpent, the darkly rollicking central duo in The End of the F***ing World, and Joe in Netflix’s You.
After treating its main character as a romantic obsessive, You has accepted Penn Badgley’s Joe as not just a serial killer but almost explicitly as the millennial Dexter Morgan, right down to direct references. It’s a hard comparison to avoid, because from Joe’s voiceover to his general methodology to the show’s never-ending roller coaster of close shaves and clever evasions, You is unmistakably a sexier, sillier, more topical Dexter. It’s a Dexter that has evolved.
It’s not that Dexter should be making references to You — older-demo nods to Fargo and Homeland are more appropriate for this character, who may not even own a TV — yet it’s bad luck that Dexter is returning to TV just weeks after You dropped a season in which its main character also wonders how he could be a good father and a serial killer. The similarities don’t stop there, as You engaged this season with Missing White Woman Syndrome, while Dexter uses Iron Lake’s proximity to a Seneca Nation reservation to acknowledge, in fairly bland form, the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Dexter was never very good at being “about” things other than Dexter’s warped psychology, and this superficial gloss on a harrowing real-world disparity has more in common with something like ABC’s Big Sky than actual progressive engagement.
Phillips’ return brings back a serious exploration of the lead character’s internal machinations. But maybe the combination of Phillips’ return and that of director Marcos Siega accounts for why Dexter: New Blood feels encased in amber.
Hall hasn’t been given many new wrinkles for Dexter, but his dead-eyed bemusement remains one of TV’s best characterizations, and it’s nice to have Hall and Carpenter returning to a more originalist Dexter-Deb dynamic, one unsullied by the weirdness of later seasons. Jones and Alano Miller as a local cop are reasonable fill-ins for such longtime staples as LaGuerta (Luna Lauren Velez) and Batista (David Zayas), while Clancy Brown, as an instantly murky business owner, is such a natural that you’ll wonder how he was never on the show previously.
I’m not sure that any series has ever been improved by the mid-run addition of a petulant teenager, but at least Harrison has good reasons to be irked by Dexter, so Alcott’s sullenness is appropriate. If you stick around for the third episode, Jamie Chung brings a different energy as a true-crime podcaster, an energy that would have marked a hip detour for Dexter if this were 2015.
So far, the reboot isn’t exactly coasting, even if the circumstances that bring Dexter Morgan back to his bloodthirsty ways aren’t particularly compelling. The show is relying heavily on a sense of relief: Compared with where we left him, Dexter is back on firmer footing. It remains to be seen whether New Blood will steer the franchise to a better resting place or into another hurricane of disappointment.
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