I just finished watching the last season of Dexter. It took us a couple of months to get through it all because we were cutting the dire with healthy doses of The West Wing and X-files. I never watched Dexter when it was on, what with the not having tv for years and years. But I knew some stuff about the show because of my time at the Giant Evil Bookstore. It’s amazing what you can learn from book and magazine covers when you walk past them fifty thousand times a day. That shit just seeps in, from the corner of your eye and into your brain without you ever being aware of it. Crazy.
Anyway, a brief rundown: Dexter Morgan is a blood spatter analyst for Miami homicide (do other departments even have blood spatter guys? I’d be interested to know). His sister and all of his friends are cops. He’s an odd guy, but I suspect a lot of crime tech folks are odd on the surface. Trick is, Dexter is also a serial killer. The other trick is, he only kills bad people. From his work with the police department, he identifies rapists and murderers and other trash that make it through the justice system and are walking around free. And he eliminates them. As the show progresses, his personal life becomes more complicated and it gets more and more difficult for him to both continue his killing and keep up the normal guy façade. There is much tension, being that the audience knows everything that the characters don’t. Many, many times through the eight seasons I found myself saying, “This will not end well.”
I’m sure I’m just behind and a lot of you have already seen this show. It’s old news if you don’t live in a media-free bubble like I have for so long. But if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend. The actors are all great, the characters believable (which doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement but is shockingly rare on crime-based shows), and the writing is outstanding. It’s funnier than you’d think it would be, as well, which I found refreshing. Humor humanizes a character who tries to make us think he doesn’t consider himself quite human. The only problem is that it’s set in Miami, so I always end up with samba music stuck in my head and a hard-core craving for a cuban sandwich.
I don’t really believe in guilty pleasures. I don’t think pleasure should ever be guilt-ridden. Call me a hedonist, whatever. But were I forced to own up to what my guilty pleasure is, I would have to say that it’s cheesy cop shows. Not Cops level cheesy, but definitely CSI, Law & Order, Criminal Minds cheesy. And I say “cheesy” because they’re all so unrealistic. Law enforcement doesn’t catch that many bad guys. I’m not even sure that there are enough bad guys out there to keep all these shows supplied. And the good guys certainly don’t swoop in at the last possible second that often. But I like all the forensic sciencey stuff, and I like the many different types of stories that can be told with this one basic trope in common. I’m a sucker for creatively using the storytelling corner that you’ve painted yourself into. I’ve always loved this shit, though, for as long as I can remember. My dad was a cop for a while, and he used to read tons of crime novels then give me stacks of them when he was done, weeding out the crappy ones for me. When I was little, my two favorite shows were Get Smart and Dragnet (yes, I know, one of those is about spies, but it helped cultivate my love for a good whodunit action story with bonus comedy). Hell, even Inspector Gadget held my interest for way longer than was age-appropriate.
Cop shows are as old as television. Older, even, if you go back to radio. There are cops and lawmen in the oldest of old movies. Going back even further, there are books and stories about keepers-of-the-peace as old as time. The Knights of the Round Table were the local policeman’s union of their day, right? This obsession with good guys versus bad guys is not new. It’s innate. But what’s interesting to me about this recent uptick in cop dramas (or “police procedurals,” to use the industry term) is the focus on forensic science. This isn’t particularly new, either, in the world of whodunits. Look at Arthur Conan Doyle’s work, for an antique example. But shows like this couldn’t have existed twenty or thirty years ago, and I think it’s awesome that they’re getting people interested both in science and in using science for the forces of good.
Our technology inevitably informs our storytelling. When we’re talking about crime, this works both ways. The bad guys figure out a way to use a new thing to their advantage, and the good guys have to keep up. Or, conversely, the good guys figure something out and it takes a while for the bad guys to take it seriously (like fingerprinting – it took fifty years before criminals started regularly wearing gloves). On the one hand, I’m glad that the science behind the policework has come to the forefront. On the other hand, it’s often not portrayed very realistically. Look at that crazy 3D computer-reenactment machine that the hot chick uses to save the day on almost every episode of Bones (the bubblegummiest of all cop shows). Every cop wishes that was a thing, but right now it’s pure science fiction. One day, probably, we’ll have one of those in every forensics lab. Keep on it, geeks.
At the same time, I’m worried about our massive cultural obsession with prurient, sick crimes and the inner workings of the brains of criminals. Not because I think we shouldn’t pay attention to these very real, very ill people and their deplorable actions, but because I think we’re becoming somewhat desensitized to them. It’s not so much the violence and the gore, which I’m fine with but I know offends those with delicate sensibilities. For me, it’s about people either A) thinking “that stuff only happens on tv” and not taking any measures to protect themselves or their homes, or B) becoming so fearful of everything and everyone that they can’t live their lives. I know these seem like opposite ends of my own personal paranoia spectrum, but I think that in our mindless, media-spoonfed culture, these are both pretty valid concerns. I’d really like to see the numbers on crime rates since CSI started airing, just to find out who’s learning more, the cops or the criminals.
And that’s probably the thing I like most about Dexter. He’s both good guy and bad guy. A sociopath and a murderer, but with a strict set of moral guidelines about who he chooses to kill. In his mind, everything he does is for the greater good and I can’t find a way to fault that logic. He uses all his sciencey kung fu to hunt and kill these people and get away with it. Good on him. Do I think the show glorifies murder or vigilantism? Not really. Because the fact of the matter is that killers and rapists get set free every day. The justice system has big fat gaping holes in it. Our prison system is fucked beyond unfucking. We should definitely fix that before we start bitching about the quality of the content of our cable television programming. Meanwhile, we get to watch a good-looking madman make with the stabby stab. I dig it.