Support Our Work File an FCC Complaint Movie Reviews Join Us Family Guide to Primetime Television Home
Parents Television Council - Because Our Children Are Watching


1%-5% of your purchase will help support the PTC.

TV Trends

Brought to you by the Parents Television Council

Dexter‘s Depth of Depravity

By Christopher Gildemeister



"I think the show very much aspires to a moral ambiguity. It's not black. It's not white…[The viewer is] rooting for someone who is doing something that, on paper, is reprehensible."  -- Dexter star Michael C. Hall (ETonline.com, October 13, 2006)


On Sunday, February 17th, CBS hit a new low for television.


At ten o’clock Eastern time that night – only nine o’clock in the Central and Mountain time zones – CBS showed Dexter, a graphically violent and bloody drama with a serial killer for a hero.


Dexter was previously shown on Showtime, a premium cable network which had to be specifically purchased by an adult over and above the basic cable package.

This column has previously discussed the trend toward “repurposing” cable programming onto broadcast TV; but CBS’ airing of Dexter represented the first time a drama intended solely for adults from a premium cable network was directly taken to prime-time broadcast TV.


The implications of this move are dire, but even more so has been the wave of approval and adulation with which TV critics and entertainment industry insiders have greeted the series’ arrival in every American home. For what could be better, these critics seem to ask, than that the publicly-owned airwaves be used to glamorize dismemberment and serial murder?


The eponymous hero of Dexter is Dexter Morgan, an expert in blood spatter patterns who works for the police – except that Dexter is also a vigilante serial killer. Dexter’s adoptive police officer father discovered Dexter’s psychotic and murderous tendencies early on, and encouraged Dexter to kill criminals who have evaded justice, while also tutoring him in how to cover up his crimes to avoid getting caught. 


The first episode shown on CBS was replete with graphic scenes of Dexter binding various individuals to tables, torturing and murdering them. In the first such instance, Dexter threatens to cut the other individual’s eyelids off, then sneers at the other killer he has captured, “I could never do kids. I have standards!…Soon you'll be packed into a few neatly wrapped Hefties and my own small corner of the world will be a neater, happier place.” Later in the episode, Dexter dismembers another man with a meat cleaver, then pauses to neatly arrange the severed body parts on a table while covered in blood. The program also featured such “whimsical” moments as a woman’s severed head bouncing off Dexter’s car and into the street. 


Once, critics condemned the Dirty Harry movies as “fascist” because they depicted a police officer shooting criminals. Today, they cheer Dexter because it depicts a serial killer torturing and dismembering criminals. 


“Everyone has a dark side. Part of the power of [Dexter] is that everyone keeps a side of themselves hidden from the rest of the world and even from themselves. Everyone has what Dexter calls ‘the dark passenger,’ something in the dark reaches of your mind that you don’t want people to know about. Everyone can identify with that to some degree.” --  Showtime Entertainment President Robert Greenblatt (Chicago Tribune, February 15, 2008)


Dexter‘s creators claim that by choosing to make the hero of their program a warped serial killer, they aren’t glamorizing his actions. But this is incorrect. TV has portrayed negative character types before; but nearly always, programs show such characters being punished for their crimes. On Dexter this is not the case. In fact, Dexter is portrayed as a charming, likeable young man…who just happens to cut off people’s arms and legs while they are still alive. By making Dexter an appealing personality and allowing him to escape the consequences of his actions, the program is making him a hero, and is reducing gruesome mass murder to a cute, harmless eccentricity.


This tendency on the part of TV writers and critics to dismiss the seriousness of Dexter‘s glamorization of evil is especially galling because it is so disingenuous. The show doesn’t glorify or promote Dexter’s actions, critics claim; it’s just a character study of a conflicted individual, they say.  But would CBS show – would Hollywood even make – a program with, say, a “conflicted” Ku Klux Klan member as the hero? Or a “charming” killer who stalks and murders homosexuals?  Of course not -- and they shouldn’t.  Such programs would be grossly offensive and downright harmful; and the fact that Hollywood doesn’t make shows like this demonstrates that they know how harmful such programs could be. By showing such actions or ideas in a favorable light, TV would be making them seem unexceptional and even appealing; and the more often such a show was repeated, the more common and appealing such actions would seem.


This is exactly what is being accomplished with Dexter. By casting a serial killer in an approving light, CBS is giving Americans – and especially children – one more gentle nudge down the slippery slope towards viewing heinous violence as normal and even desirable.


Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt. It breeds acceptance.


"We're thrilled to have the chance to expose Dexter to a wider audience on CBS…[It will be] a great opportunity to promote our brand on a platform that reaches every home in America."  -- Showtime Entertainment President Robert Greenblatt (ETonline.com, January 7, 2008)


TV Trends: Aubree Bowling contributed to this report.

Click Here to Comment on this Column

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org


TV Trends Archive





JOIN US ON:          .

Parents Television Council, www.parentstv.org, PTC, Clean Up TV Now, Because our children are watching, The nation's most influential advocacy organization, Protecting children against sex, violence and profanity in entertainment, Parents Television Council Seal of Approval, and Family Guide to Prime Time Television are trademarks of the Parents Television Council.