Depth of Depravity
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
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.
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?
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.
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)
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.
breed contempt. It breeds acceptance.
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.