The first season of Dexter was actively trying to be bad. From Season Two onward, it succeeded in achieving this goal. So, congratulations. No matter what you do in life kids, you cannot outrun your True Self.
Despite working really hard to fall into every single police procedural/serial killer trope ever invented, Season One of Dexter was still good. It was pulpy, addictive garbage and I thoroughly loved it. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with being a straightforward genre show - Broadchurch is a by-the-books whodunit murder mystery featuring an obsessive cop and a suspicious cast of characters, any one of whom (except the one you LEAST suspect, aha!) could be the murderer. But it’s still absolutely great television because it is done well, with careful attention to detail, plotting, character and acting.
Dexter paid very little attention to detail, character or - especially - acting. But it didn’t really need to. Because the premise was so wildly addictive that even a gang of do-dos couldn’t screw it up. We had here a serial killer, who sneaks out at night to kill other bad guys insufficiently punished by the legal system, WHILE working a day job as a blood spatter expert for the police department. And amidst all that he is set against ANOTHER serial killer who equals or excels him in murdery skills, and who then turns out to be his freakin brother! This was such rich soap opera/potboilery material, generously splashed with the titillating violence of any good serial killer drama, set in the tropical atmosphere of Miami, that it really would have been hard to mess it up.
Yet, they tried. Michael C. Hall as Dexter was actually very good. And thankfully they got that casting right, because had he not been able to lift up the rest of the cast then even a juicy premise like this wouldn’t have been able to save them. He’s handsome and charming enough, but also gives you just enough of that weirdo vibe so you believe that a) he could be a serial killer and b) it’s not a stretch that his friends and family haven’t figured it out.
All the homicidal maniac killer stuff is great. The hunt for the Ice Truck Killer is great. Michael C. Hall is great. Miami is great. Dexter’s obsession with breakfast (later to be stolen by Vince Gilligan) is great. The problem really lies with the rest of the cast and the writing. It’s terrible! It’s almost like… like a comedy, like Police Academy or something. Let’s start with the worst offender, Dexter’s sister Debra Morgan, played by Jennifer Carpenter. Her character is badly written and terribly acted. And, in a bizarre twist, she actually married Michael C. Hall in real life, perhaps as a way to hedge against being fired off the show.
This character is simply a masterclass in bad acting and bad writing. I don’t know how else to say it. There is not a single instance in which this character is a net positive for the show, except for sheer comedic value when she is duped into getting engaged to a fucking serial killer! Then there is the comically roided-up black detective who keeps threatening to beat the shit out of Dexter in what I can only assume was meant to be a hilarious subplot. That character sometimes seems to be in on the joke, but you’re never quite sure. Then you have the inner-workings of the police department which appears to have been written by someone with a 9th grade understanding of office politics.
All of these scenes basically amount to one character using his thumb to comically point to another character and shout “Hey Sarge, watch out for THAT guy!” Compared to a much more realistic, complex depiction of police and city politics - The Wire - Dexter is just childishly shallow and stupid, which basically describes all the characters as well. And don’t even get me started on Dexter’s sexless relationship with his irritating girlfriend.
But, the show’s crackerjack of a plot and strong lead performance, as well as its prominent use of breakfast imagery, masked all of these deeper problems, at least for one season. But after the novelty wore off, the machinery of this underlying badness kept pumping out seasons and was eventually, through the attrition of time, revealed to be what it always was: a real piece of shit television show. But I’ll tell you what, for that first glorious season, when the inertia of the thing was making up for all the weak stuff, it was a hell of a hide.