Monday, June 22, 2009

Which TV show? 'Dexter' & 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia'

Posted By on Mon, Jun 22, 2009 at 8:59 PM

A few weeks ago I marked the end of the 2008-09 TV season (which, of course, may be a meaningless distiction) by asking "Which TV show should I start watching?" and soliciting for suggestions. Within a week, a mysterious package arrived at the office addressed to me, which contained the Season 1 DVD set of Showtime's "Dexter." It's a tantalizing message worthy of the enigmatic Ice Truck Killer of "Dexter's" first season.

I've watched the first disc (episodes 1-4) and was not surprised to find that Michael C. Hall's performance lived up to its hype. Hall, who played an (initially) closeted mortician on "Six Feet Under," portrays a Miami blood-spatter expert who moonlights as a serial killer who preys solely on other predatory murderers. One of the impressive things about the show is the way it takes the serial killer genre, which had become stale after The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en, and offers fresh, queasily fascinating variations on the theme. The superb title sequence hints at the character's superficial normality and hidden potential for violence, and indicates how much the show likes a red-on-white color scheme. It's comparable to the terrific, tone-setting titles of cable shows like "The Sopranos" and "Big Love:"

When The Televangelist and I discussed "Dexter," she opined that on various Showtime series, the main character tended to be the only interesting role on the show. I can see where she's coming from, based on how much I've watched of "Dexter" and "Weeds" -- which, admittedly, are only a handful of early episodes of each. "Dexter's" supporting players make first impressions as being one-dimensional and not very bright, particularly Lauren Vélez as a bullying commanding officer and Jennifer Carpenter as Dexter's put-upon foster sister. I'm also highly aware of how much the show tries to push my buttons, particularly when bizarrely venal walk-on characters pick on Dexter's unsuspecting girlfriend ("Angel's" Julie Benz) -- presumably so we'll root for Dexter to kill the bullies. Is the show good or bad at manipulating me, if I realize that's what it's doing.

Nevertheless, I was almost instantly drawn into show's first-season arc connecting Dexter and to the mysterious but show-offy murderer nicknamed "The Ice Truck Killer,"who seems to be trying to impress, threaten and seduce Dexter all at once. So, yeah, I'm definitely seeing that much through to the end.

"It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" is a favorite show of my editor Debbie, so I Netflixed the seven-episode first season partly as a way of getting in good with the boss. Set at an unpopular Irish bar in Philadelphia, the FX sitcom does a great job of filling the void between "Curb Your Enthusiasm" seasons, since it too feels very much like the "Seinfeld" dynamic. Like "Seinfeld," "Sunny" depicts four friends, one of whom is female, and how their self-centered quirks get them into either hot water or humiliation, or both.

The differences are that "Sunny" ventures into dark, risque territory that "Seinfeld" could never hint at, and Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine at their worst are like "Sunny's" Dennis, Mac, Charlie and Sweet Dee at their best. In one plot, the guys decide to serve over-priced, watered-down drinks to high school students -- reasoning that they're doing the teenagers a favor, by offering them a safe place to drink illegally. Like "Seinfeld," the various subplots tend to diverge, then turn back and collide into each other by the final scene.

The three male leads aren't the most polished actors on television, so their characters' traits tend to blur into each other, but they all live up to the show's level of dark, deadpan humor of selfish twentysomethings behaving badly. I'm curious to see how Danny DeVito mixes things up when he becomes a regular on a subsequent season. Hulu features episodes of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," if you're interested in people you love to hate.

According to Wikipedia, "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's" fifth season will premiere Sep. 18, and "Dexter's" fourth season will premiere Sep. 27.

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