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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

'Dexter: The Complete Third Season' surfaces on DVD

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My wife and I are trailing the zeitgeist, being totally behind on "Mad Men," the TV show of the moment. We're all caught up on Showtime's "Dexter" however, which isn't nearly as rich or subtle a show, but somehow enticed us more than AMC's quiet drama of 1960s ad executives. In recent weeks, weighing the choice between "Mad Men's" second season and "Dexter's" second and third, more often than not we went with the luridly entertaining serial killer drama.

The two series share one thing in common, however, in that their protagonists are each, essentially, imposters. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) built his life on a fraudulently constructed identity -- "Don Draper's" not even his real name. Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) keeps up a mild-mannered front as a harmless forensics expert and all-around nice guy, when he's in reality a sociopath with a compulsion to kill and little first-hand experience of human emotions (or so he claims). Both shows suggest that viewers focus on the real man underneath the public face, although Draper's a much more ambiguous figure on "Mad Men," since he seems ambivalent about what he really wants, while Dexter's voice-over narration reveal his sinister inner thoughts.

Both shows are also on a roll in the ratings. "Mad Men's" Sunday debut set a ratings record for the show, while "Dexter's" third season finale on Dec.  18 gave Showtime its highest rating for any of its original series since 2004. "Dexter: The Complete Third Season" comes out on DVD today, in advance of the show's fourth season premiere on Sept. 27. In its third year, "Dexter" made an occasionally wobbly transition, which nevertheless featured some fiendishly delicious developments.

"Dexter's" two featured arcs so outlandish (while rousingly entertaining) that pushed boundaries of credibility. In the first, Dexter and his Miami detective colleagues investigated the impossibly elaborate homicides of the Ice Truck Killer. The second flipped the script, making Dexter the target of a search for a serial murderer known as "The Bay Harbor Butcher." Both played like hybrids of "Miami Vice" and The Silence of the Lambs while giving Hall the chance to explore one of contemporary television's most intriguing characters, a murderer who only targets other murderers.

Rather than try to out-muscle the previous seasons, the third slows down considerably in initial episodes, and while the killer nicknamed "The Skinner" has a grotesque calling card, he doesn't stretch the limits of realism. "Dexter" introduces the Prado family, particularly popular assistant district attorney Miguel Prado (Jimmy Smits). Dexter was inadvertently involved in death of Miguel's brother, and at first, Jimmy Smits gives the typical smoldering-nobility performance we always expect from him, whether as Matt Santos on "The West Wing" or Bobby Simone on "NYPD Blue".

Gradually, Dexter discovers that Miguel may be more of a kindred spirit than he can imagine, and wonders if he's found a friend who can accept the real Dexter. At times the show offers a darkly comic satire of male bonding, and Smits clearly enjoys playing an erratic, pervy role for a change. Plus, Smits and Hall have such sharply different acting styles — Smits proves frequently florid, while Hall emphasizes internalized stillness — that they have a fascinatingly weird chemistry with each other.

The supporting cast has settled into their roles after the first season's bumpy early episodes, although their subplots on Season Three tend to be dull. One, with Internal Affairs targeting newcomer Detective Quinn, disappears so mysteriously, you can only assume it'll come up again later. As Dexter's sister Debra has matured as a police officer, Jennifer Carpenter (Hall's wife in real life) has tempered her performance to be less girlish and more sympathetic. Plus, her frequently-profane dialogue often gives her the best lines.

Season Three's first episode reveals that Dexter's girlfriend Rita (Julie Benz) has gotten pregnant, and Dexter considers making emotional commitments that would seem unimaginable to himself or audience at beginning of show. Dexter's outside-looking-in observations on the human condition, and the way the character has evolved, give the program some thematic meat that make it more than a guilty pleasure. You can sum up the role in the tag line of the second season: "Am I a bad person doing good things ... or a good person doing bad things?"

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