It's tempting to root for the writer's strike in Hollywood to continue since it's resulted in a slowdown in stylized depravity. But it's never that easy. CBS is now planning to fill this void in new scripted programming with something so warped that you'd pray for a power outage.
CBS will repurpose the Showtime drama "Dexter," the series that asks viewers to root for a lovable serial murderer. Fans can now buy the first season of the show on DVD, the same 12 episodes set to air on CBS. You can't miss the cover: Star Michael C. Hall has a hand thoughtfully placed on his face -- but the hand isn't his. It's a dead hand. It's the same kind of humor that inspired the writers to name the killer's boat "Slice of Life." Their "Dexter" Web site announces the CBS airings with a splashy blood spot, complete with sound effect. This serial-killer premise is just so much fun.
"Dexter" will air on Sunday nights at 10 p.m., or 9 p.m. in the Central and Mountain time zones. CBS claims the series will be edited for extreme violence or gore. But there is no way that CBS can edit out the central theme of this program. Dexter finds killing and dismembering human beings to be intoxicating. CBS thinks we, too, should be fascinated and intoxicated by that.
The drama is based in Miami, where lovable Dexter satisfies his taste for pork sandwiches and his blood lust for long, drawn-out dismemberment. During the day, he works as a police specialist, examining the blood spatter at crime scenes. At night, he spends his time preparing his next victim. Showtime (and now CBS) believes they have enough "moral ambiguity" in the series because he only kills other serial killers. He's a toxic avenger.
It's one thing to put this blackened filet of soul on a pay-cable channel. It's another thing entirely to take it and paste it on one of the Big Three broadcast channels.
Defenders of anything-goes TV have protested that the show is on Sunday night at 10, hardly a hot time for children to be watching. But sadly, hundreds of thousands of them do. Take, for example, the second week of December on CBS. "Without a Trace," a 10 o'clock show that Nielsen estimates was watched by 269,000 children aged 2 to 11 and 465,000 children aged 12 to 17.
The same numbers will now apply to a show celebrating human butchery.
Why would CBS dare put such a show on broadcast TV? Why would CBS affiliates who care for one minute about "community standards" saturate their community with it? Dexter is not an "antihero." He's a complete psychopath, a negation of humanity, a walking black hole. But they find the whole specter to be an opportunity for cuteness: Pin the phony smile on the killer. The viewer is encouraged to see the world through Dexter's blank eyes; to share his smirky contempt for his clueless police co-workers as he buys the office donuts; to enjoy him playing a judgmental God as he saws into his guilty victims while they're still alive.
There is no dispute. The show is meant to cause sympathy for a serial killer. Showtime's Web site links to praise from a blogger running a site called "Die, Funny, Die" who quickly allows that the show makes the killer sympathetic and yet recommends: "If you can get through all the blood and darkness that clouds the mind (without throwing up), you might actually be able to see the same thing that I do: the living, beating heart of a dedicated artist."
The "artists" who make this program cynically paint a canvas in human blood. They are poster boys and girls for a Culture of Death, a culture that revels in murder, wallows in blood, giggles at gore. CBS and Showtime are giddily sledding down a slippery slope to a pit where evil is glamorized with an ironic wink.
Showtime boss Robert Greenblatt boasted about his show being "exposed" on CBS. "I think it will be very compatible with their lineup as well as be a great opportunity to promote our brand on a platform that reaches every home in America." CBS ought to take that "compatibility" as an insult and consider that "brand" a stain. But they are kissing cousins in the dysfunctional corporate family named "CBS."
It almost makes you wonder if CBS is playing its own sick game, seeing how depraved a show can be and still be praised by the slavish marionettes in the cultural elites. In its first go-round on Showtime, most TV critics fell all over themselves to see who loved the "fiendishly intelligent" vehicle more. Will they stop at nothing? Is there any new low they won't hallow as artistry?