TV's serial killer chic

Posted: Oct 06, 2006 12:01 AM

Are television critics a menace to society? What do we do when our media tastemakers, the men and women entrusted to evaluate the artistic merit of Tinseltown offerings, exult in Hollywood's lack of taste? When perverse novelty and "edge" and complete moral confusion is what these critics live to watch and love to promote, they appear to be seeking to establish the polar opposite of a moral tone in our culture.

Take as an example the critics' views on the new Showtime drama "Dexter." Its sickening premise makes a hero out of a sadistic serial killer, because he kills only bad guys and does so in the dark of night. During the day, he helps the cops assess blood spatter patterns in murder investigations. He's a sociopathic killer-slash-hero, with the emphasis on the slash -- he carves his victims up to fit into Hefty bags.

Author Jeff Lindsay, whose gruesome novels inspired the series, joked to the TV critics this summer that, "As I looked out across the room, the idea just popped into my head that serial murder isn't always a bad thing." They laughed.

As pay-cable pioneers, always pushing the newest disgusting "edge" with an eye on extremely jaded TV critics, Showtime executives feel warm that they have brought more understanding to the world on behalf of the much-maligned serial killer. Said Showtime boss Robert Greenblatt, "This is a complex and fascinating look at serial killers, which, up to this point, have been marginalized and made two-dimensional."

Society has "marginalized" serial killers? Silly me. Here, all along, I thought those folks had done that to themselves.

The TV critics apparently agree with Greenblatt. They endorse the introduction of a sympathetic new dimension or two. Alessandra Stanley's review in The New York Times took the cake. The headline? "He Kills People and Cuts Them Up. But They Deserve It. Besides, He's Neat."

Stanley rightly called Greenblatt's rationalizations "inane," but nevertheless she concludes that this sick new show, "with its stylish cinematography, jaunty Cuban music and fetish for dismemberment, takes it one step further out of bounds. I for one cannot wait to see the next episode."

Like any lecturing cultural commissar, Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle demands that "anything as daring and original as this should be trumpeted to the masses if it indeed does cross a social line." Television is always, always about "testing the boundaries of what's acceptable." It is "the ultimate challenge -- providing grown-ups with difficult fare."

Jonathan Storm of the Philadelphia Inquirer shows where critics are leading the audience -- into complete moral obtuseness. Storm finds Dexter adorable, in his adorably murderous way: "He's a depraved killer, but you feel like reaching out and tousling his hair, and saying: 'It's OK. You're doing your best.' It's a strange feeling, but one that helps make Dexter one of this season's best new series." People magazine declared that the dismemberer Dexter is "sexy."

To underline how most of our TV critics could compete in a contest called "Sick and Sicker," let's line them up in their capsules of compliments.

"Fiendishly excellent." -- Matthew Gilbert, Boston Globe.

"Fiendishly intelligent." -- Maureen Ryan, Chicago Tribune.

"Fantastic, fascinating, creepy, charming and gruesome." -- Doug Elfman, Chicago Sun-Times.

"Gruesome and gripping, laced in bloody, dark humor, this macabre gem ... (features) an oddly likeable vigilante serial killer." -- Matt Roush, TV Guide.

"A warped show, don't get me wrong ... easily the best drama in Showtime history." -- Alan Sepinwall, Newark Star-Ledger.

An impressive contender for sickest TV critic is Diane Werts of Newsday. "Dexter" is a "creepily surreal and acidly amusing portrait of a thoroughly modern hero." When Dexter marvels at the beauty of killing prostitutes and draining all of their blood out cleanly, Werts marvels right back: "Murder as performance art in contemporary America -- well, why not?" Werts concludes the show is "kinky, and cool, and vile, and mesmerizing, a deliciously dark and droll portrait of a serial killer helping his Miami police employers clean up the streets."

For the record, it should be noted that not every TV critic has been wowed. Adam Buckman of the New York Post found the premise "bothersome." Brian Lowry of Variety knew the series was designed to wow critics, but he said the shtick was "not working."

But the best response -- the one that gives you hope -- was Glenn Garvin of the Miami Herald. He granted that the artsy series was a "perverse pleasure," but also insisted on not getting moral motion sickness. The series presents "a universe in which murder is virtuous as long as it's committed within the confines of a rigid but self-imposed code. Of course, that's just what Osama bin Laden does, and it's a good bet that (actor Michael C.) Hall's breezy cheer could make Osama seem likable, too."