Welcome to "God Talk," starring Dexter

The de-evolution of a once-great show continues, but at least Deb gets a few good scenes

Published October 10, 2011 3:28AM (EDT)

Colin Hanks and Edward James Olmos in "Dexter." (Randy Tepper/showtime)
Colin Hanks and Edward James Olmos in "Dexter." (Randy Tepper/showtime)

Last week's season premiere established that "Dexter" is now about the spiritual journey of everyone’s favorite snarky sociopathic mass murderer Dexter (Michael C. Hall), and the religious legacy he'll bequeath to his preschool-age son, Harrison. If you don't like that, you're just going to have to suck it up, and get used to a new, bright-eyed and chatty sort of "Dexter," a show in which people talk about religion at least three times per episode—hey, it’s an election year—and plot points appear with agonizing slowness.

But at least this episode was better the the sixth season premiere, thanks mainly to the focus on Dexter’s sister Deb, the show’s MVP, played by professional exposed nerve Jennifer Carpenter. Just as Ryan Cartwright’s rhythmically fascinating autistic teen on SyFy’s great "Alphas" jet-packs lagging episodes, Deb is a character that "Dexter’s" writers can cut to any time and suddenly have a terrific show that’ll glue asses to couches and keep 'em there.

Alas, there was so little plot last week I can get you up to speed in a paragraph. Edward James Olmos and Colin Hanks appeared as a murderous religious duo that hang around bayous talking about snakes. Soon enough, some human innards end up in a fruit stand—hey, it happens. The innards’ owner washes up on the beach full of wiggling CGI snakes. Oh—and Dexter’s son Harrison has been accepted at a Catholic preschool and now-Capt. LaGuerta ((Lauren Vélez) has blackmailed Matthews (Geoff Pierson) into a job as captain. Random, thy name is "Dexter," Season 6.

This week opens with Dexter giving Harrison a bubble bath, after which he tells the tiny tyke a bedtime story about monsters being slain and chopped up into pieces so small nobody will ever find them. “Daddy’s box!” the little one shouts, referring to the place Dex keeps his collection of victim-blood slides. The show assumes you and I will crack wise about this. Let’s not be such easy lays and let the show figure out what it really thinks about raising a little kid on manslaughter inspirationals. I mean, is it smart enough to work that delicate a vein of satire? Back in the day—say, Season 4, the John Lithgow/Trinity killer year -- it was, and how.

Anyways, Olmos and his creepy younger pal Travis (Colin Hanks) are dragging a garbage-size Glad Bag down a hill, which splits open to expose … a mannequin. Olmos grabs the mannequin’s head, caresses it, and a nation thinks as one: We're a long way from Commander Adama. Meanwhile, back at Deb and Quinn’s undefined relationship, Quinn (Desmond Harrington) is making pancakes. Beyond the griddle lay the fridge. Within the fridge lay the wedding ring. Deb sees the ring and freaks out. Just as Den brings her freaked out self to Miami Homicide, she sees people watching videos and ...

Sorry! I neglected to mention that last week Deb bravely let go a can of whoop-ass on someone trying to do something illegal. Someone videoed the event and uploaded it onto the Internet. Ever-edgy Masuka crows that the video has “gone viral!” That it’s gained “500,000 hits!” Next month: Masuka discovers Friendster.

In a room where cops do things, Angel (David Zayas) tells the crew that the floater’s name was Omar, that he was probably involved in drugs (which in Miami is like saying a recent lead probably used sunblock) and, more interestingly, that in the drug cartel community, "snake" means "snitch." Dex’s voice-over begs to disagree: all the intestine removal and snake insertion has him thinking that whoever did this more likely has his own Dark Passenger. And then it’s God time again! As in Brother Sam (Mos Def, mysteriously listed as only ‘Mos’ on the credits: what, he’s not ‘Def’ anymore?)

In the first of what would be, by my count, four iterations of his back story, we learn that Brother Sam wasn’t always a Brother, I mean, in the religious sense. He used to be a killer, but God set him straight. Dexter doesn’t buy it. Someone opines, “Men can change” to which Dex says in voice-over, “Men maybe— but what about a monster?” And then he breaks into an evil demonic laugh, Mwah ha ha! Kidding. But really, show, pull back on the I’m-too-evil-for-my-tropical-print voice-overs, OK?

Meanwhile, Capt. LaGuerta is trying to finalize Angel’s promotion with Matthews, whom she just finished blackmailing last week, and who’s totally into Deb Video Sensation as well, which itself leads to more Deb awesomeness -- in particular, to the winner of this week’s grand prize in Ms. Debra Morgan obscene declarations: “Fuckballs!” She shouts this when patient, crafty, payback-is-a-bitch Matthews tells Deb that she, not poor, ever-suffering-in-wounded-pride-Angel, will be the new lieutenant. She’s totally happy, but being Deb, she totally freaks out, but in that adorable confused terrier sort of way that could turn on a dime into a confused pit bull way that somehow makes her formidable rather than needy. This leads to Deb and Dex to shared beers, some simple, real bro-sis talk, and not a peep about God. It’s a wonderful scene that suggests what the writers are actually really good at doing—or at least, still interested in.

And then, in an episode that’s otherwise very smoothly directed by S. J. Clarkson, there’s a near jump-cut of WTF? We’re in somebody’s kitchen, and there’s Travis looking like he’s going to kill some attractive woman with nothing more than his beyond-Ewww inbred gaze, but no, she’s his sister, he’s just being his usual freaky self. The show really needs to explain Travis, and soon. She nags him, says she misses him in a faintly incestuous way. An offering of Ben and Jerry’s seems to convince him to consider parting with whatever the hell it is he does with Olmos just as we switch scenes to Brother Sam’s auto repair shop.

And here, at the roughly 25:20 mark, the show’s creators gained my respect. They gain it for their sheer, do-not-give-a-shit, old-school TV salesmanship where the show behaves as if DVRs and even videotape have not yet been invented and so everything must be repeated endlessly for people tuning in for the first and only time the show will be broadcast. And so not only are they ready, able and willing to have Brother Sam tell a back story that, as I mentioned, others, such as Dexter, have already related, they have him tell it again to Dexterhimself, a complete stranger, in language laced with Bible-ish parable and syntax, in case we still haven’t sussed out the Judeo-Christian elements at play here. Mos-not-Def tells us about killing a man, about having been in line for death row. Except the judge just up and died, and a mistrial was called, or something to that effect.

Dexter: “Sounds like “divine intervention.” (Hall makes air quotes with one hand. Cool.)

Mos, no longer Def: “Yeah, God was playin’ me all right!”

Elsewhere, in unrelated news, Masuka has hired Ryan (Brea Grant), the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of his, er, dreams. If you shook the Special Edition Box-Set version of "Sucker-Punch," Ryan is what would fall out. C. S. Lee is a real Asian person playing a role that at this point is nauseatingly racist in its conception. In the show’s salad days, Masuka was a withdrawn, strange man who skirted the edges of offensive cartoonishness. The problem is that the broader Lee plays Masuka, the more the show's writers indulge their baser instincts. By this episode, the writers have conspired to etch him as a short, geeky, socially inept, white-girl-hungry mouth-breather who's one Bad Touch away from jail (this isn’t my interpretation—it’s a running gag in the episode). All of his renders his new intern’s Manic Pixie-ness all kinds of fucked up—from her American Apparel tropical-colored wifebeaters, fake vintage skirts, "Coyote Ugly" cowboy boots, to her cooing “cool!” as she wiggly-waves her backside for Masuka’s viewing pleasure. I mean, seriously, show, WTF? (None of this is meant as a dis to Grant, the actress playing Ryan. When not being used as a human panacea for someone’s panic attack over how to keep up with an already over trend that still sees the ultimate MPDG— Zooey Deschanel—starring in her own god-awful show, when allowed to talk human talk, Grant evokes a breezy, blond Phoebe Cates, which is all kinds of good.)

Anyway, Dexter. Another nice scene floats in this choppy sea. It’s between Deb (of course!) and Angel. It’s Deb breaking the news of her promotion to the long-suffering man who was next in line for promotion had he not gotten involved with LaGuerta. She really is awful, isn’t she? I wash my hands of her!

Carpenter playing Deb all freaked out and willing to give up the job to Angel, and Zayas playing Angel all noble and proud of Deb even as we nearly hear his testicles ascend woefully—this is all terrific small-scale stuff. Even when the show forgets for long periods what show it is, the actors know who they’re playing. And then, suddenly, a bit of story! Amazing, right? With Dexter following, Brother Sam drives to a sketchy part of town. He leaves his car and enters a sketchy house.

It’s dark. A gun goes off! Brother Sam leaves with a body in his arms. He dumps it in the truck of his car. Dex smirks. This man of the cloth wasn’t saved by the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. He’s still a stone killer and a perfect fit for his table.

But ah—this herring, it is red. Brother Sam was actually shot at by one of his druggie peeps, who he then tried to help. He’s such an angel that backlighting gives him an angelic penumbra. Dexter wonders if Brother Sam’s generosity and control of his Dark Passenger, if he has one, is what Faith looks like; most people will be wondering if this is why fast-forwarding was invented.

Which brings us to church. And I give up. By that I mean, OK. Fine. Everything this season will be triangulated with faith, God, Redemption and Jesus (your personal). Dexter will look at an ice cream truck and instead of thinking back to an old nemesis, will wonder if they have Dove Bars in heaven. It’s just the deal this season.

Anyway—we’re now in a church. A really cobweb-covered, ancient church, like something out of a '50s Hammer horror film, but in Florida. So you figure this is an Olmos section, and it is, and he’s got stuff burning in a trash can. His freaky friend Travis is quivering and full of woe. Olmos—whose name is Professor Gellar—is righteously pissed off. He takes a white hot metal rod out of the flames, yells, “You see how I suffer for your sins?” And then scars his arm with the rod (cue gross sizzle sound FX.) Travis promises to never, ever share Ben and Jerry’s with anyone else again, and falls to his knees. Professor Gellar is enjoying a supplicant Travis entirely too much for my comfort, even with a sizzling arm when we jump cut to:

Deb! That poor bastard Quinn, he tried, he even stopped being the character we’d known from every other episode in the show’s history, he tried so hard, but Deb still couldn’t say yes to the ring. She’s a heartbreaker. The next time Quinn sees her, she’s at ceremony where she’s about to be promoted to lieutenant. She's all dolled up in her official Miami Police Department clothes—cue Gang of Four’s “I Love a Man in a Uniform”—and Quinn has to applaud her, too. Harsh.

Oh. Right. Dexter. The asshole who's been floating around the show’s periphery, who attacked Brother Sam and Dex earlier, this
bargain-barrel scumbag hood with one murder to his credit—this guy ends up gracing Dexter’s table? Did standards drop while I was away? Dexter is supposed to be some kind of avenging angel, the hand of god with a butcher’s blade, or something; I know because Showtime’s ads say so. The only reason we’re able to negotiate having a serial killer as a hero is to have him (1) Tortured, demon-ridden, full of woe, or totally numbed out and (2) only killing seriously horrible people who are even more monstrous than he is. The subtle variants between these things are where "Dexter" finds—or used to find—its exquisitely bizarre moral eddies.

Not anymore. Every element of the show has been re-jiggered. There’s a new brightness to the production; seriously, you could shoot a Kristen Bell rom-com during the night scenes and there’d be no cognitive dissonance. Based on what we’ve seen so far, this isn’t an artfully ironic design choice, it’s just a way of separating this season from previous ones. When Dexter spends an episode vaguely mulling over spiritual purchase choices and opens and closes that episode happily, earnestly enjoying some tale-telling and cuddling with his boy, I have a hard time buying into the idea that his Dark Passenger is all that Dark. A rich mauve, maybe. But if the first couple of episodes turn out to amount to nothing more heinous than some especially clunky table setting, I’ll find a hat so I can eat it.

What about you? Are you having the same misgivings? Or do you wish Dex would just finally get caught so that this show could morph into "Debra M, Miami PD"?

By Ian Grey


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