A Killer Role

Photo: Christian Weber/Courtesy of Showtime

Michael C. Hall claims not to see many similarities between David Fisher, the loyal, fastidious, semi-closeted gay funeral director he played for six seasons on Six Feet Under, and Dexter Morgan, the scruffy, quirky, murderous psychopath he plays on his new series, Dexter. “They’re both surrounded by dead bodies,” he says. “Beyond that, the comparisons are hard to come by.” He adds drily, “Dexter’s a great deal more proactive.”

Fisher is Hall’s best, and to many viewers, only known character, a role he animated so skillfully that he probably spent much of his downtime trying to convince people he’s not actually gay. (He’s married.) David was the unlikely axle on which Six Feet Under turned; unlikely because, in the wrong hands, he could have been an unsympathetic, irritating drip, more prissy and self-pitying than complex and loyalty-torn.

But making David relatable was a breeze compared with Dexter, who runs around kidnapping bad people, hectoring them over their sins, then chopping them up as they lay strapped and screaming and naked on a steel table. The concept for Dexter, based on the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter, is pure silly high-concept pulp: He’s a forensic blood-spatter specialist for the Miami Police Department by day, and avenging serial murderer by night. It’s a “shocking” but not surprising conceit, given that torture porn is rampant in pop culture, and we sure do love ourselves an artful psycho—ever since Hannibal Lecter sipped Chianti, we’ve been treated to any number of florid, I-kill-people-while-listening-to-opera-music cartoons. Hall, however, has managed to do something much more impressive with Dexter: He’s made him feel familiar, and mundanely real.

In this way, David Fisher and Dexter aren’t so different, and not in the stereotypical, gay-man-as-latent-serial-killer way. Both characters are conflicted about their sexuality. (Dexter can’t get turned on by women unless they’re dead and, ideally, chopped up, which raises problems with his sweetly oblivious girlfriend.) And both men cope by presenting a contrived, constructed face to the world, designed to mirror people’s expectations rather than reflect their true selves. “We all feel like we fake many human interactions,” says Hall. “We all question the level of authenticity we have in different parts of our lives.”

Which might make Dexter sound kind of boring, or at least overly analytical. It’s not. For starters, Dexter boasts the most mischievous sense of art direction on TV, making giddy Abstract Expressionism out of squirted gore, with bright red splatters Pollocked across the white-walled apartments of Miami. And the show revels in the kind of unprintable black-humor wisecracking you imagine actually happens at crime scenes but that you rarely hear from the grim centurions on CSI. On top of that, Dexter is really, really graphic, full of long, loving, lingering shots of chopped-up limbs drained of blood and sprouting bone. Dexter treats extreme violence much in the same way that GoodFellas did: as something horrifying, intoxicating, seductive and thrilling, all at the same time.

Dexter, naturally, feels only the intoxication, the seduction, and the thrill. “Part of the show’s shadow appeal,” says Hall, “is that we live in a world in which many people feel more and more out of control. And Dexter is someone who, in his little corner of it, is taking control.” In other words, feel free to cheer for the guy with the apron and the bone saw. And if you ever wanted to know what it would be like to have a psycho-killer as a boyfriend, or co-worker, or a brother, or a hero, Dexter is as close as you’ll ever want to come.

Showtime, Premieres Sunday, October 1, 10 p.m.

A Killer Role