Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dexter (2006-3947)

This has big spoilers for various seasons of Dexter. If you haven't seen the show, I might recommend watching the first two before reading it--but no more.

Here's the thing about Dexter--the show about The World's Most Lovable Serial Killer that's just winding down its sixth season: the first season is actually really good. It's a tight, suspenseful package, and it does a surprisingly good job of maintaining its central contradiction: that the main character, in spite of (in theory) being an affectless sociopath, is still mostly sympathetic. Part of this is down to decent writing, and part of it to Michael C. Hall's impressive performance in the part. It's somewhat on the morally queasy side: the show's somewhat half-assed conceit is that Dexter has this "code," see, that his foster dad taught him so he could serial kill and also be a functioning member of society (...okay, so it sounds insane/idiotic when I say it like that) where he only kills Bad People who have escaped justice, necessary no doubt if he's not going to be completely unsympathetic, but the result is that the audience gets to cheer along with his gruesome murders without feeling morally implicated. Still, the fact that we react to it as we do raises interesting questions, and I do not think the show was un-self-aware of what it was doing.

The second season is also pretty good. It's more or less in the same vein, but it's still addictive watching. There's a big sign of trouble ahead, however, which is that it stumbles very badly at the end. See, when Dexter's not killing people he's a forensic analyst with the Miami MPD. None of his colleagues--who, let's face it, are none too bright--suspects his extracurricular activities except for the one guy, Doakes, who's super-suspicious for no very clear reason. So at the end of the season, through various contrivances, Doakes knows Dexter's secret, and Dexter has him trapped in this backwoods cabin, and now the idea is SHIT, what to do? The only way out is to kill him, but that violates the code of only killing Bad People. SHIT SHIT SHIT. Well, "what to do" turns out to be "nothing, because Dexter's crazy quasi-girlfriend blows up the cabin, killing Doakes and leaving Dexter conveniently unimplicated, and then he kills her, so it's all good! Hooray! Really just a terribly cowardly instance of punch-pulling, and it foreshadows the show's stubborn, cash-motivated unwillingness to move away from the status quo even a tiny bit.

The drop-off in quality after season two is really breathtaking, for so many reasons. First, the level of tension drops considerably, as there's very little sense that Dexter's ever been in any danger of getting caught. Second--and this I find kind of repulsive--they considerably tone down the character. In previous seasons, we never actually see any of his kills, but they're quite clearly extremely gruesome, involving power tools and everything nearby getting soaked in blood. This was necessary because it drove home the point that, yeah, these are Bad People, but the fact remains that there is something seriously broken in this guy that you're rooting for, and maybe there's something wrong with you for doing as much. That's gone. The tradition has always been for Dexter to catch victims and tie them down in a special "kill room" before doing the deed, but now instead of doing anything especially gruesome, he just rather genteelly stabs them. Also, any notion of him lacking emotion is completely out the window, as the show goes out of its way to make him more likable. Some people--dumb people--have tried to make the argument that, oh ho, this is character development, which is really laughable bullshit. If you want to have the guy become less evil, okay, but that would have to involve him either curtailing his serial-killing activities or at the very least questioning their morality in some way. This never happens, because the show wants him to be liked so that people will watch so that money can be made. So they do all this song-and-dance about his Darkness to try to seem "edgy," but it's all insulting bullshit, because they utterly lack the courage of their supposed convictions in that regard.

Another awful thing the show does at this point is start to devote a whole fuckload of time to Dexter's coworkers (this stuff was also in the first few seasons to an extent, and it was bad there too, but it was limited, and the Dexter stuff was good enough to carry the show). It is impossible to overstate how utterly, absolutely, violently uninteresting these people are, and yet the show includes these absolutely fucking interminable soap-opera-y plot threads about them. There's no rhyme or reason for this shit. It contributes in no way to the show, and has very little to do with its central conceit. It's obviously just making time, and it is fucking awful. Whenever a scene without Dexter in it comes on, you can safely wander away to check your email, make a sandwich, rub one out, whatever, and know you're not missing anything that anyone could possibly care about. And yet, the shit keeps coming. It's just perverse, is what it is.

People say that the fourth season is a return to form. They say this because of John Lithgow's role as the heavy. When they say this, they are lying to you, and they're not your real friends. No, this season is just as bad as the previous one. Getting Lithgow was an inspired casting decision, but as always at this point in the show's life, the writing is for shit, and as such, the character is very poorly-written. So he has this really bizarre killing pattern, okay. And then, in an early episode, you see him with his family, and he's totally kind and loving and an all-around Great Guy, and you think, okay, this could be interesting. But then in later episodes, they completely throw that idea out: he's a toweringly insane psychopath to his family; they all hate him and want him dead. Some people justify this by saying, of the previous material, "yes, but that's what psychopaths are like; they can be all nice and charming and stuff one moment and then horrible the next." This might be a valid argument if they ever brought back the "nice" version, even momentarily, but they don't. It's really apparent that at some point somebody realized, shit, if this fellow really is a genuinely good guy aside from the odd murder, it might give Dexter pause before killing him, and if he went through with it (and he has to go through with it), he'll seem less sympathetic. So forget that! Can't have anything tarnishing the image of our Serial-Killing Superhero!

So basically, it's complete bullshit. The season's conclusion is, I suppose, interesting, if somewhat logistically dubious: turns out that before Dexter killed off Lithgow, Lithgow had murdered Dexter's wife, Rita. Not that she was ever much of a character, but it's still enough to take you at least a little bit aback, and threatened to in some way shake up the status quo.

I jest, of course. Within a few episodes into season five, everything's worked out and everyone's pretty much over it. This seems to be the season that everyone really hates, but I dunno…no, it's not "good" by any reasonable metric, but the plot--involving a woman who'd been gang-raped by this crazy rape/murder cult and may be damaged in a way similar to Dexter--certainly had the potential to lead to something interesting. Of course, it never really does, but she's still a surprisingly compelling character for someone introduced at this stage of the game. Let's just say I was more engaged than I had been with the previous two season, which is damning with faint praise and certainly no reason to slog through to this point.

Especially because, holy shit this current season--which has three goddamn episodes to go--is epically horrible. No, the previous three season weren't good, but this is the first time the show has actually made me angry with its egregious stupidity. Let me just give one example: this season featured Mos Def, playing this reformed killer, Brother Sam, who's now a devout Christian who works as a mechanic and employs other ex-cons to help them get back on their feet and right with god, and yeah, he's kind of a magical negro, but that is really the least of our problems here. Point is, Dexter falls in with him, and there's a lot of half-assed talk about faith and stuff, and he starts to like the guy, but then OH FUCK, he gets shot! He's in the hospital at death's door, and the police think they've got the killer, but oh no, Dexter realizes, the real killer is this guy that Sam had been nurturing! So he goes to see Sam at his deathbed and says "I know who did this and I'll get that motherfucker," but Sam goes, "no! You have to forgive him! Faith! Gah!" and then dies. And Dexter's all dammit, but he determines to have a go at this forgiveness thing. So he has a talk with the guy and tells him what's going on and that he's not going to do anything to him but he should turn himself in and the guy starts in with this fucking ridiculous "BWAHAHA NO ONE CAN GET ME NOW I TOTALLY GOT AWAY WITH THAT MURDER THIS FUCKING ROCKS!!!11" so, big surprise, Dexter kills him after all. And this apparently means that he has Embraced Darkness, 'cause now his dead serial-killing brother from season one shows up. Did I mention that the normal thing on the show is for Dexter's dead father to show up for really clunky, obvious character exposition? Well, now the brother's here, 'cause he's, like, evil and stuff, just like Dexter's apparently now all, like, evil and stuff, in spite of the fact that this killing is no different than his jillions of previous murders. If the guy had been genuinely repentant and Dexter had killed him anyway: that would have been a sort of gutsy thing. But noooo…this show is utterly gutless, so they want us to simultaneously feel that this murder was justified and believe that it somehow represents something especially Evil. Goddamnit, show, I hate you so much. Oh, and then he goes on a crazy road trip with his ghost brother, but then at the end Ghost Dad is back, and the whole idea of him going over to the Dark Side is abandoned because, as I said, the show is desperate to avoid upsetting the status quo in any way.

Okay, one more thing: this season also has by far the worst villains of the series. This time it's Colin Hanks and Edward James Olmos as these crazy messianic Christians who do murders in such a way as to stage scenes from Revelation. Only Olmos is actually dead, and Hanks is just crazy. This has been telegraphed right from the beginning, with nobody else ever seeing Olmos or interacting with him in any way. And yet…apparently the show was trying to pretend that this was some kind of big secret, and in last night's episode there was this hilarious Big Reveal, where Dexter--who had been under the impression that Gellar was Totes Real, because apparently at this point he's as dumb as the writers--finds Olmos' body in an icebox, and then the Captain-Obvious voiceover kicks in: "Gellar's been dead the whole time!" And as if that weren't enough: "Travis killed all those people!" The show is widely known for its terrible, redundant voiceovers, but that may well be a new low. At this point, the show has gone beyond being a bad show. It lacks even a minimum baseline level of competence; it's almost impossible to believe that someone thought this was good enough. Not that different from Saved by the Bell, really, except that this show at least features one competent actor.

So the question remains: why in god's name am I still watching this show? I feel like this might mean I'm as damaged as Dexter is, because really, what other excuse could there possibly be? Well, I think I'm justified in having watched season three, given the quality of the first two. And then everyone said--lying bastards that they are--that season four was all great. And given the Shocking Twist at the end of season four, it was natural to want to see what came next. And as I said, I was at least mildly engaged with season five, so what the hell, six it is. Though for the record, I've been dulling the pain this time by limiting myself to half-watching while playing Dragon Quest IX. This ain't The Wire; full concentration is decidedly not necessary. I suppose I'll probably continue half-watching into the future, too, if only to marvel at how terrible it's become, but good lord. I think HBO has created this illusion that because a show is on premium cable and characters can say "fuck" it's necessarily a higher class of thing than shows on network television. Right here we have Exhibit A that this is far from the case.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Juxtaposed without comment.

"I wonder why it is," said Hal. "There seems to be so much of that nasty element in our Western City politics."
Adelaide answered--it was one of the curious and unforeseen consequences of woman suffrage, or rather of woman suffrage granted too early, without the women having had to work for it, and develop intelligence and public spirit. "Men don't pay much attention to scandals," she said, "but when you're dealing with women voters, there's nothing pays so well as a nasty story."
--Upton Sinclair, The Coal War

"Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio -- a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain't a man in that town that's got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane -- the awfulest old gray-headed nabob in the State. And what do you think? They said he was a p'fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain't the wust. They said he could vote when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was 'lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn't too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they'd let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I'll never vote agin. Them's the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me -- I'll never vote agin as long as I live."
--Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Duck Comics: "Turkey Trouble"

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Who Whatrich?

Fuckin' Robocall from Unrepentant Shithead Newt Gingrich about how failed European socialist policies blah blah I want to be your next president. Man, what an unrepentant shithead. I know I just said that, but it bears repeating. I do take a certain comfort in knowing the following: it doesn't matter what you "want," you unrepentant shithead, because you are not going to be my next president or anyone else's. I enjoy imagining the impotent frustration that he would feel if he knew that I--who follow politics in a fairly morbidly-obsessive fashion--had, prior to this call, been pretty sure that he had dropped out of the race months ago. I'm sure I'm not alone in this. Go peddle your unrepentant shitheadedness elsewhere, you unrepentant shithead.