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How did a serial killer with a penchant for dismemberment become so popular with TV viewers? Just ask 'Dexter'

Sam Mendes (director of "American Beauty" and "Revolutionary Road," and Kate Winslet's ex-husband ) was certain Michael C. Hall was gay. Mendes gave Hall his first serious role, in "Cabaret" on Broadway. That was in 1999. Hall, then an unknown stage actor, proved he could not only sing and dance but could also convince one of the greatest British directors of his generation that he was, well, gay.

Three years later, when his partner in creating the television series "Six Feet Under," Alan Ball (who also created the very trendy "True Blood" series ), was looking for someone to play David Fisher, the complicated and very gay middle son, Mendes recommended that he approach Hall.

Ball, too, was sure that Hall was gay. The honesty, sensitivity, vulnerability and gentleness that he brought to the role of the complex undertaker guaranteed that Ball did not for a moment doubt that Hall preferred members of his sex. Then Hall began dating a woman from the set of "Six Feet Under," and Ball asked him if he had "switched teams." Hall gave him the same look that, years later, Dexter Morgan would give Debra, his sister by adoption, when she asked him a dumb question.

An actor's show

Unlike other masterful television series of the past two decades (from "The Shield" to "Six Feet Under," "Deadwood," "The Wire," "Mad Men," "The Sopranos," and even "The West Wing," "Entourage" and "30 Rock," to digress slightly, genre-wise ), the power and success of "Dexter" do not depend primarily on the creative forces of its principal writers. Shawn Ryan, Ball, David Milch, David Simon, Matthew Weiner, David Chase, Aaron Sorkin, Doug Ellin and Tina Fey - the respective creators of the above-mentioned series - fashioned series in their own image, in accordance with their taste and abilities, and were a necessary condition for their existence. Take Aaron Sorkin out of "The West Wing" and the series dies; force David Simon to leave "The Wire" and he takes the series with him into retirement. But with "Dexter" it's different.

"Dexter" is an actor's series, specifically the lead actor, Hall. An actor who is also, it's true, the executive producer, but who is far more involved in creating the series and fleshing out his character than James Gandolfini ever was in "The Sopranos," for example. No one disputes the genius of John Hamm's portrayal of Don Draper in "Mad Men," but there is also no disputing that he is a perfect puppet who is controlled by Matthew Weiner, a genius puppeteer.

One senses that Hall writes Dexter's character, in the way that he plays it, far more than the head scriptwriters. (The principal writer has been replaced twice and the series not only survived but surpassed itself artistically. ) Oddly, just as so many people believed that Hall was a sensitive, gentle-mannered gay man one cannot imagine any other actor in the world playing the cold, robotic, almost autistic Dexter, the killer from the suburbs.

Hall's achievement, then, is a double one. He avoided the notorious typecasting trap, that vanquished so many acclaimed television actors. (He completely shed the David Fisher character. ) At the same time he has taken on perfectly the character of Dexter, the Miami Police Department blood-spatter expert who must murder in order to live. The fact that his character became a viewer favorite in both series is nothing short of remarkable and says something about the extraordinary on-screen charisma of the redhaired actor with the misleading look in his eye.

Depth charge

Interestingly, Dexter's character is developing in a way that somewhat subverts the original characterization. If in the first episodes Dexter was presented as a character who is alien to the world and adopts human mannerisms in order to conceal the violent monster within, as the series progressed Hall has given the character greater range and presence. Without this emotional depth "Dexter" would have become a New-Age crime series, along the lines of the "CSI" franchise or even "Nip/Tuck," which is programmed to shock almost without emotion. Dexter, who in the first episode kisses Rita and conveys to the viewer his consciousness, which is saying, "this is nice but I don't feel anything," becomes quite the animal when he comes under the spell of Lila Tournay, his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor. Dexter, who claims to be incapable of feeling any human emotion besides the urge to kill, becomes a wonderful father to Rita's children and a suitably confused and bewildered dad to Harrison, the son they have together.

Similarly, the introduction of the "ghost" of Harry Morgan, Dexter's father, who trained him for life as a serial killer who vents his wrath only on criminals who have escaped justice, adds another layer to Dexter's flat character. Dexter's voice-over inner monologues and his conversations with Harry's ghost are two sophisticated, highly effective screenwriting techniques that add depth to the silent, tight-jawed character.

The new bourgeoisie

Then there is the matter of the obsession to commit murder. It is not really explained, but at some stage viewers no longer look for dramatic logic and simple accept the ritual to which Dexter is bound: a murder in almost every episode. The murders become a recurrent, almost minor, subordinate plot, like Murphy Brown's never-ending search for a secretary in the eponymous series starring Candice Bergen.

But the secret of the success of "Dexter" and the fact that viewers accept, with relative speed and equanimity, the chosen lifestyle of the police officer who uses police resources to find his victims and who deceives his fellow cops, including his sister, seems to be the fact that at the end of the day the series is one of the most trenchant, bold and blunt anti-bourgeois manifestos that America has ever dared to show. (The Showtime series is aired in Israel on Thursday at 9 P.M., on YES Stars Action. )

If American cinema and literature seek to decode the bourgeoisie's charged relations with the bourgeois condition and the institution of the family (Jonathan Franzen's novel "The Corrections" and Todd Solondz's film "Happiness" are two prominent examples ), "Dexter" does not present the family unit and the social framework in which the individual operates as hell. Rather, it takes the treatment of resentment of this suffocating social stratum one leap forward.

According to "Dexter," the middle class and the family unit are hothouses of repression. So violent is the repression that it creates completely split characters that are as detached from moral and social norms on the inside as they are obedient and fair tin soldiers on the outside. One womb - that of Dexter's birth mother - created two vicious serial killers with nearly identical behavioral traits: functioning, sociable citizens on the outside and murderers driven by a demonic pathology when night falls.

The first season ended with a clash between the two brothers, Dexter and the Ice Truck Killer. Not only an extraordinary plot climax but also a moral choice on the part of the writers. It is Dexter, the more human of the two, who prevails. The Ice Truck Killer, his older brother, must leave the stage, not only because Dexter must remain but also because he hurt Debra, the adoptive sister who represents the side of Dexter's personality that seeks normalcy and family.

The fact that Dexter dispatched dozens of people over four seasons and became so popular with viewers (even the broadcast network CBS aired the series, after excising the inappropriate language and the worst of the violence, proving that even puritanical Middle America recognizes that "Dexter" is not an allegory of the bourgeoisie but rather an exercise in sublimation that many members of the middle class need and can accept ) recalls somewhat Joel Schumacher's apocalyptic, slightly crude social allegory from 1993, "Falling Down." Michael Douglas played Bill Foster, a middle-class American whose ability to contain what the Wachowski siblings later formulated as "The Matrix," reaches boiling point. Foster embarks on a journey of violence and, more to the point, self-destruction, which ends - as it had to, in 1993 - with his death.

But this is 2010, and Dexter Morgan is into his fifth season of murdering unimpeded, and unless Hall's medical issues dictate otherwise (see box ), he will continue through at least six. The gap between Foster's crimes, in terms of degree (violence against bourgeois symbols such as cars and a McDonald's branch ), duration (less than 24 hours ) and punishment (death at the hands of the law ), and those of Dexter Morgan - theft, forgery, fraud, computer hacking and around 200 murder victims, throughout his adult life, his punishment for which is the death of his wife at the hands of another serial killer - is the gap between America's ability to contain the emotional pressure cooker known as the bourgeois lifestyle in 1993 and in 2010.

If Dexter Morgan is a beloved television character, it is mainly because many more viewers are capable not only of understanding what goes through the mind of a serial killer, but even of identifying with him. What this perforce demonstrates is that Dexter's primary impulse - a thirst for blood, subject to groundless moral and ethical codes - is a fairly reasonable response to contemporary society, at least according to a significant portion of the middle class.

This is precisely the power of "Dexter," that it places in Dexter's hands the butcher's knife people are afraid to even think about having in a kitchen drawer. W