August 15, 2011


Showtime’s Dexter is an enormously popular show, another of those “dark thriller/comedy/crime” hybrids that’s been doing gangbusters business on TV over the past half-decade or so (Breaking Bad is another such series).  But after watching the first two seasons of Dexter, I found myself growing bored, so I dropped out.  A few years later, I heard that John Lithgow had joined the show, elevating it to levels of awesomeness it hadn’t previously reached.  Intrigued, I returned to Dexter and found it much improved by Lithgow’s presence.  And so, when season four wrapped (taking Lithgow with it), I had to wonder:  would the show remain better than it’d been in years, or would it start sucking again?  The forthcoming (or just-released, depending on when you’re reading this) Dexter: Season Five Blu-ray set answered that question for me.  Find out what I discovered after the jump, folks…

As I mentioned in the intro, I was a fan of Dexter for its first fifteen episodes or so.  After that, the show drifted into a territory that I might described as “repetitive and boring”, so I checked out.  As the years passed, I found myself in conversation after conversation with people who’d ask, “So, do you watch Dexter?”  And then I’d be forced to explain that, yeah, I did in the beginning, but after giving the series a chance I decided it wasn’t for me.  That said, I understood why others would have stuck with the show, and even if I didn’t feel that the third season (and a good chunk of the second season) were up to par, I respected Dexter and all involved:  at the very least, one’s gotta give it up for a show that features a serial killer as its (anti)hero.dexter_season_five_image_04

I had this conversation dozens of times.

And then, just recently, the conversation changed:  someone I was speaking with mentioned that they’d felt the same way about seasons two and three.  But, they added, “once John Lithgow came on the show, things got a helluva lot better”.  Though Lithgow isn’t the most popular actor these days, he’s always been a favorite of mine.  I was intrigued to discover what the hell he was doing on the show (he was playing a serial killer), and I was even more intrigued to find out how he fit in with the rest of the Dexter cast.  And so, after that conversation, I returned to the series and found that things had improved for the better.  I had to catch up with the series on Blu-ray, but I did so quickly…only to discover that season five had already wrapped.  Oh, life:  you are a cruel, unfair, never-good-for-anything bastard.

But!  It just so happens that I was given the chance to review the series’ just-aired fifth season just as I was whining about having missed it while it was on.  Oh, life!  Whoever said you’re cruel, unfair, and never good for anything?

Here’s a head’s up:  if you’ve not been watching Dexter on a week-to-week basis, or if– like me– you were forced to wait until the fifth-season Blu-ray release to get caught up, be forewarned that this review will contain frequent and massive spoilers for the season.  Can’t really discuss the fifth season’s plotline (and, by extension, its quality) without getting into at least some specifics, can I?  If you’re one of these types, here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: Dexter‘s fifth season is pretty damn good.  Not as good as its fourth (we’ll always miss you, Trinity Killer), but good enough that you should pick up the set if you’re a fan of the show.  For the non-spoilerphobes, please, read on.

dexter_season_five_image_02Season five picks up precisely where season four left off:  Dexter‘s wife has been killed by the Trinity Killer, and Dexter‘s forced to pick up the pieces.  The first few episodes of the season deal directly with the fallout from this calamity (Dexter dealing with his now-dead wife’s kids, Dexter now being a single parent to three children, Dexter finding somewhere to live because he and his wife’s home is now covered in blood, and so on), but soon enough the whole incident becomes a B-plotline in favor of the fifth season’s biggest story arc:  newcomer-to-the-series Julia Stiles– playing Lumen, the almost-victim of a serial killer that Dexter catches and kills– playing absolute Hell with Dexter‘s life.  See, Dexter kills Lumen’s wannabe-killer, and rather than take her out, too, he keeps her alive (much to the chagrin of his ghost-dad).   It turns out that Lumen was gang-raped and beaten nearly to death by a group of men– one of whom is the guy Dexter just killed– and now she wants to hunt down and kill the rest of the gang.

The majority of the season deals with this plotline:  Dexter trying to talk Lumen out of this elaborate revenge fantasy;  Lumen refusing;  Dexter hunting and killing the dudes that brutalized her.  I won’t tell you how it all turns out, but I can tell  you that– in the beginning– Stiles seems like a great addition to the show.  But soon enough, I found her to be annoying, and I found the bizarre things Dexter was doing in the name of helping her (violating virtually every one of his “codes” in the process) were completely out of character and hard to swallow.   Why has Dexter suddenly decided to help this woman?  Is it because he’s not thinking straight following the death of his wife?  Did the pressure of suddenly being the single parent charged with raising three children (not all of whom are fans of their new dad) drive him to it?  There are a number of implied answers here, but all of them seemed like a bit of a stretch, and by the time this storyline wrapped, I was ready to see Stiles go (which isn’t to say that she does).

dexter_season_five_image_01The other major plotline this season? Dexter‘s sister, Deborah (Jennifer Carpenter), and her partner, Quinn (Desmond Harrington) are getting it on, but Quinn might not be as “on the level” as he seems:  for one thing, he’s not entirely convinced that Dexter wasn’t actively involved in his wife’s death, and he spends the first few episodes of the season asking a bunch of questions (and picking at emotional scabs) that he probably shouldn’t be bothering if he values his life.  There’s also some drama involving Lt. LaGuerta (Lauren Velez) and her husband, Angel (David Zayas), particularly a stretch of episodes involving Angel beating another cop’s ass when he champions LaGuerta’s BJ abilities (this earns him an ass-whooping) and some stuff– that seems to be introduced and then disappear almost as quickly as it came– about LaGuerta having a bunch of money in a bank account without Angel’s knowledge.

Of course, throughout all this, Dexter hunts and kills serial killers (and evildoers) in the Miami area (which, for the umpteenth time, raises the question:  why are there so many goddamn serial killers living in Miami?), the Miami police squad featured on the show parades through a number of gruesome crime scenes (one involving a bucket’s worth of maggots spilling out of a pair of corpses was genuinely stomach-churning), Masuka (CS Lee) drops hints about his deviant outside-of-work lifestyle (dude knows a lot about autoerotic asphyxiation), and it’s all topped off with a healthy dose of family drama (Dexter and his kids).  There aren’t any wild changes to the storyline here outside of Stiles’ inclusion, and we’ll just leave the rest of the season’s various storylines for you to discover.  The bottom line is:  it’s a lot like it’s always been, better than season three but not quite to the level of season four.

dexter-season-5-blu-ray-coverAlso, here’s a completely unrelated-to-anything sidenote:  there’s a scene about midway through the season where Deb and Masuka have to go to a tattoo parlor to get information on a suspect’s tattoo.  Note the fact that there are three chairs in the tattoo parlor, and that all three are inexplicably filled by unreasonably hot women (one of whom has her pants off to get a back tattoo).  This is completely extraneous to the rest of this review, but I wanted to point it out, because the scene itself is produced so ridiculously, it deserved its own paragraph (it’s almost like someone at Showtime had been watching the dailies from the first half-dozen episodes and sent the showrunner a note saying, “We’re cable:  put more nekkid bitches on-screen”).  End of sidenote.

On the whole, the cast does an awesome job here, and the writing’s much sharper and satisfying than it was during that stretch that turned me off the show for a few seasons.  I thought that the fourth season was certainly better than the fifth– seeing Dexter go head-to-head with Lithgow’s Trinity Killer is just infinitely more compelling than the Stiles/Lumen storyline (though I imagine that some might feel different)– and was unable to put it down after starting it.  I literally watched the entire fifth season in two marathon sessions, something that I haven’t done with a TV show in a long, long time (the last one was Party Down, and on a completely unrelated note, I strongly suggest you do the same with that series).  Is Dexter on-par with, say, Breaking Bad, or The Sopranos, or The Shield?  I don’t think so.  But is it on-par with The Walking Dead, Mad Men, and LOST?  Almost certainly.  It’s probably better than a few of those, too.

If you’ve never watched Dexter, I suggest that you start from the beginning, of course, but I’d also caution you to wait it out when the show hits that season two/season three rough patch (I’d have to go back and rewatch those episodes to remember why I disliked the show all of a sudden, but just take my word for it):  like the series of PSA’s say, it gets better.

The season five set is packaged with a few extras, but not as many as a Dexter superfan might hope (side note:  it’s about the same amount featured on the season four Blu-ray set):  there are a handful of episodes of a couple other Showtime series (an interesting idea, and one that HBO oughtta adopt), like The Borgias and EPISODES (didn’t watch either, to be honest);  there’s a handful of interviews with the cast; and there’s a featurette called “Reflecting on Season Five: Julia Stiles”, which is exactly what you think it is.  More interesting than the extras, though, was what I thought of the audio/video of this Blu-ray set.

dexter_season_five_image_05I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to A/V quality on Blu-ray sets, and I confess that this is the first time I was actively watching the quality of a Showtime set:  I’ve got the fourth season of Dexter on Blu-ray, but didn’t really pay it much attention when I purchased it (I wasn’t reviewing it then).  The vast majority of the TV-on-Blu-ray that I own is HBO stuff, and I know that HBO’s Blu-ray sets are absolutely stunning.  Some of them, in fact, are better-looking and -sounding than some of the movies I’ve picked up on my preferred format.  Point being, the A/V quality on these Dexter discs was a little troubling:  there would be two or three shots that looked crystal clear (you can see Jennifer Carpenter’s acne scars!), and then there’d be a shot of two that appeared rough and grainy.  It was odd, so much so that I was compelled to call someone else into the room and double-check my analysis.  This entirely unscientific study yielded the same response:  inconsistent A/V quality (stress on the “V”)(as my Uncle used to say).  I’m not saying that Dexter on Blu-ray sucks or that you absolutely shouldn’t pick it up on Blu if that’s the format you prefer…I’m just saying that you shouldn’t expect the same level of quality that you might get from an HBO series with these discs.   So, do with that information what you will.

All in all, Dexter: Season Five was a great watch, and the watchability of it all felt a lot like the experience I’ve had reading any one of Stephen King’s recent books (past fifteen years or so):  yeah, it’s comfortable, and yeah, it’s entertaining, and yeah, you’re going to have a great time while it’s happening…but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to stick the landing completely, and it doesn’t mean that there aren’t much, much better books (or, in this case, TV shows) that you could be spending your time with.  If you’re already a fan of Dexter, you don’t need me to tell you to watch the show.  And, if you’re not already a fan of Dexter, I’m happy to report that the season-three slump is officially a thing of the past:  this is a really, really good series, and you’ll almost never be bored watching it.  It’s got great acting, clever writing, a good dose of gore (if that’s your thing), and almost as much nudity as you’d expect considering that it originates on Showtime.

My grade?  B+

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