Nine years ago this week, the first episode of buzzy, bloody new drama Dexter premiered in the US. Adapted from the pulpy novel series by Jeff Lindsay, which centers on a blood splatter analyst's secret life as a vigilante serial killer, the show was an instant hit and won cable provider Showtime its highest ratings in years.
"As dark a study of human nature as television is likely to bring us for some time," wrote Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune, just one of many critics who lauded Dexter's bold storytelling, its unapologetically gleeful black comedy and its stellar lead performance from Michael C Hall.
Eight seasons later, those same critics were united in bewildered disappointment by the finale, a damp whimper which has deservedly replaced Lost as everybody's go-to punchline when discussing television endings. So how did a show this good, a show this smart, a show that so fundamentally shifted the TV landscape, become so very, very bad?
At a time before anti-heroes had become a dime a dozen across cable and network television,Dexter was a gamble, and one that ultimately proved groundbreaking. Anti-heroes weren't new – HBO had struck gold with Tony Soprano and Deadwood's Al Swearengen, while FX's The Shield created one of TV's most amoral protagonists ever in Vic Mackey – but positioning a bona fide serial killer as a sympathetic leading man was.Dexter was at its best when it embraced that uniquely dark mission statement and wore its pitch-black heart on its sleeve, and at its worst when it refused to do so.
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The problem, increasingly, was compromise. Dexter in its first season was an unknown quantity, produced by a channel with no clear brand identity at the time, and as such there was no pressure to make Dexter palatable. Though he kills according to a strict moral code, channelling his bloodthirst into justice by targeting only violent criminals, he is still genuinely unsettling early on, a monster hiding in plain sight.
"I don't have feelings about anything, but if I could have feelings at all I'd have them for Deb," his deadpan voiceover tells us in the pilot, introducing his adopted sister (Jennifer Carpenter), and despite Hall's affability you don't doubt him for a moment.
But as it became a runaway success for Showtime, the pressure of mainstream appeal became apparent. Dexter himself was gradually and systematically defanged, his sharp edges dulled as a revolving door of showrunners and key writers pushed him further and further into traditional leading man territory. In season one for instance he is nonplussed by relationships, choosing Julie Benz's damaged Rita as his girlfriend because she shares his lack of interest in sex, and because she helps him to pass as a regular guy.
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But far too rapidly, Dexter simply became that regular guy, going through a slew of love interests with no issue ever made of his sexuality again – by contrast, Lindsay's novels portray him as close to asexual – and eventually he's even semi-cured of his dark compulsion by the power of love.
Coupled with the need for Dexter to be a stud and a family man came the need for Dexter never to face justice, and so every time a major character came close to uncovering him the writers fell back on the same frustrating solution. Would he finally cross the line? Would he kill an innocent person to protect himself? No, because another character did it for him. Every. Time.
When Sergeant Doakes (Erik King) found out the truth in season two, Dexter's unhinged mistress Lila (Jaime Murray) kills him to protect Dexter. Five seasons later, Deb would do the same to LaGuerta (Lauren Vélez), emphasizing just how little the show had developed in that time.
Letting Dexter off the hook at every moral crisis robbed the character of any real progression, and so instead of internal change he suffered external consequence, most notably with the death of Rita in season four. That lightning bolt of an ending, much like Deb's discovery of Dexter's secret at the end of season six, was a smart narrative choice which elevated the show for an episode or two and seemed to suggest real upheaval. But soon enough the writers' unwillingness to see Dexter as he was would win out – despite all the innocent people that had died or had their lives ruined as a result of his addiction – and back to its safe procedural formulas the show would trot.
Though Dexter predated Breaking Bad by two seasons, the show's finales aired within weeks of one another in 2013, and Walter White's slippery, horribly human moral decline threw all of Dexter's failings into sharp relief. WhereBreaking Bad ceaselessly ratcheted up its conflict and forced its anti-hero into real and increasingly monstrous change, Dexter bent over backwards to make excuses for its anti-hero, making him less monster and more misunderstood puppy.
Robbed of all his menace and otherness, Dexter became a character that even the immensely skilled Hall couldn't make interesting, and the show dragged itself through four more mostly wretched seasons before finally sputtering to its end in one of the very worst television finales of all time.
"This was not just a tentpole show for us – this was a brand-redefining show," Showtime chairman Matthew Blank said on the eve of Dexter's finale. The show's success did allow the channel to build its identity around larger-than-life flawed heroes, from Nurse Jackie to Ray Donovan to Homeland's Carrie.
In a broader sense the show also triggered a paradigm shift for both cable and network television – the airing of Dexter on CBS back in 2007 sparked controversy because its subject matter was deemed too dark for the public airwaves, yet a few years later serial killers were all the rage on network television, for better or worse.
But despite the wider change it wrought, Dexter's legacy is pedestrian – it's a masterclass in how to spin an unconventional and risky premise into a deeply conventional and safe series.