Back when I was traveling around the US in the summer of 2009, a number of people were talking about the TV series Dexter, but it took me until recently to check it out. If you don’t know the series, it’s basically about a “moral” psychopath who hunts down people essentially like himself. He follows a set of rules that determine who “deserves” to die and who doesn’t, or at least that’s how he operates in the first couple of seasons.
I haven’t read the books by Jeff Lindsay (upon which the series is based) but I have seen about two seasons of the show, and while I have a couple of caveats, I think the show is brilliant. Figuring out why necessitates a few spoilers, but they’re minor (in my opinion). Still, if you hate spoilers, I wouldn’t read on. Go check out the show yourself, instead. If you’re game, though, well, I have some ideas to share about the show.
My caveats are the sort that don’t bug me much when I am watching the show, but do bug me when I’m thinking about why I like it so much. Dexter doesn’t really seem to be a garden-variety psychopath, for one thing. Now, that’s fine–interesting characters often aren’t garden-variety type persons, after all–but it does raise some questions. For example, Dexter’s psychopathy seems to be the result of a serious, early-childhood trauma (the unfolding of which is a major plotline in the series, hence the spoiler warning). The reality, as I understand it, though, is that most often psychopaths are products of genetics, and the fact that some of their parents are cold and abusive is, well, more of a testament to the genetic nature of the offspring’s psychological disturbance. There isn’t, as far as I know, incontrovertible evidence suggesting this, but it seems pretty likely from what I’ve read. So I have trouble buying that Dexter really, truly is a psychopath; I see him as a deeply screwed-up human being, but not a true psychopath.
This brings me to the second point, which is that Dexter does indeed seem to have feelings. He insists, time and again, that he doesn’t, and yet his moral framework has lasted all these years; and yet he feels fear, and sorrow, and longing; he seems, indeed, to harbor authentic affection for certain other characters, such as his sister and girlfriend (and the girlfriend’s kids). Of course, if Dexter were completely devoid of emotions, it’d be hard for the audience to get into him so much. The fact is, he does seem to have some basic emotions, not just “impulses” as he claims motivate him.
Which brings me to why I think the show is so engaging for its viewers. Why would people be so interested in watching a psychopath go around killing people in horrific ways, even if the killings are (somewhat) ethically justified? The thing to remember is that TV audiences are constantly aware of the theatrics of TV. Nearly every competent human being is able, on some level, to separate fantasy from reality, and even for the most sensitive of audience members, it is quite natural to react to the horrific acts on the screen with a great deal more detachment and distance than one might if witnessing those same acts in real life.
What I am saying, then, is that not only in Dexter, but throughout our television experiences, we are quite used to seeing murder, suffering, horror, and downright horrific acts on a daily basis. The difference is that among all the other grisly TV shows–the increasingly over-the-top CSI series, plural, come to mind–only one is honest about the kind of reaction expected from the viewers. When we see Dexter turn on his bone saw, and the blood spatter his glass facemask, we see him smiling with a detached, distant expression. Like us, he witnesses the horror but is untouched; for him, every brutal act is characterized by the kind of irrelevance that it is–though we can admit it only awkwardly, until we think about it–to the audience.
Dexter’s relationships with the people around him are–for most people–quite unlike the relationships we in the audience have with the people around us. That said, the people around him are other TV characters, and his relationship with them emulates rather well our relationship with those fictional characters. As the one psychopath in the show–but a psychopath possessed of a moral compass, of a sense of justice being necessary, though sometimes brutally served–Dexter is not so much a figure of the modern urban person, as he is a kind of caricature of the TV viewer of today. When we gaze through the blood-spattered glass, what we see is a reflection of ourselves, and the entire audience of contemporary TV, watching as newer and more sensational horrors are enacted right before them, yet unmoved, detached… smiling a little at the ridiculousness of it all.
Some might think that this is a scathing indictment of the TV show, but I’m of the opinion that entertainment doesn’t drive people to do out and do evil things; most people who see such things don’t go out and imitate them in real life, in fact. Such copycats are usually not so bright, and far from stable.
No, I’m not criticizing Dexter: I think instead that the whole thing is a very clever, thoughtful commentary on the kind of relationship we have with our entertainment, as well as how we have come to engage with (even as we disengage from) our entertainment. Little surprise that Dexter’s condition has been likened to an addiction, for TV is the great undiagnosed addiction of the developed world, and it has, indeed, numbed us considerably (prompting the increasing extremes of TV shows in general). Dexter is just the first show I’ve seen that, seemingly consciously, has anything to say about this.
This, of course, can be turned into a lesson about writing, but I wonder what the lesson is. When I think back to a story like “The Little Magic Shop” by Bruce Sterling (collected in both Crystal Express and the more recent Ascendancies), I see it as a kind of metafictional game about the genre of SF, and I’ve seen stories like that before. Flann O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds likewise engages in a metafictional discussion of the relationship between an artist and his or her art–as I remember it from over a decade ago, a writer in the novel falls in love with a character whom he has written into his own novel (and gets her pregnant if I remember it right). However, I’m trying to think of a story or book that effectively puts into play a metafictional figuration of the reader’s relationship with the genre or text. The closest thing I can come up with is Stone, by Adam Roberts, but that book didn’t work for me that way–I remember Roberts suggesting somewhere that it was supposed to, but it wasn’t how I felt about the book.
Which, of course, has me thinking about what the metafictional figure of the SF audience member ought to be, and whether or how I could work it into my own next big writing project, in a way that is quite as engaging as what we find in Dexter, without being so distracting as to take away from the story itself. Hmmm.