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Michael C. Hall plays a cold case in ‘Dexter’

The Showtime drama "Dexter" is about a sociopath who copes in a pro-social way. Dexter stalks and executes only the deserving. He is a self-styled safety net who catches, then eliminates, bad people the cops and courts have let slip through the cracks.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Dexter Morgan has a full life.

He enjoys his job as a blood-spatter expert with the Miami Police Department.

His foster sister, a Miami cop, looks to him for support in her own career.

He has a girlfriend who, conveniently, is too traumatized from her abusive ex-husband to be interested in sex. (The last thing Dexter wants is intimacy.)

He has a cabin cruiser and a home by the water. And a passion: He's a serial killer.

A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. But the Showtime drama "Dexter," premiering Sunday at 10 p.m. EDT, is about a sociopath who copes in a pro-social way. Dexter stalks and executes only the deserving. He is a self-styled safety net who catches, then eliminates, bad people the cops and courts have let slip through the cracks: "The ones," he sums up, "that think they beat the system."

Mind you, Dexter is no vigilante. He lacks the moral circuitry to be concerned with righting wrongs. He's just trying to honor a pledge to his foster father, who long ago understood his compulsion.

"We can't stop this," Dad tells young Dexter in a flashback. "But maybe we can use it for good. There are people out there who do terrible things, and the police can't catch them all."

A guy making the best of a bad situation, Dexter is played to perfection by Michael C. Hall.

"I didn't anticipate that I'd jump into another television series," says Hall, whose five-season run as dutiful mortician David Fisher on HBO's "Six Feet Under" ended in August 2005. And, sure, there are similarities. Hall again is sharing scenes with drippy artificial body parts, and recumbent extras who have to hold their breath and play dead.

But David, a compassionate assistant in death's aftermath, was quite a different character than Dexter, who, as Hall dryly notes, "is much more pro-active."

And not just pro-active with the murders he commits. Also with himself, busy filling all the voids in his persona.

"The thing that scared me and excited me the most about playing him," Hall says, "is his insistence that he's without authentic human emotions."

Or maybe Dexter does have feelings, but they're buried too deep to be accessible. Whatever the case, he will tell himself (and the viewer, too, in confiding voiceovers) that his "human" behavior is a masquerade. He claims to put himself out there as performance art, faking every social interaction.

"How," poses Hall, "do you inhabit a character like that?"

With his hooded brow and square jaw, the 35-year-old Hall is leading-man handsome. But he also has the skill to play peculiar with his looks, a knack that served him well as the eccentric David Fisher.

Now his sizable challenge as he portrays Dexter Morgan is crisscrossing between normal and aberrant behavior with the least distance traveled.

"I wanted to avoid an obvious black-and-white, Jekyll-and-Hyde kind of presentation," Hall says. "I like the idea that Dexter is hiding in plain sight."

Indeed, Dexter is so good at what he does that not only hasn't he been caught, his uncounted homicides haven't even been tied together as the carnage of a single mass murderer.

The first death sentence you see Dexter carry out is on a respectable family man with a habit of torturing and murdering little boys. Dexter tells his doomed offender that, while he, too, is a conscience-less killer, he would never harm kids. "I have standards," Dexter seethes. Then he lets his power saw do the rest of the talking.

So life is good for Dexter — which is to say, rewarding and under control — as the series' 12-episode season begins.

Rita, his winsome girlfriend (played by Julie Benz), gives him a measure of companionship while helping him look regular. "Rita's perfect," declares Dexter, "because she is, in her own way, as damaged as me."

His sister, Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), is alternately sassy and insecure, and "the only one in the world who loves me," Dexter says. "I think that's nice."

But, abruptly, Dexter's world is rocked by the onset of another serial murderer. In bold contrast to Dexter's fastidious technique ("I'm a very neat monster," he boasts), the mysterious Ice Truck Killer is flamboyant in his savagery. Over and over he strikes and, in the process, playfully taunts Dexter with symbolic come-ons.

"This killer is telling Dexter, `I see you, I know what you're about,'" Hall says. "The only other person who ever did that for him is his foster father (James Remar), shining a light on his darkest secret and telling him that, in spite of that compulsion, he had a capacity to do good."

He won't be able to resist the Ice Truck Killer's overtures, of course. But what is Dexter's eagerness about? Putting a stop to this rival? Or welcoming a kindred spirit? Either way, taking the bait could expose his own grisly business.

"But he really does have a desire to be seen and to figure out why he does what he does," says Hall, who marvels at the riddle Dexter represents. "It's tricky. Sometimes I feel like I don't know who this guy is. But he doesn't quite know who he is, either. So that's my saving grace."