Is “Dexter” a classic, one of the peaks of the cable revolution alongside — you know the drill — “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under” and “The Shield”? Or is it a once-great series that has bled out in recent seasons, ever since the dreaded Lumen, woefully underplayed by Julia Stiles, entered Dexter Morgan’s life? Is the Showtime series destined to be forgotten over the long haul, an almost-was?
How we scrutinize our shows! In only about 20 years, most TV viewers have gone from a largely passive position, with only a handful of channels to choose from, to a far more active and selective stance. Now we judge each episode and each season of our favorite series, weighing them carefully as we decide whether to keep watching or break up with them and move on to some hot new cable drama or network comedy. We’re just not that into you, we might need to say to a show such as “The Office” when it’s on the decline. Or: You are mine forever, “The Wire,” and I will go on and on about your brilliance for the rest of my life.
These ongoing assessments have become wound into the way we talk about TV. Mention “Seinfeld”; some will say seasons 2-7 were terrific and the others were just pre- and post-greatness. Or “ER”: Some will insist the 15-season drama lost its mojo when George Clooney left for the movies after season 5. “The West Wing”? It fell apart when Aaron Sorkin departed mid-run, or the opposite — replacement John Wells improved on Sorkin’s overwrought work. And so on and so forth, with the intense discernment of a wine connoisseur — or a Simon Cowell.
These days, I can’t talk about “Dexter” without qualifying my feelings about particular seasons. The show, which returns for its eighth and final season Sunday at 9, has been a much diminished thing since season 5, and I’ve checked out of the relationship, emotionally if not physically. I wince at how the mighty, once so tightly scripted and uncompromising, has fallen.
The waning began in season 4, the John Lithgow season. Suddenly, Dexter Morgan, in such control of his kills and so wedded to his “code,” was getting sloppy, which was interesting; his passion, his new human side, was undoing him. But the writers also started getting sloppy, having Dexter get thrown in jail before killing the Trinity Killer — and then letting the fact that a police department employee was arrested simply evaporate.
The disappointment flowered in season 5, with Lumen. Dexter impulsively murdered an offensive redneck in a gas station for no reason, which undermined the most powerful facet of “Dexter,” its moral trickiness. Dexter was a serial killer of killers, a kind of twisted vigilante hero; when it was good, the show moved us into the provocative position of possibly rooting for a monster. But suddenly Dexter was just a guy killing because he felt like it. Then came Travis, so emptily played by Colin Hanks, and the show hasn’t quite fully recovered. Letting Dexter’s sister Deb in on Dexter’s secret was a gimmick; it was juicy for two episodes, and then it fell flat, the show’s biggest source of suspense now deflated.
But here’s my question: Does any of this criticism matter in the long run? Will our ranking system, where we rate seasons and episodes like teachers grading semesters and term papers, ultimately affect a show’s legacy? Will “House” or “NYPD Blue” slip down and out of our list-o-maniacal collective consciousness because their last few seasons weren’t as good as their early ones? Will “Grey’s Anatomy” fall out of the Top 100 because it went over the top — Dead Denny — so early on?
I’m thinking no, not at all. Our micro-judgments are a great conversation topic, and they prove that we are discriminating TV viewers — the best kind of TV viewers. Tracking the ups and downs of “Mad Men” — which episode this season was the best? the worst? — has become a sort of analytical parlor game among fans. But really, most of the good shows survive in our cultural memory and prevail despite any dips in quality. From a distance, looking back at a series, most of the potholes are forgotten. After all, no long-running show is perfect throughout (although I would argue that “Breaking Bad” is pretty close).
Think of “Will & Grace,” which was a loud mess for a few years toward the end of its eight-season run. The guest-star quotient was out of control and the characters grew redundant. And yet the sitcom was a groundbreaker and, in my opinion, it remains a classic. When “Will & Grace” comes up in conversation and in print, that part of the story — the slump — is usually not mentioned. Likewise “Twin Peaks” (all bow); after a brilliant opening season, the show stumbled through a lesser second season. But it remains one of TV’s most celebrated works, a revered “cult” series that brought new potential to prime time. Even “The Wire” met with mixed opinion for its last season, which was set around a newsroom and a fraudulent killer. Few people, including those who voiced dissatisfaction when that season aired, recall that glitch when putting it at or near the top of their all-time list.
In some business and public sectors, you always retain the highest ranking you achieved across your career. That may be the case with TV. Usually that peak comes early in the life of a series, before the rigors of staying on the air for years and years take their toll. The first impression of a show often becomes its lasting impression, a fact that just may help “Dexter” in years to come. We judge our best shows, evaluating them from week to week, moving them up and down on our quality graphs, but we judge because, in the long run, we love.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.