Showtime’s “Dexter: New Blood” arrives Sunday at 9 p.m. with the baggage of being a do-over.
A number of people attached to the show, including star Michael C. Hall, have expressed dissatisfaction with the original “Dexter” series finale of 2013 — joining fans who felt that leaving the vigilante serial killer as a Oregon lumberjack was a, um, hack move. So this is a second chance. Packaged as a 10-episode limited series and not a full series return, the revival tries — alas, mostly unsuccessfully — to erase our disappointment and give us a reason to care about a character we wrote off years ago.
And by years ago, I mean years before that silly 2013 finale. Yes, the finale was a flannel-lined insult, but the second four of the show’s eight seasons — which included an ill-advised incest theme — were a disappointment, too. “Dexter” began its life in 2006 as an extraordinary, pulpy neo-noir about a serial killer who killed serial killers with a fetishistic drive. Rich in visual wit, with kill scenes that had all the design finesse of a Vanity Fair spread, the wry drama made its obsessive murderer into a hero of sorts. It was a beautifully sustained exercise in moral irony, as it premiered in the middle of the anti-hero trend, and Hall was just right — a man mimicking human warmth, trying to direct his demons toward the social good. Importantly, the plotting was super tight, with the kind of step-by-step logic that we expected from the mind of a calculating exterminator.
By season five, though, that precision was completely gone, and the writing became as sloppy as Dexter had been meticulous. While the seasonal plot arcs become increasingly forced, and the blood seemed to flow simply to shock us to attention, Showtime continued to order new seasons of their popular show. If “Dexter” had ended after season four, the one in which John Lithgow was the nefarious Trinity Killer, it might well be regarded now as one of the best of its era.
The new episodes do not return the show to its early prestige by any measure; they bring us back to the looser storytelling of the later years. They contain any number of questionable leaps, with Dexter now living in the upstate New York town of Iron Lake as beloved local Jim Lindsay. He’s a clerk at Fred’s Fish & Game, which sells guns and knives, but he hasn’t killed anyone since he left Miami 10 years ago. To assuage the beast within, he stalks deer in the woods with his rifle, but he doesn’t shoot. His Dark Passenger has become more of a homebody.
Naturally, he’s dating town sheriff Angela Bishop (Julia Jones), his proximity to law enforcement being part of the “Dexter” brand. And that complicates matters, as you might expect, when he feels provoked by the spoiled, aggressive 30-year-old son of wealthy local businessman Kurt Caldwell (Clancy Brown). Will he create a kill room? Does Fred’s carry miles of plastic wrap? Meanwhile, there’s another violent plot afoot, and I suppose that story line will ramp up after the first four episodes, which is all Showtime sent out to critics for preview.
As his ire gets stirred up by the Caldwells, Dexter is visited by the ghost of his sister, Jennifer Carpenter’s Deb, just as he used to interact with the ghost of his adoptive father, Harry. I found this aspect of “Dexter: New Blood” irritating, with the two screaming at each other as she tries to help him fight the temptation to kill. Sure, Deb is as foul-mouthed as ever, which can be humorous. But the scenes are abrasive and, since we understand Dexter so well at this point, unnecessary. We get it: He wants to be like everyone else, but he needs to shed what he believes is justified blood. The siblings have the same fight over and over again, and it’s as grating as it is redundant. The character of Deb was even more played-out than Dexter by 2013, and yet here she is, still up in Dexter’s and viewers’ faces.
The series does have two things working in its favor, both of which are new to the formula. For one thing, the look is entirely different from the original, in which Miami and its heat and light served as supporting characters of sorts. There’s a lot of snow in Dexter Morgan’s new hometown, which of course means lots of blood-stained snow, which means lots of icy Pollock drip paintings.
And then Dexter’s son, Harrison, shows up, having tracked down his father after he was left in the care of Dexter’s ex, Hannah, 10 years ago. Played with careful ambiguity by Jack Alcott, he’s a street-savvy teen and uses his mind for good or ill, we’re not quite sure. He’s bitter about being abandoned by his father, but he’s also drawn to Dexter and moves in with him. Alcott offers a fresh way into the Dexter-verse. Is he a monster like his father? Perhaps he’s there to stir up some new themes, and not just to provide a way to continue the franchise far into the future.
DEXTER: NEW BLOOD
Starring: Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter, Clancy Brown, Julia Jones, Jack Alcott, Alano Miller
On: Showtime, Sunday at 9 p.m.