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Dexter (Showtime, Sundays, 9 p.m.)

Toilet paper slowly soaks up blood from a shaving mishap. A knife hacks through flesh that turns out to be a ham steak. An egg is cooked over-easy, then gutted with knife and fork and splashed with Tabasco sauce. Filmed in slow motion with shots tight enough to show individual pores of skin and fibers of paper, the opening credits of Dexter do a better job of foreshadowing the series’ central tension than any show I can think of. For a serial killer trying to meld into the status quo, feigning normalcy is an act of detail, patience, and precision.

Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) has felt the desire to kill since childhood, when he was left for days in a cargo container filled with his mother’s blood. Harry (James Remar), the Miami police officer who found and adopted him, discovered the boy’s bloodlust and tried to channel it into other activities, like target-shooting and boar-hunting.

The effort was valiant but ultimately futile. No tusked swine could fill the big, murder-shaped void in Dexter’s soul, so Harry lets the boy loose on society, reigning him in through a series of commandments designed to send him exclusively after other sociopaths.

Dexter’s a serial killer, then, but only of other serial killers.

This backstory unfolded gradually in season one until Dexter’s past and his present collided in the brother he forgot he had. Also found in that cargo container, also impossibly scarred, also a serial killer, Dexter had to kill the dude. In season two, he’s all broken up about it.

While uniformly good and often great, actual episodes of Dexter don’t touch as keenly and artfully on the show’s premise as the credits do. The idea is to humanize Dexter, and since homey can’t confide his darkness to any of the other characters, he ends up confessing to the audience through abundant, often obvious, voiceovers. It’s indelicate at best, but there’s a certain charm to it. Hiding his bloodlust for so long, Dexter isn’t great at expressing it.

The inner life isn’t fully formed, but Michael C. Hall beautifully renders Dexter’s exterior, his waxen smile, even temperament, and bursts of hysterical enthusiasm (“How does he do it?! How does the killer get rid of the blood?”).

Dexter isn’t perfect, but it’s damn good, and the paradox of the citizen serial killer is executed with enough zest to keep me happy for another season or two. •

See also

Chuck This hour-long comedy about a burnout who downloads the entire intelligence network into his brain is more dramatic than Journeyman and looks better than Bionic Woman. (NBC, Mondays, 8 pm)

Cavemen Not the first commercial-character TV show (that would be Ernest) or the most insipid (that would be Baby Bob), Cavemen still feels like a kick to the communal face of intelligent people. (ABC, Tuesdays, 8 pm)

Reaper Sam Oliver comes into the devil’s employ on his 21st birthday and must find a way to schedule his slacker hobbies around assignments that entail sucking evil souls back into hell. (CW, Tuesdays, 9 pm)


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