Dexter is such a darkly comic and self-aware show that its creators would joke about how far from cutting edge it is, simply to use the word “cutting.” After all, serial killer Dexter (Michael C. Hall) has already killed his brother (a serial killer himself), hooked up with a serial-killer groupie, saved his adopted sister, Debra Morgan (Jennifer Carpenter), from at least two serial killers, and befriended—and eventually killed—the king of all serial killers. All of this while working as a blood-spatter analyst for Lt. Maria LaGuerta (Lauren Velez) of the Miami PD and forming a relationship with Rita (Julie Benz). But no matter how ridiculous the plot, Dexter has managed to get away with murder, using Hall’s poker face and self-deprecating voiceovers to sell the idea of America’s favorite sociopath.
Of course, that poker face means that nothing’s changed in this fifth season: It’s still the same old Dexter. Last season ended with a pitch-black shot of Dexter finding his infant son, Harrison, crawling around in a pool of blood, but it takes less than an episode of Dexter struggling to find a way to adequately express that grief before the show is right back to its campy one-liners and unsettling humor. After a primal and totally uncontrolled moment of rage in which he bludgeons a stranger to death, he says, “It’s said there are seven stages of grief. I suppose killing someone with my bare hands in a men’s room was my way of working through the anger stage.” Later, when Dexter’s stepchildren return from Disneyland, the youngest son gives him Mickey Mouse ears to wear; Dexter dutifully puts them on before just as dutifully telling them their mother is dead. Then again, these unusual reactions are the bread and butter of the show: It’s entertaining and surprising to watch a sociopath realize that he may have feelings after all.
Of course, good old Dexter has the same old problems too. The show is still littered with B plots involving Dexter’s overly comical co-workers, most of which only remind us how many holes there are in the main plot. The sorrow-triggered sex between Dexter’s sister and her detective partner, Quinn (Desmond Harrington), seems like a too-obvious complication for Quinn’s growing suspicions of Dexter, but at least it gives Carpenter more of an opportunity to show her range and remains somewhat related to the plot. On the other hand, scenes between Batista (David Zayas) and LaGuerta, who got happily married last year, are now clearly filler: How else to explain Batista’s sudden, anger-management-requiring obsession with LaGuerta’s secret bank account? There’s already a purely comic-relief character in the gleefully inappropriate Masuka (C. S. Lee), and his corpse-related humor at least fits the show’s tone. That’s not true of the department’s investigations of a series of beheadings that may be related to the cult of Santa Muerte: With Dexter on a leave of absence, these scenes may as well be from CSI, Detroit 1-8-7, or Southland.
At worst, these scenes make Dexter look better, helping us to forget his often repetitive actions. At best, all these disparate threads may lead somewhere new, for no matter how good of an actor Hall is, there’s a limit to how long he can prey on the same basic conceit. (The flashbacks of this season’s first episode, in which we see how Dexter met Rita, only serve to remind us of how little he’s actually changed.) More likely, especially given the cliffhanger of the third episode, “Practically Perfect,” Dexter will continue to hang comfortably in the middle, using a charismatic lead to provoke the sort of “How will he get out of this one?” situations that keep an audience glued to each episode—but not obsessed with the show.
When it’s at the top of its game, Dexter brings True Blood to mind, subverting conventions of horror and violence to mock the various accoutrements of “normal” suburban life. With stepchildren Astor (Christina Robinson) and Cody (Preston Bailey) relegated to their grandparents’ house, and with an Irish maid, Sonya (Maria Doyle Kennedy), caring for Harrison, the show loses some of its charm. Hopefully, the rest of the season will find ways to continue mixing ordinary moments—like Dexter cooking oddly shaped pancakes for the kids or wondering why there isn’t a parenting book on “How to tell the kids Mommy bled out in a bathtub”—with its thrill-a-minute “hunts.” After all, Dexter doesn’t need to be cutting edge; it just has to avoid being too blunt.