It’s tempting to say that the structural sloppiness of the fourth season of Showtime’s Dexter is a deliberate bit of auto-critique, meant to put the audience through the ringer much in the same way the show’s spread-too-thin protagonist struggles to balance the competing impulses of fatherhood, blood-splatter analysis, and serial killing. Through the new season’s first four episodes, Dexter (played as ably as ever by Michael C. Hall) finds himself run ragged by the demands of his new suburban life: The neighbors are nosy and concerned with a recent spate of vandalism, stepchildren Astor and Cody remain sources of minor nuisance, wife Rita is still an utter cipher (despite the best efforts of Julie Benz, capable of far more than the writers give her), and new baby Harrison never sleeps.
It’s a lot of responsibility for a tried-and-true sociopath to juggle, and Dexter’s difficulty in finding that balance crafts much of the season’s primary story arc, as his sleep deprivation presents significant problems at both work and “play.” A costly mistake on the witness stand allows a criminal to walk free, though thanks to Dexter’s well-established code for selecting victims, said criminal doesn’t escape justice for long; this error creates tension with his co-workers as they investigate a series of tourist murders, just as F.B.I. serial killer profiler Frank Lundy (Keith Carradine) returns to Miami, looking for the proverbial one who got away. The return of Lundy doesn’t dissuade Dexter from his primary recreational activity; falling asleep at the wheel when cleaning up after a kill, however, presents a potentially more grave set of problems.
Simply in terms of plot, those arcs would make for a busy start to the season. Appearing to Dexter in one of many visions, Harry (James Remar) tells his son that he has entirely too many plates spinning at once, and the same can be said of the show itself. Other subplots involve a recent spate of killings by the “Trinity Killer” (portrayed with a disturbing zeal and equally disturbing lack of pants by John Lithgow); a love triangle between Lundy, Dexter’s foulmouthed sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter, still wooden and now sporting a distractingly bad dye-job), and her live-in boyfriend Anton (David Ramsey); an inter-office romance between Lt. Maria LaGuerta (Lauren Velez) and Sgt. Angel Batista (David Zayas); and a conflict-of-interests fling between Det. Quinn (a dead-eyed Desmond Harrington) and a local reporter. Add Deb’s ongoing investigation into possible affairs that her late father may have had with his informants, one of whom was Dexter’s mother, and it’s clear that Dexter lacks focus.
Unfortunately for the series, there’s nothing to be gained from exhausting its audience with non-starter subplots, so whatever broader structural purpose this surfeit of plot devices might have served is ultimately of little consequence. It doesn’t help matters that the show’s rhythms have become predictable: The writers’ ham-fisted sense of irony makes the bulk of Hall’s snarky voiceover redundant, as though Dexter’s fish-out-of-water character hadn’t already been laid plain over three previous seasons’ worth of awkward social functions and misread conversational cues. That Dexter’s character has been so well developed, and the show’s primary conceit of making a serial killer into a legitimately sympathetic protagonist and not just into a slasher movie-type anti-hero, is what makes Dexter so compulsively watchable.
The problem is that so few of the supporting players have been given that same consideration. Deb’s cluelessness routinely plays out in a last-horse-crosses-the-finish-line bit of condescension, and LaGuerta’s role in the series has varied wildly from season to season, while Dexter’s fellow lab tech Masuka (C.S. Lee) is as one-note a character as Kenneth the Page on 30 Rock or Dwight on The Office. This lack of development in the supporting characters results in significant holes in the show’s logic: To wit, no attempt has been made to address the fact that Rita expects Dexter to tend to Harrison at night, even though she doesn’t have a job or additional responsibilities of her own. There’s no reason for Dexter to be so exhausted from his new role as a father other than to advance the plot. For a show well into its fourth season to be plot-driven rather than character-driven isn’t uncommon; it’s just that most shows, by their fourth seasons, have developed their roster of characters sufficiently that they can carry plots that are both logical and interesting. Just as Dexter struggles to understand the people in his life as more than just confusing vessels to maneuver around or exploit, Dexter continues to regard characterization as a simpleminded means to an end.