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Vale Dexter, the serial killer who changed the face of TV violence

On September 23, Showtime audiences will bid adieu to television’s unlikeliest hero. Since 2007, they’ve really warmed to Dexter. The show’s eponymous anti-hero is a congenial blood-spatter analyst who…

What has Showtime TV series Dexter, starring Michael C. Hall as the eponymous character, taught us about media violence? EPA/Hollywood Foreign Press Association

On September 23, Showtime audiences will bid adieu to television’s unlikeliest hero. Since 2007, they’ve really warmed to Dexter. The show’s eponymous anti-hero is a congenial blood-spatter analyst who can decipher any crime scene. He’s a loving son, brother and father who lives by an unwavering moral code.

And he’s a mass murderer.

Fans will tune into season eight’s finale with trepidation. Most want things to work out for Dexter. But they know it can’t be so. As much as they have enjoyed breaking all the rules of TV drama, the producers have warned there’s no happy ending for a serial killer.

Whatever happens, the show has challenged what we think we “know” about media violence. It tells us that the industry that make this brutality, and the people who enjoy it, can be smart and creative. Dexter’s ferocity sets him apart from other screen slashers.

So what makes him so different?

Dexter’s is a democratic world. Young or old, black, white, Asian or Hispanic, wealthy or not, violence touches everyone. In the heyday of primetime broadcast TV, professional white men in the prime of their life literally got away with murder. But, for all his wit, athleticism, humour and charm, Dexter always pays a price for his crimes.

Dexter’s iconic opening sequence.

Yet the violence is the least interesting aspect of the show. The villains who end up on Dexter’s infamous table all die in the same way. The mechanics of the act aren’t important. Each killing adds complexity to the character and the narrative. Is “our hero”, for all his moral agonising, just another serial killer looking to excuse his blood lust? Fans will be debating that one for years to come.

Historically, critics have argued that television violence is only “bad” when it simplifies social reality. For years, American television dramatised a black and white world where people are either good or evil, powerful or weak. In the end, Dexter worked because it eschewed such certainties.

Showtime certainly took a risk here. When teenager Andrew Conley murdered his brother in 2010, then claimed he did it because he “felt like Dexter”, the writers confessed that they had feared such an event. Conley activated familiar anxieties about the effect of on-screen violence on impressionable audiences.

Interestingly, this story received little attention. There was a time when it would have been a bigger deal. Had Dexter’s adventures been broadcast to a mass audience, including lots of kids staying up past their bedtime, more public flak might have come his way. On Monday, however, the first Australians to (legally) discover his final fate will pay for the pleasure through Foxtel subscriptions. These folks, we assume, know what they’re in for.

Dexter’s biggest effect has been on writers and viewers who are willing to entertain innovative narratives and challenging characters. This year, American television brought us Bates Motel, which re-imagines Norman Bates (of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho fame) as a likeable teen who just wants to fit in. Part horror and part Dawson’s Creek, the unexpected hit confronts viewers with the idea that although violence must be punished, it must also be understood. Dexter surely proved that this controversial idea could be made popular.

Rolling Stone was accused of glamourising alleged Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with this image from July. EPA/Rolling Stone

Journalists who have to deal with real murder often don’t have the same latitude. The charge that media glamourises violence now tends to be directed at the news. When pop culture magazine Rolling Stone presented alleged Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as an ordinary kid, they faced a wave of criticism. The event tells us how hard it is to represent the idea that mass murder isn’t motivated by pure, inexplicable evil alone, when discussing real people.

Strangely, then, cutting-edge television drama might be more politically important than it has ever been. If that’s true, then it’s a shame that far fewer of us get to see it. There’s a strong case to be made that good TV drama should be a public right, but quality TV is only available to those willing to pay extra, or break the law.

For years, societies have worried about the bad things that happen when people see graphic barbarity on-screen. After Dexter we might ask a different question: when such a challenging drama can only be enjoyed by a select few, what does society lose when people can’t hear what the tragic forensic expert had to say?

Among its many achievements, Dexter reminded us that screen violence is a bellwether for the cultural politics of television. Primetime murder used to matter because it showed us a world where anyone who wasn’t wealthy, male and white was in danger. Now, the problem is that although TV uses violence to dramatise a more complicated picture of society, not everyone gets to see it.

So, as Dexter passes into history, we might ask: should there be more violence on TV?

Join the conversation

17 Comments sorted by

  1. Notta Mehere

    logged in via Facebook

    'should there be more violence on tv?'

    watching the news generally gives me my daily dose of violence.

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    1. Anne Duncan

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Notta Mehere

      I agree - the news has quite enough gore these days. I don't want to be desensitized to violence, so I avoid watching shows with gratuitous, graphic violence like Dexter, and so many others. The growing number of these shows means there are large numbers of people who are routinely exposed to ever more violent, and sexually violent drama dressed up as entertainment. I am not one of them. I don't like seeing torture (real or fictionalized) on my tv - if that means I watch less tv maybe that's not such a bad thing.

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  2. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    Most TV is fill between the ads, and most TV programs shown in Australia are American TV programs.

    So the question should be rephrased.

    “Should there be more violent American TV programs shown to Australians that act as fill between the ads and make Australians buy more and become more consumerist and Americanised?”

    Of course the answer would be a resounding “Yes”.

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    1. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Those poor old Septic Tanks cop a bit from Aussies.
      How can Aussies become "Americanised" if the only "Americans" they know are on a television or film screen?
      It would be like those people who only know the Australians they see on Noighbiz or Herminuwoi.
      Shudder!

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    2. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to James Hill

      I naturally assumed that if an Australian wants to watch more and more American TV programs, they would have a desire to be an American.

      And, if they also want to watch violent TV programs, they would have a desire to be violent as well.

      So, they can become both American and violent without leaving the couch, and remain within arm's reach of the beer/pizza/ash tray/women’s magazine etc.

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    3. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      I'm glad Dale that you allow that perhaps the real and relatively unknown Americans, are themselves being "Americanised" as you define it.
      I remember many years ago (in the Cold War era) seeing some scathingly sarcastic US shows, in the style of Monty Python being shown during the summer break.
      They were not seen for long since the times called for anti-Americanism to be censored, even when it factually arose from Americans themselves.
      So our media conceptions of "Americanism" are controlled…

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    4. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to James Hill

      Somewhat dangerous to embrace Dexter I would think.

      Many Americans seem to be on drugs, and I don’t think their actions can be rationalised.

      There was an idea put forward in France many TV viewing seasons ago, to ban TV for one night a week.

      With programs such as Dexter now regarded as entertainment, maybe that idea could be embraced by Australians as well.

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    5. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      I think you are onto something about the ads, ultimately they are like drugs of tolerance requiring greater and greater strength to maintain their effect.
      Very corrosive for young minds.
      Definitely in need of some modification, in the absence of any evidence that this unnatural barrage of stimulation is not indeed harmful.
      The pre-cautionary principle, overriding "commercial", profit seeking freedoms.
      What might we expect from the change of federal government?
      Perhaps "commercialism" rather than "Americanism"?
      Perhaps we need a dose of Adam Smith, whose objective was to understand commercial society and improve it.
      Not what Abbott wants for his employers?
      "All that is evil fears the light" seems to be the motto for this new government.

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    6. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to James Hill

      Some might think TV programs such as Dexter create a sick society, while I think the sickness of American society actually creates programs such as Dexter.

      7 out of 10 Americans are on prescription drugs, while the second most commonly prescribed drugs are antidepressants, and the third most commonly prescribed are opioids.

      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/19/prescription-drugs-prevalence-americans_n_3466801.html

      Combine that with consumption of legal drugs such as alcohol and consumption of illegal drugs such as cocaine and crack.

      Then combine that with ailments such as obesity, and American society is an extremely unhealthy and sick society.

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    7. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      And a "faithless" US religious right's pre-occupation with "evil", all at the expense of true Christianity.
      You can see this in the other television programs based on "supernatural" themes.
      More mind rot for young people, sourced in the pervasive US religious right's mind rot.
      No wonder they are on prescription drugs when the "land of the free" is very liberal to religious lunacy.
      We certainly do not need to import that "illness", yet it can be guaranteed that Abbott will.
      Picking a fight with…

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    8. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to James Hill

      In retrospect, perhaps it would have been better for all involved if Nth America had been left with the Nth American Indians.

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    9. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to James Hill

      As Australia now follows America and imports much of its crap culture, I am wondering if it would have been better for all involved if Australia had been left with the Aborigine.

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    10. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      I am sure that those who now remain of The First Peoples will remain after the catastrophes of Global Climate Change destroy much of "Civilisation".
      After all they survived a ten thousand year drought which only ended in Australia as the first pyramids were being built.

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  3. Gabrielle Henry

    logged in via Facebook

    Isn't it hard to morally judge a piece of popular culture which is in fact grounded in U.S. culture from the outside? Shouldn't we look at popular culture through the prism of cultural analysis? Personally I think Dexter should be seen as a metaphor for the national response of the U.S. to violence within it's culture. A country which embraces the death penalty as just violence has to wrestle constantly with the morality of which killing is acceptable and which is not. I think shows like this are wrestling with this issue. Other shows will continue to do so. I do not wish to judge popular culture on the narrow 24 hour news cycle and I think we should resist the urge to do so.

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    1. Liam J

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Gabrielle Henry

      Then theres the two public and the three secret wars, and the 'drone'/terror bombings (several a week), and the thousands of domestic murders consequent on their weapons manufacturing businesses.

      No wonder the yanks are desperate to blur that Thou Shalt Not Kill line.

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  4. Yoron Hamber

    Thinking

    :)

    More is less?

    I give up understanding this one.. I'm sure media could portrait Stalin as a lovable little uncle, lead by the best of intentions. But I would prefer not.

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