Dexter: Moral ambiguity and cognitive dissonance in television (and why I love it)

Ok, let’s take a break from all the politics and talk about TV.

One of my favorite shows right now is a Showtime series called Dexter. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s familiar with it, which is a shame, because it’s one of the most interesting and gutsy shows on TV right now.

On its surface, Dexter seems like yet another crime show. It takes place is perpetually-sunny Miami, it has a cast of interesting characters, and it focuses on Dexter (shockingly enough) who is an easy-to-like blood-spatter analyst working for the Miami police department. But the thing that sets this show apart is that Dexter is also a serial killer.

The story is told primarily from Dexter’s perspective, and you hear his inner monologue. On the outside, he’s the quirky guy who brings a box of doughnuts to work every day to share with his co-workers. But he’s driven to murder people, and does so quite frequently. He makes sure that his victims are criminals, but he’s not doing it to get bad guys off the streets. He does it because he enjoys killing; because he has a need for it. He even collects a drop of blood from each victim on a microscope slide, which helps him (and the audience) keep track of exactly how long he’s been doing it, and how often. Beyond that, he’s pretty much a normal person who deals with normal problems, who has a normal life, and a pretty normal job.

The thing I find most fascinating about the show is that it’s not trying to tell you what to think about what Dexter does. It’s a constant festival of cognitive dissonance, with your mind and morality constantly flipping between what you perceive as good and evil, and usually coming up with something in between. It raises far more questions than it answers. Is it ok for Dexter to kill a serial rapist? How are you supposed to feel when that same rapist begs for his life before Dexter plunges a knife into his chest? Is Dexter any better than the people he’s killing? Does Dexter’s difficult past make what he’s doing understandable?

Dexter isn’t the one-dimensional serial killer character you typically see opposite the “good guys” on the standard procedural cop show. He’s a very likeable character. You want to see him succeed in life. You don’t want to see him caught and sent to jail, even though it seems like he deserves it.

Dexter isn’t a show for people who view the world in black & white. This isn’t about the good guys catching the bad guys. It’s about a good guy who’s also a bad guy, and it’s not telling you how to think. It’s showing you that the real world is shades of gray, and that you have to weigh each situation as it comes.

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