The polyphonic (killing) spree

It wasn’t so much that Dexter had actually jumped the shark in its second season currently running on Showtime. But the outboard motor was running and the water skis were firmly strapped on. Something was  stinking out this show in its first three episodes and it wasn’t one of the main character’s justifiable homicides.

[You know there’s going to be spoilers here, right?]

The first hint that something was wrong came with the character of loveable Latino cop, Angel, who in the break since the brilliant Season One had obviously been watching The Secret and was now seeing the Law of Attraction in every daily event. Not a bad character turn in and of itself, but the problem was that this was the only thing he did.

When Angel got knifed by the Ice Truck Killer towards the end of Season One, I actually moaned out loud. He’d become a character I liked so much that I desperately didn’t want him to be killed off. And now all he did was play the same note on a piano, again and again and again.

The One Note Formula had hit most of the other characters too. Dexter’s sister,  Debra had changed from a hard-ass female cop trying to do her job in the face of prejudice from men and women in the department and had turned into a whiny little wind-up toy snapping at everyone, and all because the Ice Truck Killer had wined her, dined her and tried to cut her up into little pieces. So what? You’ve got to kiss a few frogs. Get over it, girl!.

(The only good moment in those first few episodes was when Dexter’s frustration at having to share his apartment with Debra voiced over with the brilliant ‘I will not kill my sister. I will not kill my sister.’)

Then there was Doakes, the only cop on the team who suspects Dexter’s dark secret. All he did now was tail Dexter all over town like a gay stalker and do that eye pointing thing that Robert De Niro does in Meet The Parents.

At the end of Season One, ball-busting  Lieutenant Maria LaGuerta was demoted to detective and now had to work under the biatch who took her job, Esmee Pascal. But all we got in the first few episodes was LaGuerta continually being supportive of Pascal, who was losing it constantly in front of her staff because she thought her boyfriend was cheating on her. Nothing about it rang true at all.

And then, in the fourth episode (appropriately titled ‘See-Through’) everything changes, and all these one-note characters start playing in beautiful polyphony:

Angel has a beautifully tentative encounter with a victim’s widow (and doesn’t mention manifestation once), Doakes’s fucked up military past starts catching up with him, Debra starts flirting with her new boss and goes on her first date.

Then there’s poor, mad Esmee, who goes into meltdown and gets taken off the job. And in the stupendous killer twist we see LaGuerta in bed with… Esmee’s boyfriend. Yes, Lady Paranoia was right all along, there was another woman. She just didn’t know it was the smiling, sympathetic colleague who worked under her every day and went out of her way to support her kerayzee attempts to get at the truth. You’ve just been owned, biatch (as I believe white, middle class kids say when they want to sound ghetto).

It was a brave risk to go three whole episodes with such a supporting cast of apparent cardboard cut-outs. I almost gave up on the series myself. But this is a valuable lesson for any writer: characters are only engaging when they are conflicted both internally and externally.

Many writers, when inventing new characters, pick an interesting trait off the shelf and then find an opposing trait for another character and set them off against each other. But that isn’t character; that’s cliche. A real character has to be in conflict with themself as well as with those around them.

And when characters are working on more than just the one level, I’ll stick around and see what they’re going to do next.

The See-Through episode (written by Scott Buck)  has absolutely saved this second season of Dexter, and it’s made sure I’ll be sticking around till the end.

The water skis and motor boat can wait. This drama isn’t jumping the shark any time soon.

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