by Andy Ruddock
On September 23, Showtime audiences will bid adieu to television’s unlikeliest hero. Since 2007, they’ve really warmed toDexter. 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.
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.
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?
Dr Andy Ruddock is a senior lecturer for the School of English, Communications and Performance Studies in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University.
This article has also appeared on The Conversation.
Find out more:
- School of English, Communications and Performance Studies
- Communications and Media Studies
What does the ‘Border Farce’ tell us about the future of crisis politics in Australia?
David Holmes The convulsive reaction to Friday’s failed security operation by the Australian Border Force … Continue reading What does the ‘Border Farce’ tell us about the future of crisis politics in Australia?
sensiLab Forum: Communications and Media Studies’ Daniel Black
A key initiator of the spread of digital interfaces into our everyday lives was the … Continue reading sensiLab Forum: Communications and Media Studies’ Daniel Black
Larrikin carnival: an Australian style of cultural subversion
Tony Moore, Monash University This article is part of a series, On Happiness, examining what … Continue reading Larrikin carnival: an Australian style of cultural subversion
Monash at the first Shangai City Lab
The first Shanghai City Lab and Cultural Economy International Summer School took place at Shanghai Jiaotong University’s Xuhui … Continue reading Monash at the first Shangai City Lab
PR and Communications Internship with Haystac
Gain some valuable work-experience in the area of media and communication with a leading marketing … Continue reading PR and Communications Internship with Haystac
Australia’s radical media sphere link
Monash University senior lecturer Dr Tony Moore has presented his historical research from his book, Death … Continue reading Australia’s radical media sphere link
Young celebs and LGBT rights: what would Hall say?
By Andy Ruddock Any lingering doubts about the political power of popular culture have surely … Continue reading Young celebs and LGBT rights: what would Hall say?
The great global warming subsidy: the truth about Australian corporate welfare
by David Holmes The demise of manufacturing in this country has captured the news headlines … Continue reading The great global warming subsidy: the truth about Australian corporate welfare
War on the environment a distraction from climate change policy
by David Holmes After almost six months in office, it seems that the Abbott government’s … Continue reading War on the environment a distraction from climate change policy
Are politics fair game at the Olympics? Google thinks so
by Andy Ruddock This week, the largest, coolest and most promising Australian Winter Olympics team to … Continue reading Are politics fair game at the Olympics? Google thinks so
Media & Communications Internship @Monash’s Media Office: 2 places
Inviting Journalism and Communications students to apply for this exciting internship role with the Office … Continue reading Media & Communications Internship @Monash’s Media Office: 2 places
Alumni Stories: Toni makes her mark at Shepparton News
JOURNALISM graduate Toni Brient says the Monash program has equipped her with the skills to … Continue reading Alumni Stories: Toni makes her mark at Shepparton News