From the Archives: ‘Sweepstakes’ TV fandom.
Wrote this in 2011 for my now-defunct Typepad blog — much the best site on the entire Internet, everybody knew it — and on rereading it seems to’ve held up, more or less. So here you go. Huh: I really liked Dexter for the first four seasons, didn’t I. But so’s you know, I gave up on it after Rita’s death in the S4 finale. There seemed no point to continuing. My wife kept up with it, and liked S5 and S6 a lot. I haven’t changed the original text at all.
Judging from the Internet discourse surrounding the show, most (male) Sopranos fans viewed that show through the lens of one or another adolescent ‘sweepstakes’: Will this be the year Tony gets it? Who will be killed next? Will the Russian come back? Will Carmela find out all Tony’s secrets? And most obnoxiously: WHEN WILL THE GANG WAR WITH NEW YORK GO OFF?!
It’s important to understand that this kind of scorekeeping nonsense, this fixation on violence and sensational plot devices, really does seem to dominate popular discourse on even the best TV shows. But that’s not an accident. Without question, this has been a golden age of American television, but the desire-structure of scripted TV – its endlessly restated/regenerated premises mounting resistance to radical change at any level – makes for an uncomfortably constrained art form. The sitcom has always been a maddeningly repetitive, limited dramatic form, but the need to welcome new viewers and start from an instantly-understandable premise also afflicts our hourlong dramas, not just episodic schlock like CSI or Law & Order but more thoughtful serial works as well.
Even in our Golden Age, examples abound. When Buffy the Vampire Slayer moved off its initial premise (‘High school is hell’) to a tale of young adulthood in its fourth season, viewers resented the change despite the writers directly addressing that resentment in the text. Lost came totally unmoored as it incorporated off-island events and ‘mythology’ into its goofy puzzlebox mystery, alienating more casual viewers. Twin Peaks imploded, rapidly shedding its audience and falling into nonsensical supernaturalism, when its own premise question (‘Who killed Laura Palmer?’) was answered and set aside. Veronica Mars could barely sustain a rickety third season, having addressed every one of its first/second season premise questions.
The Sopranos pissed off millions of viewers by refusing to reward their prurient interest in gang violence and theatrical sexual escapades; by Season Four, David Chase and his fellow writers had made it clear that they saw the season-long plots as structural devices, choosing to focus instead on the minute mundanities that made up its central characters’ lives. The audience moaned about the long stretches of quiet contemplation and stasis in later seasons, unable to integrate them with the show’s violent moments into a cohesive human universe. Chase’s ‘perverse’ refusal to provide simple satisfaction – ‘closure,’ as they say – is sensible, indeed unexceptionable, in the context of The Sopranos‘s actual story, i.e. continuance: human inertia, the maintenance of those private lies that let us Live As We Are. But viewers had the audacity to ‘demand’ answers to mere plot questions: ‘Do they get Tony? Does he get away with it all?’
As if refusing to kill the man onscreen amounted to ‘letting him get away with it.’ What a stupid, barbaric notion.
But then we’re trained to watch TV that way. The premise is unassailable; it’s the calling card, the point of return, and no matter how audacious a show’s ‘plot twists’ might get, the premise can never be too complicated for a ‘Previously on…’ segment. That’s the horizon of complexity: even a complicated mystery plot can never get so thorny or suggestive that it can’t be summed up for the rubes in two minutes of clips from the last few episodes. The main reason for this banality is money: viewers won’t watch TV that makes them work too hard, and commercial TV exists to deliver viewers to corporations and politicians who wish to sell them shit.
Even a masterwork like Mad Men gets talked about – and sold – in the language of simple mystery: Will Betty find out about Don? Will Pete find out about Peggy’s baby? Of course the fans want to know these things, but they don’t need to; when the information is delivered, the story’s over. The story, you see, is living despite not knowing, and the inaccessible knowledge is always a proxy for the very horizon of knowability, namely the bright nothing which is Death. If you’re in a hurry to find out what happens after death, go die; it’s your funeral, as they say. But in the meantime you have to accommodate the mystery. Life is that unknowing, in essence. Drama provides an illusion otherwise. But the bliss that drama provides is the illusion’s maintenance, not its ultimate dispelling – the climax might be the loudest part of the story, yay, but it’s also (tragically) the last bit.
What’s your hurry?
The impatience and myopia of The Viewer, who mistakes desire for need, is part of the magic of fiction; but eventually you start to know better. When you’re not so afraid of death, maybe you’re not so obsessed with endings. Things change. So what?
Which brings us to Dexter, a genuinely unique long-form drama that’s pilloried by critics and viewers for ‘hitting the reset button’ and ‘returning to the status quo’ and generally failing to deliver, er, something or other. It’s hard to say what’s missing, actually. The show’s never short on smartly-paced thrills; as a mystery/procedural it’s quiet well done. The dialogue ranges from decent to superb, though Michael C. Hall’s comically menacing voiceover is overused to an embarrassing degree. (The final monologue of Season Four is unforgivable in this regard, a cowardly mistake by the writers, and poorly worded to boot.) And the acting is uniformly good, particularly the women and of course Dexter himself.
But the fans bitch, bitch, bitch. They bitch about Rita, Deb, the charmingly inevitable LaGuerta/Angel romance; about Dexter’s ‘neutering’ and ‘lack of character development’; about the fact that every season ends with a big meaningful killing and the narrow avoidance of the law. They desperately want the show to continue, but complain that it needs an endpoint; they applaud familiar mystery ‘twists’ while moaning about the show’s predictability’; most of all, they cry out (on testosterone-drenched message boards all across the Web) for the catharsis of righteous violence, even against Dexter himself, without ever commenting on the irony of that desire in the context of the story itself, which (after all) is centrally concerned with whether we are anything more than our compulsions…
The sweepstakes is always the same with Dexter as with The Sopranos: Is this the year Dexter gets caught? Does Rita find out about him? Does Deb? Which cop will die next? How can these improbabilities keep piling up?
But the show has nothing whatsoever to do with any of these questions.
It’s not really about a murderer.
The plot of Dexter is a variation on the familiar: guy scarred by childhood trauma loses access to his emotions except grief; he’s raised to be a vigilante, channeling his dark urges into hypercompetent criminality in the name of the law (i.e. he ritually murders Bad Guys).
It’s Batman with a married serial murderer in the lead role, but be careful with that analogy.
The story of Dexter is in no way dependent on his forbidden desires being murderous. If the sensational premise is stripped away, we’re left with something equally interesting: traumatized orphan is raised by his adoptive father to believe that his remaining feelings/desires are monstrous, but the same father trains him to effectively ‘hide’ in society by faking normality. Now the kid’s grown up, still living by his dad’s Code, but he’s gone too far undercover into society, ‘gone native’ you might say: now that he’s living with a girlfriend and helping raise her kids, he’s starting to develop emotional responses to the world, some of them deeply surprising to him – and he’s got to integrate these feelings into a new self-conception. He doesn’t know what ‘love’ is, but he might be feeling it. Along with his sister (a different sort of mess), he starts to become a functional human adult. He marries, has a baby of his own. The weight of hiding his pathology wears on him, and on those around him, those he loves: the lies are poisonous. He wishes to be rid of them. He wants to be a whole person – to be free of his social ‘disease,’ his wrongness, the side of himself that he thinks no one else can understand. To help him make this transition he becomes close to a series of people who enable or relate to his condition (other killers and lunatics), but none of those relationships are healthy; all end badly (in blood).
He finds true humanity by giving himself to the chaos of human feeling, of community, of connection. He gives in to the madness and complexity of love. The cost of this giving is incalculable, the pain at times unbearable, but it makes him, finally, a human being. He is ready to give up what he thinks of as his identity, his perversion.
That’s where Season Four ends: Dexter declares himself ready to be a ‘normal’ man. A father, husband, brother, friend.
Then his wife is killed, leaving behind their three kids.
Incredibly, many fans cheered this ‘plot twist’: Back to the bloodthirsty Dexter of Season One! Those who fancied themselves ‘savvy’ or ‘critical’ viewers expressed the hope that the show would now be ‘bolder,’ more innovative, take more risks.
These people evidently didn’t consider the story of a psychopath learning to empathize with other human beings and resolving to enter joyfully into community and communion to be a bold, risky tale. They evidently didn’t recognize the astonishing depth of the character’s transformation over the show’s first four years.
Rita’s murder in the Season Four finale was hailed as a ‘bold’ move by the writers. But I disagree. New stories to tell in Season Five, I suppose, but that only matters if you’re committed above all to the premise, which is a business concern not a creative one: ‘Dexter is a show about a serial killer.’ Which it isn’t, of course. It’s a story about a wounded boy becoming a healthy man.
The real bravery would have been to let Rita live, and to tell a story about a man who did terrible things resolving to do good things, which is to say, to create for himself a new language and world of goodness, and thereby to seek peace.
But the same juvenile assholes who clamored for Andy Sipowicz to fall off the wagon onscreen now wail that Dexter doesn’t do enough clever onscreen murdering of clearly-marked Bad Guys. Actually, no – 20 years have passed since NYPD Blue. It’s their asshole children who are doing the clamoring. Which, if you’ve been watching Dexter closely, you’ll recognize as one of that show’s truest inner stories (each generations painful inheritance of its parents’ ‘sin,’ which is to say mere humanness).
If you feel you were owed a definitive explanation of whether Tony Soprano lived or died, then you’ve so completely missed the point – not just of that show but of storytelling itself – that I feel real pity for you. If you feel that the most authentic thing an episode of Dexter can portray is Neat Murder Adventures, then we may all be better off if you find a high cliff to dramatically, beautifully, tragically, joyfully throw yourself the fuck off of. Make sure to log out first.