The Showtime series Dexter has an irresistible hook: The eponymous hero, a "blood-spatter analyst" for a Miami homicide unit, is a serial killer, but he reserves this inclination for scum-of-the-earth types—murderers, pedophiles, rapists—who've beat the system. What makes his "code" fascinating, at least in the first several episodes, is the implication that he needs to kill, and that the code is just the most constructive way to channel his aggression. Unlike a garden-variety vigilante, he doesn't really care about justice, which makes him a different kind of monster, one whose sense of right and wrong is programmed, not instinctive. Throughout the engrossing, tightly plotted first season, the code gradually starts to rewire his twisted circuitry, and he shows signs of making a Pinocchio-like journey toward becoming a real boy.
Still, he's got a long way to go. In a fine central performance, Michael C. Hall (late of HBO's Six Feet Under) brings an innate likeability to Dexter that plays against his more poisonous thoughts and intentions. Through extensive flashbacks, it's revealed that Dexter had a close relationship with his foster father (James Remar), a cop who spotted his psychosis early and taught him the code as if he were training an attack dog. Dexter learns to act as "normal" as possible, which means everything from bringing donuts into the office and joking around with his colleagues to having close relationships with his cop sister (Jennifer Carpenter) and his single-mother girlfriend (Julie Benz). In the main story arc, another serial murderer—the Ice Truck Killer—is on the loose and alert to Dexter's extracurricular activities, leading to a major season-ending showdown.
Though it has the veneer of an "edgy" TV show, Dexter at its worst isn't far removed from a standard-issue police procedural, cursed further by crappier production values than network hits like CSI. As Dexter becomes more human—though that's still relative—the show loses some of its initial energy, making the mistake of softening a character distinguished by his blackened soul. But even when it sinks too far into conventionality, it's still riveting television, thanks to superb thriller plotting (the cat-and-mouse game between Dexter and the Ice Truck Killer is particularly gripping), well-employed flashbacks, and a leading man whose charisma holds his psychosis in check.
Key features: A couple of audio commentaries join a real-life case study of a crime solved by blood-spatter analysis and two episodes of Showtime's Brotherhood.