On Feb. 17, CBS premieres a crime drama about a police forensics expert in Miami. It is a disturbingly grisly procedural in which murder victims are rendered into gorgeously art-directed gore.
They have a name in the TV business for that kind of series: a CBS show. The network has had a successful formula for years with series like CSI and Criminal Minds, bloody odes to killers and the science nerds who catch them. But in Dexter, the science nerd is also the killer. The title character (Michael C. Hall) was raised by a foster father who trained him to channel his impulses into killing only other murderers. Dexter dispatches the killers of women and children with clinical elegance. Handsome, charismatic, dedicated to his code, he makes psychopathy look downright sexy.
The Parents Television Council (PTC), a TV-decency watchdog, is not so charmed. When CBS picked up Dexter as a strike replacement from sister network Showtime, it cut out the most graphic violence and language, but the group is pressing advertisers to boycott the show anyway. Edits or no edits, says PTC president Tim Winter, "it's the entire premise that's the problem. You are in a disturbingly queasy way rooting for a mass murderer to kill somebody."
The PTC's problem, in other words, is with Dexter's ideas, not its gore. This is disturbing if you'd rather control your own remote, thank you very much. But at least it's refreshing. TV-decency campaigns are only nominally about nipples, blood and curses. Ultimately, they're about the messages that "our children"--read: other people's children--are exposed to.
So let's look at Dexter's ideas. Dexter, not unlike 24's Jack Bauer, is a vigilante. But vigilantism, whether you cheer or boo it, is by definition driven by morality. Dexter's first victim is a man who has been killing young boys. "Kids," Dexter sneers, disgusted. "I could never do that."
But Dexter is also an exploration of what morality is. Is Dexter truly a moral person or an animal who's learned a sophisticated trick? "People fake a lot of human interactions," he says, "but I feel like I fake them all. And I fake them very well." Unlike CSI, Dexter is informed by a philosophical question: whether humanity is more than the sum of one's outward actions.
Is that an appropriate subject for kids? Which kids? And whose? A 6-year-old? Of course not. But some teens are ready to empathize with killers in novels like Crime and Punishment and The Stranger--assigned by high schools, which have greater coercive power than even Viacom does. Others are barely ready for young-adult fiction. Dexter is not The Stranger, but it's not Saw either. Decency protests, however, don't make such distinctions. Killers are killers. One slice fits all.
The longing for easy boundaries is appealing now that navigating media is so hard. The call to keep prime time safe is a kind of nostalgia for an era when there were three networks and prime time meant something. Today your TV remote doesn't distinguish between broadcast and cable. A 10 p.m. drama can stream online or play on DVR or DVD at any hour. It's always prime time, or it never is.
No wonder some parents want a firm hand to restore order. (Though as a parent, I should note that having a kid gives you only an extra tax deduction, not an extra vote.) The government cannot regulate violence on TV, but some lawmakers are advocating that it do so. And it is an election year. Hillary Clinton and John McCain have both been active in media-decency issues, and Barack Obama cited his bona fides as a concerned parent at a recent debate.
But what most bothers parents today is the pop-culture ambush: the dirty ad in a football game, the gruesome trailer at a family comedy, the R-rated movie on a plane. The responsible answer is respect for context from entertainment megacorporations and more information for audiences. With Dexter, which carries a "mature themes" advisory before each episode, everyone knows what's coming. But to the PTC, as Winter says, "airing something more explicit with a better warning" is not enough.
Ironically, when it's not trying to get shows off the air, the PTC runs a very good online program that reviews shows for family-friendliness. This kind of effort--which enables choice rather than limiting it--might recognize Dexter as an intelligent, dark show for grownups and maybe mature youths (many of whom would probably rather watch it unedited anyway). Making those educated choices can be overwhelming for parents, it's true. But it's in the spirit of democracy, where ideas are life or death.