When I first heard of the show “Dexter” I was sure I would never watch it. Why would I watch a show about a serial killer? It was such an obscene idea, and clearly some producer’s inspiration for cashing in on the viewing public’s addiction to thrill-kill gore. But a few years later, after hearing the show lauded by a number of friends and co-workers, I gave the show a try and quickly pored through three seasons on Netflix. And yes, when I gave it some thought, I was troubled by that.
Then, a couple of months ago, I started seeing these intriguing ads for a show called “The Following”. And now I’m watching it too. This time, it’s not merely a binge of indulgence, as with “Dexter”. Because “The Following” is new, I’m consuming it the way it was intended – one episode a week, giving me days of speculation and anticipation of the atrocities to come each Monday night.And yes, I’m still troubled.
I remember that when “Bonnie & Clyde” and “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” and “Superfly” came out, there was always a bit of underground grumbling about the glorification of bank robbers and drug dealers and pimps. Generally, I dismissed such criticism as conservative, reactionary, status quo fear-mongering. I considered it the same sort of rhetoric as that which damned marijuana as an inevitable gateway to heroin addiction and ruin.But this psychopath thing.... It worries me. Will I stop watching? Remains to be seen. I’ve tired of “Dexter”. The device of making him out to be simply a regular guy trying to get along, while saddled with a psychotic condition he had no part in creating, is wearing thin. The qualifier, that he only kills those who deserve it, feeding into the vigilante soul that lies dormant in us all... well, it only goes so far. But, considering my default position, that I’d never succumb to watching such trash, I bought into it pretty seriously.
I absolutely love “Breaking Bad”. And a big reason is that it unflinchingly traces a character’s descent from mere moral opportunism to ... well, evil. And I remain convinced that “The Wire” presented us with the best television EVER, because it was so raw and similarly unflinching in depicting an enduring reality of the drug wars as they play out in the economic wastelands of America.But “Dexter”? It treats its subject too much as a game; there’s so much winking at the audience for the cute absurdities it presents. Is it well written? Without a doubt. Is it gripping, in some ways even instructive? Yes, that too. But it’s also such an easy-natured, smoothed-over, sanitized presentation of psychopathy, that it winds up being much less clean than Breaking Bad and The Wire.
And “The Following”? I hardly know what to say. It too is gripping and well-written. And in its probing into the cult mind, and its speculation about the roots of psychopathy, it sparks endless rumination about the nature of being human. But here the psycho-killer is elevated to the status of charismatic guru. He impresses, he charms, he seduces. And he’s brilliant. Far more than Dexter’s boy-next-door, he’s the killer rock star. He’s a Charles Manson with good teeth. Hannibal Lechter with sex appeal. The purported good guy here, who repeatedly invites the psycho’s minions to shoot him (to put him out of his misery), comes off as a determined but hapless stooge in comparison.So I’m bothered. Just as I am by the violent porn that is so accessible all over the web. And, on that note, will we next be presented with a cuddly, adorable, charismatic rapist as the subject of a television series? Or how about a pedophile?
And yet...I’m watching. Or have been, until now. We’ve just decided to give up cable in our home. The shows I’m commenting on aren’t the main reason for that. The reasons have more to do with our priorities, and with the tempting distractions that television offers, in so many forms, and with our woeful lack of discipline, and with our vulnerability to seduction and desensitizing. And I can’t help but think...what of the kids?