Dexter is one of those apparently incredibly awesome and groundbreaking Showtime series I'm always hearing about. I'm generally filled with guilt at the mention of Showtime. It's next to impossible to go to a cocktail party in this town without someone rattling on about Weeds or The L Word or The Tudors or some other apparently groundbreaking thing that Showtime is daring to do. Sooner or later I give in to my guilt and rent the damn thing. Usually the stories are fairly amusing. But groundbreaking? Meh.
This happened recently with Season 2 of Dexter, which is now out on DVD. It stars Michael C. Hall, from Showtime's Six Feet Under, as a serial killer who works in the forensics division of Miami's police force department. He solves crimes. He uses his powers for good. You can just see the pitch meeting in your head.
I popped it into the DVD player and prepared to have some ground broken. First thing you notice? Dexter won't quite shut up. He's not terribly chatty in real life, but give the man a chance to narrate and you're done for. Each plot point is carefully voiced over with a thick, starchy glaze of backstory, character intent, and cliff notes for the character development-impaired. It's enough to drive a script consultant batty. I mean, jeez, Dexter: you're this way because of that awful thing that happened to you in your childhood? Really? It's come up three times in this episode alone. Enough already.
Then I thought about it a bit. Why are the writers doing this? They seem smart otherwise. Then it hit me. Character sympathy. Good old Dexter has a problem, and the whole show is more or less structured around keeping the audience engaged with him. What do I mean by this?
You've got Dexter, who's a serial killer. And he's facing off against another killer. And the audience can pretty easily just decide they don't have a dog in this fight, and watch Operation Repo instead.
In my screenwriting class, we work a lot on character sympathy. We talk about how you need to concentrate on one central strategy for why the audience should engage the character. This is a more difficult problem than you might think (at least until you've tried keeping an audience in a seat for two hours). It's a daunting task even if your main character doesn't go around killing people he barely knows every episode.
If you're having character sympathy issues, consider watching Dexter just to witness the multiple strategies that show employs. For example:
Underdog. The man is a serial killer constantly surrounded by cops.
'Fighting for us'. Dexter knows he has a compulsion to kill. He saves himself for those who truly deserve it -- like gangland thugs who knock off young mothers.
Strong opponent. Dexter is constantly facing off against someone who should be able to track him down no problem. In Season One it was a truly bad serial killer dude (who was apparently also his brother. Please, make it stop.) This season he has a sergeant trailing him during his off hours, waiting for him to slip up. This sergeant gets thrown off the trail just as a hotshot FBI agent comes on to track him down after they find his victims stashed in the bay.
Entertainment value. Why do audiences engage Hannibal Lecter? Because he'll always get himself out of a situation in the most intelligent and highly unpredictable way. And he'll make a mess doing it. Dexter at least works the set up, although the unpredictable has a way of drifting into the implausible.
Sympathy. Yep. Plain old sympathy. Every five minutes or so you flash back to his childhood. He's a child, stooping in a pool of blood. Most of us would curl up and die. Dexter trundles on. He's even got a stepdad who knows there's something very wrong with him, but who loves him nonetheless. That stepdad models sympathy for us. Dexter's a victim... so go get 'em, Dexter. Go get the bad guy. Exorcise that compulsion. Then maybe you can have a healthy relationship with that single mom. Or something.
It goes without saying that none of these strategies would work in real life. But they do work here precisely because they give the entire story structure and pacing. There's a reason to keep watching, and it's reinforced minute to minute.
Minute to minute. Something to think about.