Dissecting Dexter’s Discourses: Exploring TV Crime as Artform and Argument

Posted on March 20, 2012 by


Image: Amazon

It is with great interest that I have read the posts by CrimeCents and crimineepery about the television program Dexter (2006-present). I always find it interesting to read about the ways that the medium provokes responses filled with a sense of emotion.

CrimeCents rhetorically asks, “Why can’t I just willingly suspend my disbelief and enjoy the show like everyone else?” Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp answered this question in 1928 when he wrote, “We can understand the relationship between the between the wondertale and life only if we remember that artistic realism and the presence of elements from real life are two different concepts and that they do not always overlap” (87).

Realism is an important concept within the television crime genre. It is most important to recognize that realism is a concept linked to production techniques and artistic choices. It is not something that occurs in absence of the audience. Instead, realism is something the audience participates in creating. We read plausibility and a sense of reality into the programs we watch. Put differently, we map our worlds onto the fictions we see–just as CrimeCents suggests.

In regard to thematic elements, vigilantism has long been associated with this genre that often interrogates the lines that connect chaos and order. In this light, one way to inoculate yourself against these feelings of guilt is to learn to separate artistic realism and reality as you view the programs. This separation can occur in many ways and we are often asked by program creators to recognize it.

For example, CrimeCents also discusses the presence of an inner-monologue that is associated with the character. This monologue is delivered via a voice-over (VO), which is a technique associated with sound production where the character’s voice is heard but the actor does not speak. This technique has no connection to reality in anyway, unless you believe in telepaths and empaths. Instead, it is a purely artistic choice but one that has dramatic impact on the viewer’s identification with the character. The VO allows viewers special access to the character–access is another key thematic component employed by many crime shows today. More importantly, the technique allows the writer to deliver additional information for the viewer to consider and does so in a way that separates art from reality. By doing this, the creator is asking the viewer to consider the form and by extension the argument (s)he engages with by using this form.

In Dexter, it’s this VO technique that is used to develop the character’s complexity. It’s an element of this complex construction that crimineepery observes when s)(he discusses the program’s engagement with questions of morality. Viewers hear Dexter recite Harry’s Code, which represents the character’s moral foundation. Dexter is not simply a senseless serial killer; he is one with a purpose. He is the Robin Hood of serial killers, which of course feeds CrimeCents’ conflicted feelings.

This program begs us to consider questions involving science, law, morality, psychology, and the judiciary. The creator brings these often conflicting elements together and begs us to consider the shortcomings of our systems, the power that is associated with the possession of knowledge, and the overall variability of our society’s moral foundation. Who holds the power in society and how do they maintain that power? Will we use our powers for good or evil? Where is the line that divides good and evil? Is it ever okay to kill and to what degree does it matter who the executor is as long as justice is done?

A television program or any other artistic endeavor rarely, if ever, answers questions like these definitively. However, these offerings do provide a way to engage with these debates. As a genre, police and crime shows serve an important cultural function– they focus our attentions on certain oft-repeated social questions that regularly entertain questions of power. If we take a lesson from The Wizard of Oz and learn to peek behind the curtain then we can also learn to separate artistic realism from reality. Or as Douglas Rushkoff said at the 2011 National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) conference, “The minute you begin seeing the ways things are, then you cannot cease to see the way things are.”

For me, the ways things are in Dexter is that we are asked to explore the inner-most workings of a character who represents the systematic use of an irreversible force. In this light, Dexter represents a system rather than a man. More importantly, Dexter is a fitting program for an era where the death penalty is still debated and predator drones or special ops forces execute rather than try alleged perpetrators. Dexter is a program that in many ways outlines the debates surrounding the Bush Doctrine. It is a program of its historical moment.


Propp, Vladimir. “Transformations of the Wondertale.” Trans. C.H. Severens. Theory and History of Folklore. Ed. Anatoly Liberman. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. 82-99.