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Ed Siegel

Obsessed with killer charm

(associated press)
By Ed Siegel
October 8, 2011

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JOHN MALKOVICH as serial killer Jack Unterweger stalks the aisles of the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston, seducing the audience. An even more likable serial killer, Dexter, is back on Showtime, and, after two lugubrious seasons, he has his groove back. On “Breaking Bad,’’ fans root for the various killers to continue getting away with murder.

They’re everywhere in our culture today, these charismatic killers. Have we lost our moral bearing? Quite the opposite. In these cases, at least, they reflect a nation trying to find its moral compass. Dexter, a Miami police blood-splatter expert, refers to his homicidal self as his dark passenger, the force he has somewhat tamed by only murdering other murderers. The subtext is we all have our dark passengers, evidenced by the moral compromises made by the “normal’’ characters on the show. And us? Well, most of us don’t resort to Dexter’s tactics, but the show’s writers do tap into our Mr. Hyde.

Our killers, ourselves? Dexter is trying to come to terms with the pushes and pulls of life in the 21st century. As he takes on the forces of religious fanaticism this season he says, “I don’t believe in angels, but I do believe there’s a constant struggle between light and dark.’’

Ask Walter White, the central character on “Breaking Bad,’’ about it. After a life of trying to make ends meet as a good-doobie high-school teacher, he finds he has terminal cancer; since his health care won’t pay for treatments, he’s in danger of bankrupting his family. Then he finds he has an unparalleled talent for cooking crystal meth.

What would you do? But as Walter gets drawn into “the life,’’ bodies mount up, some relatively innocent. (Guilt and innocence are always relative on this show.) We’re never let off the hook about the consequences of Walter’s actions, but that doesn’t stop us from hoping they live to face another day. I’m on pins and needles every week hoping that Gus and Mike, the brains and brawn behind the crystal meth operation, don’t get whacked.

Malkovich’s Unterweger was equally charismatic in ArtsEmerson’s presentation of “The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer,’’ winking at the audience about how they wouldn’t be there to hear him reading from his book if he weren’t a serial killer. The publishing industry – the real Unterweger actually wrote an autobiography in prison - was also being satirized. It was all very funny. At least until he strangled one of his costars.

Of course art gives us the ability to distance ourselves from real killers. All those laughs elicited by Malkovich and the TV actors are a healthy acknowledgement that we can let our dark passenger take over for a little while in the safety of the theater or the living room, and maybe even temper our more sanctimonious thoughts and behavior. What do we make, though, of people hoping that suspected serial killer Whitey Bulger would get away with his alleged crimes? There’s obviously some disconnect going on. Perhaps the phony Robin Hood persona he adopted and the anti-government fervor of the day have resulted in rooting for the wrong people. But that anti-government fervor, in itself, reduces life to overly simple arguments of good and evil.

TV series like “Dexter’’ and “Breaking Bad’’ are sophisticated, witty replies to the simple-minded solutions to what ails the world today, particularly when they come from “it’s God’s plan’’ religiosos on “Dexter’’ or the law-and-order forces on “Breaking Bad.’’ And besides, when TV — or anything else — is this smart, a walk on the wild side is healthy aerobic exercise.

Freelance writer Ed Siegel is a former Globe television and theater critic.