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Ed Siegel

Blame Reagan for serial killing on TV

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ed Siegel
February 10, 2008

IT'S BEEN quite a while since the networks paid any attention to family hour, social responsibility, or anything else aside from profit margins. But many people were taken aback when CBS - folks in a galaxy far, far away used to call it the Tiffany Network - announced it would be importing "Dexter," the ongoing story of a likable young man with an interesting hobby, from the pay-cable service Showtime.

Dexter Morgan is a forensics expert for the Miami Metro police who in his downtime is a serial killer. Taking a series from Showtime makes all kinds of economic sense, given the writers' strike and the fact that CBS Corp. owns both Showtime and CBS.

But conservatives, in particular, have been up in arms about what the "liberal entertainment industry" continues to foist on the American people, from half-naked bodies to, now, chopped-up bodies. So if blame is to be apportioned for a program about a serial killer on network television, where should it go?

Clearly on the head of one man.

Ronald Reagan.

Yes, it's the deregulatory 1980s, not the Swinging Sixties, that paved the way for serial killing on CBS. Before then, networks might have been worried about things like what message they were projecting, community service, the Fairness Doctrine, and other old-fashioned stuff that the Federal Communications Commission cared about. By the time the Reagan White House was done dismantling the FCC's oversight powers, all that the commissioners cared about were naughty words and wardrobe malfunctions.

This isn't to say that the networks should have ever been banned from airing "Dexter," which begins on CBS Feb. 17. I think "Dexter" is a good show, particularly the first season, which is the one being shown. The directing - Florida is almost as much a character here as it was in "Miami Vice" - and writing are all first-rate. So is the acting, with Michael C. Hall from "Six Feet Under" heading a superb ensemble cast.

Hall's title character was scarred for life when, as a young boy, he witnessed the brutal murder of his mother. But "Dexter" isn't a "Death Wish" vengeance fantasy, though there's plenty of vengeance. It's a smart investigation of identity, escaping the past, and - not unlike the American Repertory Theatre's recent production of Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen" - a meditation on never quite knowing where one's motivation for good and evil is coming from.

It's even - thank you, President Reagan - a rather touching celebration of family values. Dexter will do anything - and we do mean anything - for his adoptive sister, girlfriend, and her two children. And unlike a real moral relativist - say, Patricia Highsmith's Ripley - Dexter only kills people who are responsible for the deaths of others. Dexter's adoptive father - the policeman who found him next to his mother's body - recognized early on that Dexter was a bit off, to put it mildly, and taught him to use his twisted nature only for the social good. Kind of like Pa Kent and Superboy.

Not that we're endorsing serial killing as the basis for either heroism or social policy, but you get the picture.

The writers, along with Hall, are giving us the old wink wink. CBS will undoubtedly tame down the language and violence, though I have a much harder time watching those CSI-type procedurals than anything on Showtime as far as the level of gruesomeness goes. Even in its original format, the violence on "Dexter" is usually off-camera.

Still not convinced? Then blame the hyper-capitalists, not the relativists.

Back in the '80s, conservatives preached the morality of the marketplace - that you didn't need government telling you what to do because if television stations started taking off public affairs programming and putting on game shows, or started putting inappropriate sexual content on at 8 p.m., viewers would rebel and go to another station.

Right. Faster than you could say, "trickle down economics," public service shows were being canceled for "Entertainment Tonight" or "Wheel of Fortune" and "Friends" was on in family hour.

Now, again, we live in a multichannel cable/satellite universe and at least some deregulation was called for, even if network affiliates still use public airwaves. But the next time people tell you there's more morality in the marketplace than there is in government agencies, tell them there's a serial killer you'd like to introduce them to.

Ed Siegel is a former television and theater critic for the Globe.

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