Given the near perfection of season one of "Dexter," season two seemed doomed to disappoint. As Dexter himself might say, in a wink-wink voice-over while a villain writhes helplessly on a gurney before him, the first cut is the deepest.
Turns out "Dexter" is one of the rare exceptions to that rule of TV (and love), which demands that returning series never quite recover their first blush. The Showtime drama about the serial killer who kills serial killers is back tomorrow at 9 in fine form, followed by the return of a still resonant "Brotherhood" at 10. From the brilliant performance by Michael C. Hall to the dryly witty scripting, "Dexter" secures a position near the top of another year's best list.
Last season's arc followed the chase for the Ice Truck Killer, which, on the always present metaphoric level of "Dexter," threw the controlled Dexter into a soul-searching confrontation with anarchy. As Dexter likes to boast, he operates under a strict code that channels his murderous impulses into vigilantism. He has no patience for murderers of passion, even when one is his only blood relation, his brother.
This season, the writers veer away from the Jeff Lindsay books on which the show is based and turn the tables on Dexter. (Reader be warned, I will need to include generalized spoilers below.) Despite Dexter's extremely careful disposal of bodies, his cache of flesh is found at the ocean's floor, and a new mystery consumes the Miami police force: Who is the "Bay Harbor Butcher"? Simultaneously, Dexter is having problems committing murder - "I'm just a little rusty since killing my brother," he confides - and a pent-up Dexter is an unhappy Dexter.
The Bay Harbor Butcher case brings a fascinatingly self-conscious quality to the season, as news spreads that the dead bodies are those of killers. Now Miami is debating the twisted morality of the Bay Harbor Killer, just as "Dexter" viewers debate the twisted morality of our hero. It's a meta-plot. The writers also manage to turn a 12-step program into a place where Dexter can be both a huge fraud and entirely himself. It's an amazing trick.
Hall continues to turn Dexter into one of TV's most fascinatingly ambiguous characters. He makes this wounded man-child terrifying and yet comic - just watch his ever-so-slight smirk when someone notes about the Bay Harbor Butcher, "The Ice Truck Killer was an amateur compared to this guy." And he makes Dexter alien and yet extremely sympathetic. It's quite believable that Dexter's sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter) and his girlfriend Rita (Julie Benz) are able to project normality onto him. Only Sergeant Doakes (Erik King) sees the menace behind Dexter's blank façade, and Dexter has fun throwing Doakes off track this season.
From the artful set design to the perverse merry-go-round theme song, "Dexter" is peerless.
"Brotherhood" also takes a close look at a psychopath, namely Jason Isaacs's thuggish Michael Caffee. A more conventional urban drama than "Dexter," "Brotherhood" is nonetheless richly textured and well-acted as it takes on crime and politics in Providence through the two very different Caffee brothers.
This season, Michael is suffering serious aftereffects from cop Declan's attack. His memory is spotty, his brain is jumbled, and he disappears into a trance every now and then. Not one to accept weakness, he pretends everything is fine, and tries to get back into business with Freddie Cork (Kevin Chapman). But his injuries are destined to trip him up.
Meanwhile, city councilor Tommy Caffee, played with beautifully contained rage by Jason Clarke, is disgusted with his wife's infidelity and, after a disastrous radio interview, tired of the burden of his brother's reputation. He's ambitious, though, and nothing will stop him.
Brian F. O'Byrne brings a new shot of menace to the cast as Colin, a troublesome, sloppy Caffee cousin from Ireland. And Ethan Embry has a further opportunity to knock his portrayal of Declan out of the park. Like everyone on this show, Declan is torn between old-time loyalty and self-preservation, and he is torn apart by it. His path darkens with each episode.
The "Brotherhood" atmosphere, all State House marble and working-class neighborhoods, and the strong acting are enough to keep me watching this series. Still, the plot blueprint is as blurry this season as it was last, and not drawn with the sure hand of the "Dexter" writers. As vivid as the characters are, they're not caught up in clearly defined developments. Too often, "Brotherhood" feels like a slice of life, and not a story. I'm on the train, but I wish it would start moving toward something.