At a time when TV dramas are overpopulated, it's unusual to find a lead actor on whom an entire series hinges. Kill any of the Gifted Ones on "Heroes," graduate any of the kids on "Friday Night Lights," fire any of the doctors on "Grey's Anatomy," including Grey, and you only have a sweeps event. Pull Michael C. Hall off "Dexter" and you've got an open time slot. Remove Damian Lewis from "Life" and you have the death of a cop show. And Hugh Laurie? Without him, "House" would collapse.
Hall, Laurie, and Lewis preside over their shows like conductors directing an orchestra. They don't just set the tone, they provide the moral tensions that drive the entire series forward. Their three characters - Hall's Dexter Morgan, Lewis's Detective Charlie Crews, and Laurie's Dr. Gregory House - are renegade types who toy with our sympathies and our judgment in every episode. Are they good men or evil men? Can individuals this untethered and independent actually be social pluses? All the action on these shows, all the matters of life and death and sickness and health, are there to serve the larger query about one person and our feelings toward him.
Unlike, say, "Shark," starring James Woods as a lawyer dealing with cases of the week, these shows transcend their genres. They do revolve around pressing mysteries that need solving, but they function primarily as character portraits. They use their respective genre conventions - Showtime's "Dexter" is a neo-noir thriller, NBC's "Life" a cop drama, and Fox's "House" a medical teaser - to follow their heroes off the psychic grid. And the actors have made these heroes worth following, and quite unimaginable in another actor's hands.
While Laurie's House is a showboat performance, awesome for its acerbic rants and flagrant puppeteering, Hall and Lewis play recessive figures who say more by what they don't say. They both cultivate shy, childlike demeanors, masking the dark cogitations within. Hall, in particular, has made Dexter into an enigmatic man-child, a big kid who seems to be staring, wide-eyed, at everyone around him.
Indeed, Hall has delivered the year's most stunning TV performance on "Dexter," which has two episodes left in its second season. With a minimum of expressiveness, Hall has turned Dexter into a vessel of both murderous guilt and extreme innocence. A serial killer who kills serial killers, Dexter is certainly a horrifying vigilante wreaking justice based on his own godlike judgments. He is capital punishment, doled out without due process. We see his blood lust, as he talks to his victims while cutting them to pieces. We know he's so dispassionate during his kills as to be inhuman.
But Hall also keeps that lost boy - the one who sat locked in a storage container with the body of his slaughtered mother for two days - close to the surface. He is so convincing as an adult-sized child, he persuades the viewer not to recoil from Dexter, to try and see Dexter's crimes from his point of view. Dexter is just struggling to be loyal to the "Code of Harry," which was devised by his late cop father, and which requires him to use his violence only on killers who've slipped the legal system. He's just trying to be a good son. In his interior monologues, so drolly delivered by Hall, Dexter still seems to be a teenager communing with the all-knowing Harry, even as he learns about Harry's imperfections. He's like a teenage superhero.
Dexter is so emotionally stunted, he has to employ reason to determine whether or not he's hurting his girlfriend Rita's feelings; he is infantile when it comes to sympathy. And yet he is a natural when it comes to Rita's children, who love him. "It's really not that hard to entertain a kid," he told co-worker Angel Batista a few weeks ago, when Angel was facing a day with his daughter. Dexter has his finger on the pulse of early vulnerability, despite his monstrosity, despite the fact that he is a tin man. The blood-letting Dexter would be comparable to Anne Rice's world-weary vampires, except that Dexter seems like he was born yesterday.
I feel confident saying that, as this extraordinarily tense season builds to a head, most fans of the show do not want Dexter to get caught. That's the great power of "Dexter," in the same way that our ambivalence about Tony Soprano opened up "The Sopranos" into something more morally interactive than most mob stories. If we weren't rooting for the Bay Harbor Butcher - Dexter - to evade imprisonment or death, "Dexter" wouldn't be presenting us with such a richly provocative philosophical opportunity.
And that's the great power of Hall's work, too, since he doesn't let Dexter become despicable or easily dismissible. He draws us into Dexter's internal logic, his unique sense of conscience. I don't much want to hiss when he's onto a fresh kill, and I admit to having mixed feelings when he sobered up at a 12-step program and stopped killing. He's everything that's evil - a bloodless murderer, a liar, a fraud - and yet, and yet. I like him.
On "Life," Lewis makes Charlie Crews into a bit of a freak show, too. But Charlie's weirdly naive affect is consciously deployed to throw everybody off kilter, to try to shake out some truth. He's not a true babe in the woods, like Dexter. A cop framed for murder, then released from prison after 12 years thanks to DNA evidence, Charlie has been trying to catch his own enemies while performing his ordinary detective duties. He's living a double life, like Dexter, with a secret room off his bedroom plastered with photos of suspects. It's his own personal war room.
Lewis, a British actor who has done memorable work in "The Forsyte Saga" and "Band of Brothers," expertly walks the balance beam on this show. Charlie seems so composed at all times, so Zen, so preternaturally calm; and yet Lewis quietly makes it clear to us that he is deeply rattled. Charlie has been freed from jail, but he has not been liberated from years of righteous anger. Every glance from his watchful blue eyes, every seemingly involuntary tic, speaks of discomfort and paranoia. Lewis even makes Charlie's consumption of fruit - he had no fruit in jail - into a private pep rally, a touchstone of fury.
Last week, Charlie caught the man who committed the murders he was jailed for. How did Charlie get a confession? By forcing the murderer to watch him dig a grave, shovel load by shovel load, still wearing his shirt and tie, with supreme deliberation. And, once Charlie got his confession, he performed a typically Charlie Crews task of eerie serenity; he re-filled the hole before taking his prisoner in. Lewis makes these mad gestures almost comic, although not exactly funny, either.
"Life" is a good show getting better with each episode, and NBC has wisely given it a full-season order, once the writers' strike ends. Now Charlie has caught his prey, but the conspiracy plot continues, with his partner's father at the top. As long as the writers can keep Lewis busy with subtext and secrecy, they will continue to distinguish "Life" from the rest of the procedural pack. Give actors such as Lewis, Hall, and Laurie the chance to build psychologically faceted characters, and we will watch.