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Dexter: “Smokey And The Bandit”

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Watching "Smokey and the Bandit" made me think back to the CBS Experiment, the stroke of programming ingenuity that landed a bowdlerized Dexter on a major network, much to the press-released chagrin of professional hand-wringers. I hadn't thought about that experiment in some time, probably because seasons four and five took the show to some legitimately weird and Gothic places and eschewed killer-of-the-week structures to a greater degree than Dexter had seen before. But "Smokey and the Bandit" demonstrates why the CBS Experiment happened in the first place. Back in season one, the season CBS aired, Dexter was a darker-than-usual procedural, a half-twist on the type of show that has for years crushed the network's competition. Now that Dexter is single again, and the show still refuses to fully embrace the season-to-season serialization that would limit its narrative options, Dexter is back to being the essentially conventional procedural that made some CBS maverick suggest calling it up to the Bigs, and "Smokey and the Bandit" is the proof.

Considering how unusually tame the kill ended up being, snip out a couple shots (Quinn's anhedonic congress of the cow comes to mind) and greyscale Deb's more colorful language, and this thing's ready for 9 p.m. Whether or not that was a good thing would depend on the type of Dexter viewer you ask. There are Dexter fans out there who I'm sure would appreciate a more episodic approach, with less piece-moving at the outskirts and more of Dexter's homicidal misadventures. For that viewer, "Smokey and the Bandit" was a slam-dunk. For the first time this season, there was a killer-of-the-week that didn't seem half-assed or like filler, and if the writers are going to insist on a weekly perpetrator-victim, putting him front-and-center is the way to do it.

The Miami Metro team works the case of a prostitute who's been badly beaten and strangled, and Dexter notices what looks like the m.o. of a serial killer from the '80s known as the Tooth Fairy. Apparently, an eighth-grade Dex kept an obsessive scrapbook chronicling the careers of his favorite serial killers, and the Tooth Fairy, who yanked out the lateral incisors of Oregon prostitutes, was his biggest inspiration. Dex stops into a retirement village a block away from where the body was found and using a little subterfuge, he winnows his suspects down to one Walter Kenney and begins to suss him out. Kenney was ably played by Ronny Cox, who really sold the idea of the character. Dexter's uncanny knack for sniffing out murderers is usually explained in one of two ways depending on an episode's needs: 1.) Dexter's just got a keen intuition about people like him or 2.) there's already a strong circumstantial case against the person, and Dexter just needs forensic confirmation. Either way it goes, there's almost never any doubt that Dexter's got his man from the very beginning, and to what degree the show ever builds doubt, it undermines more and more by having the person turn out to be guilty every time.

That's all to say that it's rare that Dexter wrings genuine tension out of the potential for the target to be innocent, and Cox carried his irascible asshole off so well I thought he might just be a mean old pervert, especially given that this is one of those cases where Dexter's intuition seems like more like morbid wishful thinking, or more troublingly, like a projection of his own guilt on everyone else. That wisp of doubt made it all the more satisfying when Kenney briefly got the upper hand on Dexter. (I went so far as to wonder if there was some asinine explanation for the box of teeth that would clear up everything as an unfortunate misunderstanding, as with Brother Sam last week.) I could quibble about the too-literal way the episode sets up the parallels between Dexter and his childhood anti-hero, but the idea of the story was so interesting to me that I just gave into it. I especially enjoyed the quiet kill with the pillow. It mirrored Kenney's m.o., and it gave Dexter the opportunity to not only avenge Kenney's prior victims but to prevent a future victim in Kenney's son, who if Kenney had his way, would have to deal with the mind-fuck of being a serial killer's kid. Dexter's decision to kill Kenney, rather than let his next-of-kin be destroyed by knowing his father's true self is interesting, given that a time could conceivably come when he has to make the same choice himself with Deb. It all worked for me, and it presented a good case for a version of Dexter that still employs a season-arc for a guest villain but is primarily an episodic show. It wouldn't be a show I'd necessarily get into—especially since the supporting characters being ignorant of Dexter's activities almost mandates that they are trapped in often irritating subplots—but one plenty of people would love I'm sure.

Then there's the type of Dexter viewer who longs for the show to embrace a style of storytelling more befitting a cable drama in the New Golden Age of Television, and I'd guess that portion of the audience is really on the fence about "Smokey and the Bandit" and the season on the whole. The Travis and Father Olmos story is really beset on all sides. I'll be the first to admit that the final glimpses of what the duo had been up to with the marionettes, horses and kidnapper jogger were pretty breathtaking and something of a payoff. But I still don't feel as invested at this point as I did in John Lithgow's Trinity Killer. That's partly to do with the fact that John Lithgow is John Lithgow, while Colin Hanks is… y'know, I'm sure a very nice guy who has hilarious "Uncle" Peter Scolari stories to share. Edward James Olmos is a much stronger actor, and as the season's main villain will eventually do some killer work I’m sure. But until his character is fleshed out, there's not much of interest for him to do. The Four Horsemen display will likely pull Miami Metro deeper into the case in the next installment, but there was a frustrating lack of movement in this episode, so anyone who is completely over the kill-of-the-week element had little to like here.

I think I'm pitched somewhere between the two types of Dexter viewers, though I lean more towards the latter than the former. I enjoyed the A-plot, even though in this case it meant some wheel-spinning elsewhere. And if I'm being honest, I kind of enjoyed the machinations back in the office with an atypically timid Deb struggling to learn on the job while Quinn and LaGuerta try to undermine her at every turn. Throw in Mike Anderson, the handsome new transfer Deb wants to hire despite LaGuerta's warnings, and Masuka's budding romance with Ryan, and it's practically Miami Metro as Seattle Grace. And that worked for me, but again, felt like the version of Dexter that could be a fun show to drop in on every now and again, but certainly not like what I’d expect from a strong pay-cable drama. (Of course, this also probably explains its relatively massive ratings.) If there's not a significant amount of traction on the Travis and Father Olmos evil doings next week, I'm going to start to really worry.


Stray observations:

  • As much as I enjoyed that final sequence, I wish we’d gotten at least one big panoramic shot of the horseman contraption, rather than the collection of teases.
  • Is it silly of me to think there’s such a thing as being suspiciously enthusiastic about your job when you’re in the criminal forensics field? I’d think that Ryan’s bizarre obsession with the Ice Truck Killer evidence and the severed hand would look strange even to Masuka, despite his being weird in much the same way and also blinded by her breasts or whatever.
  • The Tuesdays-with-Kenney scenes with Dexter playing golf and running errands were actually pretty funny.
  • I also enjoyed the scene of Dexter collapsed over his spilled and fractured blood slides, entertaining for just a moment that he might end up exactly like Kenney, estranged from all his loved ones and unable to do the one thing that ever really made him happy.
  • Teen Ass, Nipple Parade, and Spanked.
  • I loved Dexter’s emotionally clueless response to Deb asking why she was jittery before her first briefing:  “Because everyone will be looking to see if you know what you’re doing.”
  • The idea of a serial killer dubbed The Tooth Fairy because he takes a victims tooth is just so pedestrian I don't know what to do. It's just so obvious and cheesy, in addition to bringing Red Dragon to mind. Kenney is no Francis Dolarhyde.