C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

Write and publish with love and fury.

Review: Storytelling problems and the finale of #Dexter

This isn’t my usual sort of blog post, but it’s time to talk about storytelling problems and, unfortunately, the Dexter series finale is Exhibit A. Spoilers ensue, so you’ve been warned.

1. The final season of Dexter was mostly rudderless. Masuka has a daughter. Yay! If she was a plant from the FBI, she would have been useful to the plot. Instead, she gave the comic relief guy no opportunities to do comedy. Nice topless sports bar, but otherwise, why is she there? We want Masuka to be Masuka with lines like, “Science is a cold-hearted bitch…”

2. Dexter’s struggle to become human is betrayed in the final scene. Okay, Pinocchio becomes a real boy and decides feelings suck. He returns to being a monster with his final look. The struggle wasn’t interesting enough because it more internal than external. Hard to do in film. Easier in a novel, but still tricky.

3. The last scene felt tacked on and dragged on too long. Were we really supposed to wonder if that’s Dex, or perhaps the satellite flipped the channel to a lugubrious episode of Ice Road Truckers? If they wanted to sap the power of “And the body was never found,” they should have done it in a strobe flash POV shot with bearded Dexter standing over a kill table in a cabin, long knife in hand, snowshoes on the wall. 

4. The show made us love a serial killer’s exploits in Miami. Dexter had a good life and an endless supply of pulled pork sandwiches. Now he’s alone in Alaska or Canada. Dex is alone so no one he cares for will get killed. We get it. However, you don’t leave Batman poor with no Batcave and no Batmobile. A downer ending would have been okay, but this punished viewers. He’s still Dexter, but now he’s got no inside track from inside a police station and fewer opportunities to be the Avenger. We want him on that wall! We need him on that wall!

5. The show worked best when Dexter was constantly in danger of being caught. I didn’t think Dex was ever in much danger of being caught. Maybe it was a lack of lines and physical presence, but Elway and the US Deputy Marshall never came close to feeling like a credible threat. The Marshall reminded me of Ty Pennington and looked like he should be giving one lucky family an extreme home makeover instead of closing in on Dexter. Elway’s hair looked like he might have been the front man for a New Wave band in the ’80s, but the private dick, the cat who won’t cop out when there’s danger all about? We’re not talking about Shaft here.

6. With the build up to the arrival of the hurricane, I pictured a Hitchcockian ending complete with a fight to the death aboard the Slice of Life. Once Oliver is caught (again) the narrative drive is lost and there’s no goal except to explore feelings. The folks behind the show overestimated our patience for repeated flashbacks to Deb and Dex in the maternity ward. For that to work, they needed to at least bring Rita into the flashback. (We would have forgiven so much for that cameo.) They bring Miguel’s wife back as a real estate agent, but the name “Rita” is never spoken? (They came close with Harrison’s drawing, but no.)

7. Plot holes abound through the season. It really bugs me when the mechanics of a script only work if the characters do incredibly dumb things. This season, no computer was password-protected, the Deputy Marshall doesn’t recognize Oliver and Hannah stays at Deb’s house. Perhaps most egregious (because it was in our faces every time we saw her) Hannah always looks exactly like her mugshot and it never occurs to her or Dex that she could cut and dye her hair. Even the most brainless fugitive would do that much. Man or woman, if you’re on the run, shave your head!

8. The season progressed as if there was no plan. From one episode to the next, Zack goes from being so clueless he doesn’t know to wear gloves to leaving Dex a clue behind on purpose? Anybody from the later seasons of Lost working on this thing? Can we have the writers from John Lithgow’s season, please? How about we get a mulligan?

9.  The theme of the season was the ties that bind: mother-son, father-son, sister-brother, friends and family. What got us hooked on Dexter was none of the above. Anybody else notice that when Harry disappears, it doesn’t feel like a strong beat? Harry’s been Dexter’s coach for years, but when he’s gone, it feels faster than Rick Schroeder’s throwaway disappearance from NYPD Blue.

10. The wasted opportunities made me sad. If I’d written the final season (and were king of the universe so I could do anything I want) it would have been a cat and mouse game between Dexter and Quinn and Batista. Batista had a box of paper LaGuerta left behind that contained the phone records that made her suspicious. Quinn had already been suspicious of Dex (which he let go and forgot about after Dex did him a solid.) Those suspicions are the seeds of a plot that would have carried the inertia from last season and given LaGuerta’s death significance and consequence.

Batista was the single most underused character and, I would argue, the beating human heart of the show. If he’d pursued an investigation that led to a showdown in the end, Dexter fans would be having much happier water cooler conversations today. Oh, and killing Quinn would have been a very acceptable sacrifice to drive the final wedge between Dex and Deb.

We cared about Batista because he cared about everyone else. Dex once said that if he could be anyone, he’d want to be Batista. There’s talk of a spin-off. It should be Batista, now more jaded and suspicious of everyone. Save Masuka’s return for a Three’s Company reboot.

I hate to be this guy. I’m not a hater. I loved most of Dexter. When it was good, it was great! What did they do right?

1. “I’m going to kill you with that pen.” (Plus the saucy little hesitation before pressing the alarm and the instant switch to “He tried to kill me!”)

2. Batista’s reaction to watching the recording and seeing Dexter in a whole new light. Excellent acting as always by David Zayas.

3. Jennifer Carpenter is a great actress. It’s hard to act drunk for a long time without looking silly. She did it. (Question: What does she say to Quinn just before she goes into surgery? We replayed that three times at increasing volumes and still couldn’t quite catch it. It was the worst sound work since we all came back from watching Brokeback Mountain to google what Heath Ledger’s last line was.)

4. Michael C. Hall. Excellent actor. Even in casual moments, there’s something lupine about his face. In his last look at the camera, he delivered. His best moment? There are many to choose from, but I’d go with the moment he discovers that’s not Miguel’s blood on the shirt and rams his hands through glass in a rage.

5. Charlotte Rampling is an excellent actor. I’d like to see her in more stuff. Is Bates Motel looking for a creepy neighbor lady to run against Norman’s mom on Town Council?

6. I watched the penultimate Breaking Bad immediately after watching Dexter. That flushed some of the gunk out. That’s not something Dexter got right. In fact, they went up against the Emmys, but it was fortuitous.

Filed under: reviews, writing tips, , , , , , , , ,

Maybe too few people want to kill you

The brilliant Scott Adams of Dilbert fame says he learned something from a TV executive. Crazy, I know! He was trying to make Dilbert  a TV hit. The exec told him that in his experience with focus groups, when everybody likes your work, you’ve got a dud on your hands.

It’s counterintuitive, sure, but I think he’s right. Merely competent work can make everybody nod and say, “It’s okay. That’s nice.” What you want is for a reasonable number of people to love it. Some can hate it. That’s okay. They aren’t the ones buying your books, T-shirts, CDs, subscribing on your website to bid on your belly button lint and making you a cult leader.

There have been several metric tons of TV shows about doctors and lawyers. A bunch of them fade into a teeming mass until you actually confuse them. Think of the lawyer shows with compelling characters. Not everybody was likeable. LA Law comes to mind. Boston Legal stood out because they had the magic trifecta: they dealt with serious issues, the writing was hilarious and the characters were memorable. Law & Order is finally cancelled, but the grating DA Sam Waterston plays has typecast the actor as a moralizing Johnny One-Note with OCD.

Or look at House. The medicine is fancy, but that’s not why most people watch. When the medicine gets deep, many people who love the show pay no attention. It’s the same thing that happens to you when the nerd at Best Buy starts talking technical computer jargon and you’re nodding but you’re not paying attention. You’re really thinking, what will this cost me and am I gonna be able to hook this sucker up? 

It’s the characters that make House work and allows it to stand out. Gideon’s Crossing was a good show, but the hero doctor was  too much of a hero. Dr. Gregory House is a flawed, brilliant, misanthropic atheist (in today’s America in primetime! YAY!) sociopath. The scary flawed genius tortures people until he finally gets an epiphany at five minutes to the top of each hour. If I was his patient, I’d tell him I’m coming back to see what he comes up with in 55 minutes.

Or Family Guy. There’s a delight that engenders naked hatred in some. For others, it’s only reason to have a TV.

When somebody hates your words, smile. If no one does, you probably aren’t saying anything much. If everybody hates it, yes you must retool. And if everybody just likes it, maybe you need to rework it so it’s a little more challenging. There are many of manuscripts to like, but your agent and editor want something that sets people on fire. Perhaps literally.

Filed under: rules of writing, , ,

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