Reboot offers 'New Blood' for old fans

Dexter

Backstage at the Television Critics Association press tour in summer 2006, Showtime executives were visibly anxious. The cast and producers of a violent new drama titled Dexter, starring Michael C. Hall as a vigilante serial killer, were about to go onstage for a Q&A with TV critics. The Showtime bosses had no idea how the press would react.

“They were nervous about putting a show out there about a serial killer,” showrunner and executive producer Clyde Phillips said. He recalled the executives warned everyone, “Be careful of what you say when you’re questioned.”

Then, the trailer played on a big screen — and the journalists were enthralled. When Phillips and the cast sat down, he said, they were bombarded with thoughtful questions from critics “who had definitely paid attention to what we were doing,” which was not always a guarantee.

But even the positive reception didn’t prepare Phillips for what would happen when Dexter, based on the book series by Jeff Lindsay, debuted that October: It became a phenomenon, joining the pantheon of beloved early and mid-aughts shows that featured antiheroes. Reviews were glowing and audiences were riveted by Hall’s chilling performance as a friendly Miami police department blood-spatter analyst who led a double life as a serial killer. But given that Dexter had a strict code that allowed him to only go after other killers, this gave fans tacit permission to root for him — and they did, for eight seasons, breaking multiple Showtime ratings records along the way.

Now, eight years after the infamous series finale (don’t worry, we’ll get to that), the Emmy-winning drama returns Sunday with a 10-episode reboot titled Dexter: New Blood. Having escaped Miami after a series of dramatic events and faking his own death during a hurricane, Dexter has reinvented himself as “Jim Lindsay,” who works at a fish and game shop in a sleepy town in upstate New York. He has been successfully practicing his version of abstinence — not killing people — for a decade. However ... well, not to spoil anything, but he’s still Dexter.

If network executives weren’t sure whether audiences would have the appetite for a serial killer 15 years ago, they certainly aren’t worried now, thanks to the explosion of true-crime content. (Jamie Chung stars in New Blood as an all-too-real true crime podcaster.) And the creators are counting on longtime fans maintaining a personal connection to Dexter, whose demons stem from a traumatic childhood that he spent the entire series trying to unpack.

“I think people like the show for different reasons, but if there’s something fundamental, it’s probably ... that they relish watching someone contend with a supersized version of something we all contend with: a certain degree of darkness that needs to be negotiated and managed,” Hall told The Washington Post in a recent interview.

“We also live in a world in which we feel an increasing sense that we don’t have control,” he added. “Dexter is someone who, at least when we first encountered him, was very much taking his form of control in his little corner of the world. And I think that was vicariously cathartic for people.”

The show is also returning at a time when we have more TV reboots than we could ever want or need. Dexter, however, is a rare show in which everyone — even the people who made it — agree that the audience could use some closure after what happened in the 2013 series finale. Grieving the loss of his sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter) and feeling responsible for her death, Dexter fled Miami and banished himself to Oregon, where the final scene found him working as a lumberjack. In the last minute, he stared into the camera, and said nothing. End of show.

It’s routinely ranked as one of the worst series finales ever, and don’t worry about offending Hall or Phillips when you ask about it — they’re well aware of the complaints. The producers have defended it over the years, pointing out that the chain saws amid the lumber were supposed to be a haunting reminder of the way Dexter’s mother died (she was brutally murdered in front of him and his brother when they were kids). Plus, Oregon was apparently a popular destination for serial killers at the time. Fans weren’t buying it.

Hall stands by the ending, though he “completely gets” why viewers were upset. “The finale was unresolved and open-ended and pretty deeply dissatisfying for people,” he said. “The silver lining of that is, is that without it having been the way it was, we probably wouldn’t have done what we did with this new revisitation.”

Phillips, who had already left the show after the fourth season, agrees that the finale was “unsatisfying on so many levels.” For what it’s worth, he believes the New Blood finale might be the best script he’s ever written and cautioned that it will “break the internet.”

The idea for this new Dexter arose in summer 2019, when Phillips was at home on Martha’s Vineyard and got a call from Gary Levine, the president of Showtime, who asked whether he would be interested in reviving the series. Phillips felt that enough time had passed to revisit the show, and he spent 10 days working on ideas with his writing assistant. Once he had a solid plan, he went to visit Hall in New York; after a long conversation, Hall was in. On the way back to the airport, Phillips called to deliver the good news to Levine, who immediately told him, “Great, go hire a writing staff.”

Hall said one impetus for signing on was the idea of “getting the band back together” with Phillips at the helm, as well as director Marcos Siega and writer Scott Reynolds. “It gave me a sense there was an appreciation for the connective tissue that exists between the old show and what we’re doing now,” Hall said. “We didn’t want to do some sort of nostalgia piece ... but we also didn’t want to completely abandon the sort of fundamentals of his DNA, because it is the same guy, obviously.”

Indeed it is, and with Dexter, that means trouble. Even as they swap sunny Miami for snowy upstate New York, a few situations arise that rock his newly kill-free world. This includes the sudden appearance of Dexter’s now-teenage son, Harrison (Jack Alcott). Last we saw young Harrison, Dexter’s murderous soul mate Hannah (Yvonne Strahovski) was fleeing with him to Argentina. The plan was for Dexter to reunite with them there as one very dysfunctional family, but things went awry. And now Dexter has some explaining to do — including to his new girlfriend, Angela (Julia Jones), who happens to be the chief of police. (Because of course she is.)

Phillips pitched the theme of New Blood to Hall as “fathers and sons,” an idea that drove the original show. Dexter’s late father (James Remar), served as his confidant, appearing as a ghost to help Dexter navigate his “dark passenger,” as he called his urge to kill. Just as Dexter was “born in blood” after watching his mother die, Harrison had similar horrifying roots. The fourth-season finale saw him as a baby, crying on the floor as his mother (Julie Benz) died in a bathtub filled with blood, murdered by a serial killer (John Lithgow, who won an Emmy for the role) whom Dexter had been chasing all season.

Season 4 is often named as one of the best TV seasons of all time, and that final scene in particular is hard to forget. So it’s no surprise it hangs over all of Dexter and Harrison’s interactions, even if the show established that Harrison was too young to understand what happened. “It is the tug of war of learning: Does my son have my dark passenger?” Phillips said. “If so, what do I do about it? If not, what do I do about it?”

This time, Dexter’s deceased sister Deb takes the role as his ghost conscience: “It felt like it was crucial that she be a part of it,” Hall said. Their entertaining rapport — and Deb’s frequent swearing — remains the same. In real life, Hall and Carpenter got married and divorced within three years while filming the show, though there was no discernible difference in their on-screen dynamic.

“They have an interesting relationship, obviously, the two of them, and they’re great friends still,” Phillips said. “It was wonderful to see them together and just to hang around with them.”

The cast and crew spent months together filming, many during absolutely freezing days on set in Massachusetts. Phillips said some scenes, even gruesome ones, made people emotional as they reunited. But that’s what you get with this show.

“To quote Michael himself,” Phillips added, “He said, ‘Look, this is Dexter. People are going to die.’” 

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