Dexter is back…

The third season of “Dexter” began last night, and I must say the show has grown from the novels exponentially, building strong characters from sketches by Jeff Lindsay. I was a little disappointed when I read the first book; it was an interesting idea, but the series handled it so much better. Sort of a first, wouldn’t you think? The books are sort of a mix of Hannibal Lecter meets Tom Ripley, the psychopath from Patricia Highsmith’s novels, set against the colorful backdrop of Miami. The series expands this, and while it may play fast and loose with the definition of a psychopath, it has been endlessly entertaining for the last two years and this season looks to be more of the same.

If you’re not familiar with the basic premise, Dex (Michael C. Hall, “Six Feet Under”) is a serial killer. But one of the good guys! See, he was adopted by a cop named Harry, who recognized the monster he would become, and guided him to make his targets other predators. So Dex only gets his psychopathic rocks off when he’s stabbing another hunter of human flesh in his plastic-coated portable lab. The show manages to meld serial killer chic and police procedural quite well; Dex is a blood spray analyst in the forensic division, so the clues aren’t always semen and DNA like the CSI shows. And we don’t have to worry about trials, because Dexter metes out his own form of painful justice. And he’s not perfect; he makes mistakes, and he admires a good killer so much in the first season that we’re not quite sure if he wants him to get caught.

Batista, the deftly handled “center”

The show has a delightfully dark sense of humor, and a concept of justice culled from the Tales from the Crypt comics- a bad person doesn’t have the same rights as us, and death is too good for them. My one complaint is that the first season makes it seem like killers are genetically wired to be surgically precise knife fighters, and if you’re an armchair FBI profiler who’s read books by John Douglas or Robert Ressler, you’ll be smirking a lot at the pop psych the show sometimes uses. For example he has a “beard,” Rita (Julie Benz, Rambo) a damaged young woman with two kids, dealing with an abusive ex. While Dexter is clueless at social relations, he actually does care about Rita and her kids, while a true psychopath would just see them as the mask he originally chooses them for. But that wouldn’t make for much of a protagonist; we can deal with him tossing severed feet off his boat, but treating the pathetically wounded Rita like shit would be too much to bear.

Rita, in her early days

This time we get plunked right in the middle of Cubano politics; a bigwig’s relative has been murdered, and Dexter has been dragged into the case. As usual his mouthy sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) is her own worst enemy, and the one consistent likeable character is Angel Batista (David Zayas, “Oz,” Michael Clayton), the detective of the stingy-brimmed fedora and neatly trimmed goatee. Lieutenant LaGuerta (Lauren Vélez, “Oz,” “New York Undercover”) is the power-hungry cop with political ambitions, and has a background with the bigwig (Jimmy Smits).

Dex and sis

“The Sopranos” used to piss people off by not starting off with a bang, and Dexter has avoided it this time. There’s definitely blood, some twists, and a new killer to hunt down. But a show lives and dies on giving us a group of characters we enjoy the company of, and this show succeeds by making us like even characters like Deb, who are difficult to tolerate. She’s so tactless and politically maladroit that you wonder who the emotionless killing machine in the show is supposed to be sometimes, but she has a charm, because you enjoy watching her fuck up all the time. If the show has a weak point, it’s the sex-starved Asian guy stereotype, who’s only been more badly portrayed in Robert Crais’s novels.

Anyway, the season is off to a bang, or at least a meaty thud of blade piercing torso. The first two seasons are available on DVD and “On Demand” if you have the proper cable provider. Showtime has proven itself the king of the cable series after HBO ended it’s trifecta of Sopranos, the Wire and Sex and the City, and has foolishly tossed beloved shows like Carnivale, Rome and Deadwood to the wind and replaced it with shit like “True Blood.”