Partly because it's the summer, and there seem to be relatively few summer series vying for my attention, I've recently gotten engrossed in Dexter. I was always sort of intrigued by it, but like other series for cable, I simply ignored it because I'm not willing to pay for a premium channel. But Netflix offered it free (with my Netflix subscription) in my instant view queue, and since I had been vaguely interested before, I decided to give it a try.
The premise is that Dexter is a serial killer. When Dexter is small, his foster father Harry spies the hallmarks of a psychopath and goes to extraordinary lengths to teach Dexter to control his compulsion to kill. Since Harry takes it as a given that Dexter will kill, this has the effect of making Dexter a compulsive vigilante, and the child grows up to become (what else?) a forensic scientist specializing in blood spatter analysis. (Work with your strengths, eh?)
The show uses this premise to explore a variety of philosophical problems--the question of nature versus nurture, whether anyone is definitively incapable of good, what makes someone good, what makes someone crazy (there's a somewhat scientific set of criteria for this, but then there's also just the "that bitch is crazy" definition), what makes someone a real friend, and a host of specific ethical dilemmas. What's the true essence of compassion? If you don't feel anything for a person, but you act toward them as a compassionate person would, and your intentions are good, is that compassion? Or without the feeling is it all counterfeit? There's a pinocchio aspect of the story that I'm always a sucker for. (If you liked Data in The Next Generation or Angel or Spike in Buffy, then the character of Dexter is right up your alley, although the morals of Dexter are, by design, far murkier than those of either the Star Trek universe or the Buffyverse.)
And of course, at the center of it all is the question of whether Dexter is really a psychopath. He tells us over and over that he doesn't have any feelings, that he experiences no remorse or compassion or empathy, but it seems impossible for him to have the problems and relationships he experiences without them. Did Harry take a normal kid and just screw him up? If so, was it an accident, or is there something we don't know about Harry? Or is Dexter just that good at pretending to be human?
It's very good, and it would be a great basis for a "Dexter and Philosophy" book--I hope one is in the works. The other characters are real gems, too--the show really enjoys drawing round characters, sometimes fleshing out a character with breathtaking economy even as his or her execution approaches. It's a fascinating show and I've really enjoyed getting caught up with it. Now I just have to settle in for the very long wait for Season 4, since I'm still not interested in paying for a premium channel.