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'Dexter: New Blood' struggles to find fresh meaning in an old story

Michael C. Hall and Alano Miller in <em>Dexter: New Blood.</em>
Seacia Pavao
Seacia Pavao/Showtime
Michael C. Hall and Alano Miller in Dexter: New Blood.

Updated November 5, 2021 at 12:18 PM ET

It is tempting to think, when a TV series ends in disappointment, all that's needed to set things right is one more chance to stick the landing.

Unfortunately, what Showtime's limited series Dexter: New Blood mostly reveals, is that trying again — without a feel for what went wrong last time — doesn't lead to a better result.

As New Blood opens, Michael C. Hall is playing our favorite serial killer of killers, Dexter Morgan, as a man living under a different name in a very different town. He's Jim Lindsay, pushing sporting goods in a tiny store in the fictional community of Iron Lake, New York. (I'm hoping his fake name is a nod to Jeff Lindsay, the novelist who created the character in books like Darkly Dreaming Dexter.)

But just like Dexter, Jim Lindsay is a wolf in everyman's clothing, friendly with the local pastor and even the local butcher. Indeed, "Jim's" interaction with the butcher epitomizes the series' habit of playing with audience expectations — showing Dexter sneaking up behind him with a meat cleaver unsheathed, ominous music rising, only to hand him the newly-sharpened tool as a friend.

"You're a lifesaver, Jimmy," the butcher says, turning to resume cutting his meat. We, of course, know differently.

A second chance at a better ending

It's a new environment for Dexter, who — in the world of the show — was last seen 10 years earlier during the events of the program's widely-panned series finale (yes, the finale actually aired in 2013; don't confuse things by doing the math).

Back then, he was working as a lumberjack in Oregon, after successfully convincing his friends on Miami's police force he had died on a boat in a storm, setting up his son to be raised elsewhere by a girlfriend who knew his secret.

Dexter: New Blood is supposed to provide a better ending for a popular character. But the four episodes revealed to critics so far feel like old plots dressed up in a new setting: Once again, he's connected to law enforcement — this time, by dating the town's police chief. Once again, he's using a superficial camaraderie to blend into a group of friends who have no idea of his true nature.

And once again, he's tempted to unsheathe his carving knives after running into a jerky, entitled rich guy with a terrible secret in his past.

The Dexter in this story is white-knuckling his way through life like an alcoholic working in a brewery — avoiding murder by sheer force of will. Several times, we are reminded that it has been 10 years since he's killed anyone — including by his sister Deb.

Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter in Dexter: New Blood.
Seacia Pavao / Seacia Pavao/Showtime
Seacia Pavao/Showtime
Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter in Dexter: New Blood.

Yes, she died in the series finale. But sibling Debra Morgan pops up here as a vision who speaks only to Dexter. I don't think she's the infamous "dark passenger" that embodies his murderous urges; instead, she acts like a combination scold and conscience, lying in bed next to him in one sequence, soothing him with kind words.

"If you had died first, I would have been lost in the world without you," she tells him. "You're changed man. Almost 10 years without a kill. And I love you for it."

What I don't love: How many times they remind us it has been TEN YEARS since he killed anyone. Do they think he deserves a medal?

Deb is played by Jennifer Carpenter, who was once married to Hall while they were portraying brother and sister on the original show. So I guess they have decided to revive that slightly creepy combination of sibling/romantic chemistry for this series, too.

Dexter designed as a Florida man

As a Florida resident and fan of the old show at its height, I miss seeing Dexter in his original Miami environment. In the early episodes, producers were brilliant at finding new and visually interesting areas of the city to film in – before most of the production moved to Los Angeles.

Jeff Lindsay, author of the novels about Dexter Morgan, in France in 2011.
Gerard Julien / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Jeff Lindsay, author of the novels about Dexter Morgan, in France in 2011.

I actually spent time withnovelist Jeff Lindsay in 2007, just before the show's second season debut. As we lounged around his home in Cape Coral, Florida, Lindsay told me Dexter was partly inspired by his time living in Miami – which was a particularly crazy place in the 1980s and 1990s – leading him to develop a character who was placid and gregarious on the surface, but hiding serious turmoil inside.

The character, Lindsay also told me, was sparked by a simple question: What if you could get the audience to root for a charismatic, effective serial killer, because he was murdering murderers?

Dexter: New Blood seems quite a distance from those quaint beginnings. The snowy environment of Iron Lake feels light years removed from the bustling tropical flavor of Dexter's original setting. This new version of Dexter is more vexed by his own compulsions than any killer who might become prey.

The original Dexter was bold in its vision; presenting the ultimate antihero at a time when TV couldn't get enough of these characters. In New Blood, Dexter seems tired as the overall concept feels now — he's been there and done that and so have we, the audience.

Too much of this new series asks the same questions as the old one: Can Dexter direct his murderous impulses constructively? Is everyone close to him destined to die? Is he inherently bad in a way that can be passed down to his son?

It's the same problem that challenged the old show and, eventually, Lindsay's books. Dexter Morgan and his inner dialogue is compelling, but TV producers and authors have run out of compelling scenarios to put him in.

It's possible things might get better after the fourth episode. But so far, Showtime's gamble that New Blood might provide a more satisfying ending for Dexter doesn't look to be paying off anytime soon.

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.