In the pantheon of shows known for having the “worst series finale” of all time, Showtime’s “Dexter” is right at the top. Since the episode titled “Remember the Monsters?” originally aired eight years ago, anti-hero serial killer Dexter Morgan faking his own death and pivoting to becoming a lumberjack has been a shorthand for what a show shouldn’t do when it finally ends, even if it’s ending on top or on its own terms. And while “Dexter” remained a hit for Showtime — lasting 96 episodes over eight seasons — plenty of arguments have been made by fans and critics that the series should’ve ended with its fourth season, the much beloved Trinity Killer (John Lithgow) season. That would also be the final season with original series showrunner Clyde Phillips — who is back as showrunner for “Dexter: New Blood” — before series writer Scott Buck took the reins.
So, in terms of answering the question that seemingly comes with all revivals — “Why would you bring that back?” — the answer is obvious. Beyond money, it gives key players a chance to revisit that ending. Series lead Michael C. Hall acknowledged as much at San Diego Comic-Con this year, referring to the original series ending “mystifying at best to people.”
Unfortunately, while “Dexter: New Blood” helps replace the bad taste of the original series finale, outside of some exterior components, it doesn’t do much to redefine much about “Dexter.” Even if it can be argued that it’s better than the Scott Buck years, that doesn’t change the fact that the Clyde Phillips years were also far from perfect.
When “Dexter: New Blood” begins, a decade has passed and the titular anti-hero has shed his identity, going by the name James “Jim” Lindsay (a hat tip to Jeff Lindsay, author of the “Darkly Dreaming Dexter” series of novels from which the show was adapted) and working out an outdoor supply store in the fictional small town of Iron Lake, N.Y. Jim/Dexter abstains from killing, whether it’s humans or even animals — Iron Lake is a big hunting town — and he is beloved by his fellow townspeople. Unlike the original series’ setting of Miami, Iron Lake is the kind of place where everybody knows everybody and each other’s business, so secret identities are hard to keep. But, in true “Dexter” fashion, that doesn’t prevent there from being another serial killer within the town. Also in true “Dexter” fashion: the brief period of time in which it tries to make the other serial killer’s identity a mystery doesn’t actually do so all that well.
After years of abstaining — with Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) now acting as his “conscience” the way Harry (James Remar) did in the original series — privileged rich boy Matt Caldwell (Steve M. Robertson) gets under Dexter’s skin enough to make him consider listening to his Dark Passenger yet again. (Clancy Brown and his very distinctive eyes — which are a key point to the season — plays Kurt Caldwell, Matt’s well-to-do father and truck stop magnate.) Dexter’s girlfriend, Angela (Julia Jones), is the local police chief, which becomes both convenient and inconvenient for the purposes of this story.
His son Harrison (Jack Alcott), abandoned by Dexter with his then girlfriend (Yvonne Strahovski) in the finale, returns to his father’s world, and as the revival progresses, Dexter struggles with the possibility that Harrison is nothing like him — a well-adjusted teenager who doesn’t have the same “dark tendencies” that he’s had, as well as the possibility that perhaps Harrison does. In the original series, child Harrison didn’t have a personality to latch onto, so the series has a blank canvas on which to work. Unfortunately, that blank canvas means a good portion of “Dexter: New Blood” is teen drama and angst, two things that have their place but perhaps not in the return of this show. Even with the potential for Harrison to be harboring a Dark Passenger and possibly be better at hiding it than Dexter has ever been — coming across as an emotionally-available person instead of one who has to work at it — it doesn’t make his high school scenes any more interesting. Which is disappointing, because it’s not as though Alcott isn’t giving a compelling performance; it’s that the compelling nature goes out the window when it comes to him dealing with jock bullies or his potential budding romance with Audrey (Johnny Sequoyah), Angela’s daughter.
With the change of setting, the show’s tone has changed. Conversational double meanings remind the audience that Dexter was/is a serial killer, which has always been a part of the series’ charm, even if it ultimately borders on a morbid type of dad humor. But the genuine coldness of the location (it was filmed in Western Massachusetts) feels like it has sapped a lot of the energy out of the series. At the same time, the setting and its unpleasantness also feel strangely necessary for Dexter in his challenge of abstaining.
Like old times, Hall’s performance is unsurprisingly good — it’s long seemed that he could nail the Dexter character in his sleep — even when things can be predictable. But Jennifer Carpenter arguably gives the most compelling performance of the series, somehow even livelier as Deb in death, while still being recognizable. (Jamie Chung’s turn as a true-crime podcaster also brings the liveliness in a much-needed way to the series.) Perhaps the best choice “Dexter: New Blood” made is having Deb be able to return in this version, as Carpenter and Hall’s onscreen chemistry has not dimmed in the past eight years, nor has Carpenter’s ability to swear in frustration.
“Dexter: New Blood” can’t undo what the original series finale did. It follows up on the new world order it established but doesn’t follow down that lumberjack path. “Dexter: New Blood” is still “Dexter,” though, so all the strengths are there as well as all the weaknesses. (There are also surprisingly more needle drops here than there were in the original series.) It’s possible this is the redemptive season that the series’ needed — and even one that the fans wanted — but it doesn’t change the long, messy road it took to get here.