Friday, December 28, 2007

When Hearts of Darkness Collide
As promised, the second season of Dexter ended with an explosive finale. Not to put to put too fine a point on it, but that’s actually how the final episode began. From the moment Doakes discovered Dexter was the Bay City Butcher, the plotline took an even more ominous tone than the rest of the season had already established. What followed was a collision course among the characters, from which no single victor would emerge unscathed.

Before I go any further, here’s the obligatory SPOILER ALERT. Even though it’s been over a week since the finale premiered on Showtime, what follows reveals key details to the finale’s outcome.

From the outset, the second season of Dexter traveled a darker path than its predecessor. Once treasure-hunting divers inadvertently stumbled upon his underwater dumping ground in Episode One, the series shifted from playful mayhem to an almost surreal tragic epic as told from the killer’s desperate perspective. The supporting characters roles, from Doakes’ dogged pursuit of Dexter, to Lila’s demented devotion to him, to Deb’s quest for love, to Rita’s torn loyalties—all served to advance the notion that Dexter is the dark personage that lives in our universal heart.

The genius of Dexter lies in its unerring ability to force us to drop our disguises. Even though the series largely plays it with a wink and a nod, it conceptualizes our primordial desire for justice. More importantly, it recognizes the more important need for survival. And that’s really what this season was all about: Dexter coming to grips with that dichotomy. The first rule of Harry’s Code was to not get caught while meting out vigilante retribution, and it became Dexter’s mantra once the task force began closing in on the Bay Harbor Butcher. The problem with that strategy was that it found him in a crisis of conscience through most of the season, grappling with his own motives while covering his tracks.

In the end, Doakes and Lila serve as the links to Dexter’s past and his path to the future. Locked in a cage while Dexter decides to deal with the man who has happened upon the truth about him, Doakes eventually becomes Dexter’s confessor. He almost convinces Dexter to turn himself in, until Dexter experiences an epiphany while having dinner with Deb. The dinner’s cut short when Deb receives a phone call that the task force is closing in on Doakes’s location. Dexter races back to he remote cabin where Doakes is held prisoner, realizing he must release Doakes before the Feds find him, lest his plan to frame Doakes for the killings goes seriously awry.

Oddly, it’s Lila, in her delusion that she’s Dexter’s soulmate, who first finds Doakes imprisoned in the cabin. Once Doakes tells her who Dexter really is, and offers the body parts in garbage bags as evidence, she does what any sociopath with a tendency towards pyromania would do, and blows him, and the cabin, to smithereens. As they pick body parts out of the water, it’s obvious to the Task Force that Doakes was indeed the killer, and the case is closed. Only Dexter knows the truth, and he decides, in his topsy turvy logic, that he must honor Doakes’s memory by killing his killer.

Lila has always represented Dexter’s dark side—that Dark Passenger who can justify anything if it serves a purpose. Unlike Dexter, though, she was never panged by matters of conscience—or logic. In a way, she became the lynchpin of the entire season as a result. For a fleeting moment, it even appeared that Dexter might spare her. But when she torched a building with Rita’s kids inside, her fate was sealed. Dexter tracked her down to Paris, where he killed her, with unusual respect, for Dexter, anyway.

It seems like a tidy ending, but it leaves a number of chilling questions. Both Doakes and Lila had their own dark secrets, presumably left to speculation now that they’re both out of the equation. The most chilling premise has to be the teaser for the next season. Dexter, in his mind at least, has come to grips with his identity. “Am I a good person doing bad things, or a bad person doing good things? I’m done asking myself those questions. . .”

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Reasonable Cause to Dig Mafioso Rap
“You’re a writer?” she says, suddenly interested. “You write—like, books? I love romances and mysteries—“

“Actually,” I cut her sentence in mid-stream, “I write about pop culture—mostly about film and music—“

“Oooh! I love music—all kinds,” she parries, “except country and rap— especially rap. Some country I like, but I hate all rap.” She says it as if it were a treatise, a definitive statement on all things holy and right with the universe as we know it.

“Are you sure?” I reply, arching my eyebrow sarcastically as I launch into my patented retort. “How do you know? Have you heard ALL rap?”

This is the part I love, because I’ve heard it, with a few variations, so many times before, and it’s so predictable. “I—I don’t need to hear it,” she stammers, “I know it’s bad.” And that’s when I know she and I will not be doing lunch after all.

Americans love outlaws—we’ve romanticized them from Colonial days. There’s something universal about a solitary figure born in poverty, rising up against all odds, spending a stint in hell and emerging more powerful as a result. It’s not the American Dream—it’s the universal dream, and it stretches to our earliest literature. From Stone Age drawings to Beowulf to mythology to revolutions to cinema, the outcast made good is an inherent part of our thought process.

Given that, I find it strange we can embrace The Sopranos, The Godfather and even Scarface as high-minded allegories of the human condition, while dismissing gangsta rap as one of the first signs of the coming Apocalypse. It’s not that cut-and-dried simple. Like the crime movies it’s modeled after, the gangsta genre of rap can be broken down into several sub-genres, ranging from mindless, violent garbage to works that utilize the criminal underbelly as a metaphor for societal frustrations. The former celebrates the criminal lifestyle—the latter illustrates its consequences.

Jay-Z’s 1995 debut, Reasonable Doubt, recounted how Shawn Carter put his dubious background behind him to resurrect himself as the redoubtable godfather of mafioso rap, Jay-Z. It was an album full of bravado, and if not listened to carefully, could be construed to glorify the lives of ghetto drug dealers. In fact, it does the polar opposite. It chronicles the rise and fall of a kingpin (if only emotionally), and emerges as one of the best rock albums of all time. And well it should be considered as such—it took rap out of the ghetto, and established Jay-Z as a force with which to be reckoned.

The Classic Albums series DVD release of Jay-Z: Reasonable Doubt doesn’t make any attempt to review the original album, nor does it try to romanticize or justify it. Instead, it delves into the thought processes that went into the making of the album. What emerges as a result is a documentary of how Shawn Carter shed his street hustler life to become Jay-Z, arguably the most important figure in contemporary hip-hop.

You always think of your first time as being your best time, which may be why Jay-Z chose Reasonable Doubt to be his contribution to the Classic Albums series. He certainly had his hustle down in those early days, since he was able to work with some major hip-hop producers, such as Clark Kent, Knowbody, Ski and Sean Kane. In interviews, they share how they created the sound of the album, and analyze how the contrast of satiny smooth orchestration and guttersnipe rhymes melded to advance the genre. Mary J. Blige and a sixteen year old Foxy Brown contributed vocals to the album, as well. Kanye West is also featured in concert snippets and interview segments.

There’s some live concert footage imbedded in the documentary, but it takes a back seat to the participants’ reminisces of how the streets of Brooklyn forged the theme of the album. The bonus features, however, include the original promo videos for “Can’t Knock the Hustle”, featuring Mary J. Blige’s haunting vocals, and “Ain’t No Nigga.” In which Foxy Brown plays a prominent role. The rest of the bonus features expand on the technical details of how the album was made.

Jay-Z: Reasonable Doubt is unlikely to alter the preconceptions of those who profess to “hate all rap”, since they’re never going to watch it anyway. For those interested in the sociological and historical origins of gangsta rap, however, this is a must-see. Admittedly, this is a musical genre that has been corrupted to the point that it’s become a sad joke for the most part. When Reasonable Doubt was released in 1995, though, it made a statement about the consequences of the criminal life. If individual songs are taken out of context, it could be viewed as a glorification of brutality. But like Scarface (which inspired it in many ways), Reasonable Doubt ultimately was a grim cautionary tale. This DVD offers a number of insights into the story, and provides a reference point for the origins of a musical idiom.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Dexter's Last Stand?
“Tonight’s the night, and it’s going to happen, again and again-- has to happen.”

That’s the innocuous way viewers were introduced to Dexter in its debut episode—a voiceover monologue that became the trademark device of the darkest storyline in the history of serial television. It wasn’t a conventional narration by any means—it advanced the plotline, of course, but it always drew us into the mind of Dexter, and forced us, against all our protestations, to actually like an undeniably demented serial killer. After all, he only killed really bad people who deserved to be chopped into little pieces and dumped in the ocean.

Season One was fraught with dark comic book humor and social satire—Dexter sent child murderers, coyotes and murderous nurses, among others, to their just desserts, and it all seemed a bit surreal. At the same time, it was catharsis—a part of us was Dexter, and those voiceovers were our voice. We knew exactly how Dexter felt, and we loved the thrill of seeing bad guys dispatched.

What goes around comes around, and in Dexter’s case, it’s happened in spades. Season Two began with Dexter unable to sleep, and his inner monologue telling us “I really need to kill . . . somebody.” It’s the first hint we have that Dexter is no superhero, that he is, in fact, a very disturbed killer. That’s been the focus of this season, with his inner voice sounding more desperate than bemused.

He’s had good reason to be nervous. Once his underwater dumpsite was discovered, and FBI Agent Lundy’s task force started closing in on the Bay Harbor Butcher, the series has taken on a much more tense tone. It still has its humorous moments, mostly courtesy Deb and Masuka, but those are fittingly overshadowed by the twisting cat and mouse plotline.

It all comes to a head tonight, in what promises to be one of the most explosive climaxes in recent memory. Doakes, having discovered Dexter’s secret, is still his captive. And it looks like Lila is about to uncover his secret as well, which would put a serious crimp in Dexter’s plan to frame Doakes as the killer. Of course, she has her own frame job going against Angel. For whatever nefarious reason, she’s framed him for rape against her. As Deb and Lundy discovered last week, she’s in the country illegally. Her secret may be even darker than Dexter’s. Obviously, if Dexter is to survive, both Doakes and Lila must be silenced. How that will be accomplished is the question.

In the meantime, Agent Lundy is closing in on the truth about the Bay Harbor Butcher. There are a number of enticing plot threads to be tied up, or severed, as the case may be. However it turns out, it won’t be expected. Nothing ever is when it comes to Dexter.

After tonight’s finale (airing 9PM EST), Showtime will be hosting an online event 10PM EST with video of the cast and crew discussing the shocking season finale, including a live fan chat.

And for the really diehard fan (pun most definitely intended) Showtime is sponsoring a Dexter Finale Sweepstakes for a chance to WIN A WALK ON ROLE in the next season of Dexter!

The second season of Dexter has been one surprising twist after another and tonight’s the night it all comes together. I’ll have a review of the episode later this week. In the meantime, I strongly suggest you do whatever you have to in order to see this finale.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

David Bowie as Elder Revolutionary
There was a time, mostly when I was in my teens and twenties, when I really believed that rock music could change our world, politically and culturally. It wasn’t naivete so much as it was a sense of wonder that fueled that belief. Those three chords, in all their permutations, shaped my adolescence, and became my evolving mantra. Whatever was happening in the world could somehow be translated into the music of Dylan or Lennon or Lou Reed or any number of other musicians—some that were embers in the wind, and others who continue to burn brightly even now.

I was always around music. My father taught me all he knew about country music and its relationship to our Irish roots, my mother waxed on and on about Elvis and American Bandstand, my grandmother fostered an appreciation of Sinatra and swing, and my aunts slipped me soul and Brit rock. As a result, commercial radio always seemed lacking to me. Maybe that’s part of the reason I didn’t play well with others as a child. I had my music and comic books and TV, and all was right with the world.

When I was sixteen, maybe seventeen, two almost concurrent events made it all begin to gel in my mind. I read Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions collection, and I saw one of those Columbia House ads, this one featuring an album called The Man who Sold the World, by some guy named David Bowie. Between the “inner space” of so-called New Wave science fiction and the oh-so-cool apocalyptic soundscapes of Bowie, my own worldview began to take shape. Bowie, like Ellison, inspired me to absorb every viewpoint I could find. Between the influence of the two, I found a common ground from which I could think, and more importantly, write. It goes without saying that Ellison and Bowie have left an indelible imprint on pop culture. And it’s equally obvious that while their output is not as prolific as it was during their fiery days of the seventies and eighties, they make whatever statements they make, count. It’s the price of being an Elder Statesman of one’s chosen genre.

David Bowie Box, as its nondescript title suggests, makes no apologies for Bowie’s less than hit-worthy output during the millennial transition Consider it more an inside nod to the utilitarian titles of his last five albums—Outside, Earthling, ‘hours. . .’, Heathen and Reality. The last ten or so years have found Bowie retrospective more than anything else, reconsidering his status as “rock royalty,” and pondering how preposterous it is that we came to this. Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, the Disco King and the Man Who Fell to Earth all came home to roost in this collection, albeit with mixed results.

After the debacle that was Tin Machine, followed by the relative dance floor success of Black Tie, White Noise, Bowie tried his hand at duplicating the cyberpunk world of William Gibson with Outside. Originally envisioned as the first part of a series of non-sequential narratives following the exploits of police detective Nathan Adler Outside reunited Bowie with his “Berlin Trilogy” (Low, Heroes, Lodger) collaborator Brian Eno. While many at the time thought Outside signaled a new direction for the ever-changing Bowie, the project never went beyond this effort. Even at that, it managed to put Bowie at the forefront of industrial dance floor music for a time. Disc Two is testament to that, laden as it is with remixes, most notably Trent Reznor’s alternative mix of “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson.”

On 1997’s Earthling, Bowie expanded on the industrial-techno framework of Outside, imbedding it throughout with the “drums ‘n’ bass” mix wildly popular in London dance floors. It was his first self-produced album since Diamond Dogs, and it was something of a techno hit. But Bowie found himself overshadowed by the Nine Inch Nails remix of “I’m Afraid of Americans” the “Dead Man Walking” version mixed by Moby, both featured on Disc Two. Bowie, however inadvertently, had found himself in the position of being source material for the next generation.

Bowie bade farewell to the end of the last millennium in 1999 with ‘hours…’ a transitional work that was steeped in introspection, as evidenced by “All the Pretty Things Are Going to Hell.” After the experimentation that marked most of his work in the nineties, this album seemed almost like Bowie’s swan song, and in some ways, it was. With it, he severed his ties with Virgin Records, and ended his relationship with Reeves Gabrels, his guitarist and musical partner since the Tin Machine days. Disc Two veers away from techno remixes as well, concentrating more on mixes that were adapted to film soundtracks, or were paeans to the man himself.

With the release of Heathen in 2002, the Thin White Duke was redefined once again, this time as a culmination of all the themes and personae Bowie had explored throughout his career. If some of his work in the nineties suggested that he had fallen prey to Aging Rocker’s Syndrome, Heathen dispelled such assertions. His first album on his own ISO label (distributed by Sony Legacy) found him working once again with longtime producer Tony Visconti, who had worked on and off with Bowie since the early seventies. The resultant album was a work that found Bowie at last comfortable in his own skin, and was his highest charting work since Let’s Dance. The entire album exudes a confidence and power borne of acceptance of aging. In fact, it takes a second listen to realize that his versions of “I’ve been Waiting for You” (Neil Young), “Cactus” (the Pixies) and “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship” (The Legendary Stardust Cowboy) are covers. Disc Two features a Moby remix of “Sunday” and a 1979 outtake (deservedly so) of “Panic in Detroit.”

Reality followed in 2003, and continued the premises laid forth in Heathen, once again finding Bowie being Bowie, relishing his past while living in the present. Besides a diverse wealth of original material, it features Bowie’s take on Johnathan Richman and the Modern Lovers’ “Pablo Picasso”, and a haunting version of George Harrison’s “Try Some, Buy Some.” The centerpiece of the work, though is the nearly eight minute song “Bring Me the Disco King,” a loopy lounge lizard piano and sax piece of subtle self-deprecation that also encapsulates the failed invincibility of the eighties. Disc Two features several nuggets, most notable being “Rebel Rebel” and updated versions of same, appropriately titled “Rebel Never Gets Old.”

In Bowie’s case, truer words were never spoken. While a mild heart attack in 2004 cut a world tour in support of Reality short, and may partially explain why he hasn’t released an album in the interim, it hasn’t kept him from the public eye. In 2006, he was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. And though he says he’s taking a break from performing and recording, he continues to show up for impromptu gigs with artists ranging from Alicia Keys to Arcade Fire. He’s even rumored to be working on a rock opera adaptation of Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel Watchmen. Even now, over thirty-five years since he launched his career, Bowie remains an enigma.

David Bowie Box offers an important, if sometimes overlooked, part of his overall portrait. At this stage in his career, Bowie wasn’t as interested in being a superstar as he was in sharing what he’d learned with a new generation of musical rebels. In the process, he achieved both. Just as Harlan Ellison became the spokesman for a generation of speculative fiction writers, Bowie was a prime mover in the evolution of rock music. The five albums represented here, along with the five bonus discs included, are testament to that. The albums stand on their own, inconsistent though they may seem on first listen. And the various remixes, outtakes and alternate versions may be a bit much to take in at once. Still, this ten disc set is a comprehensive history of Bowie’s continuing influence on the evolution of modern music. It only leaves us with one question: where will the Thin White Duke next take us?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Dexter's Dark Days
There was a time—mostly during Season One—when Dexter could do no wrong. He was a Merry Prankster of Mayhem, deftly darting between the pastel hues of a cartoon Miami by day, and its opaquely sinister washes by night. Sure, he was a serial killer, but he only killed really bad people the law couldn’t, or wouldn’t, touch. He was an Everyman, just getting through the complications of work and love by day, while dispensing deadly judge, jury and executioner justice by night. It was all implied—you never saw him actually dismember anybody, but you knew retribution had been served, and that the next morning would be bathed in watercolor sunlight. Dexter was a dark avenger, a whimsical comic book kind of guy who would go out of his way to bring doughnuts to his friends, while not giving a second thought to chopping evildoers into fish food. It was that comical dichotomy that made him so endearing.

Season Two has been no such picnic for either Dexter or the viewer. Even though it opened with promising Dexter inner monologue, “I really need to. . .kill somebody,” much of the season has found him confronting his demons within and without, while attempting to maintain his unflappable fa├žade. Even before the first episode was over, treasure hunting divers inadvertently came across Dexter’s underwater dumping ground, prompting an FBI manhunt for the killer the press dubbed “the Bay Harbor Butcher.” It certainly doesn’t help that the Feds have assigned their superstar manhunter, Agent Lundy (Keith Carradine) to oversee the investigation. To complicate matters even more, Dexter’s adoptive sister, Deb, is in a May-December romantic relationship with the Zen-like Lundy.

On top of all that, Dexter’s blossoming relationship with Rita has apparently gone to hell, due in no small part to his dalliances with his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor, Lila (Jaime Murray). She’s a perfect counterpoint to Dexter—where he’s cautious, she’s reckless, where he attempts to hide his true self, she wears her persona like a badge. For all her superficialities, though, there’s something very dark about her, and her motives may be even more twisted than Dexter’s.

Then there’s Doakes. He’s been a foil for Dexter from Day One, He’s been steadfastly pursuing Dexter since this season’s first episode. The question that arises is, why? It’s been established that Doakes has his own dark past, some of it having to do with his military Special Ops past, and he’s not above eliminating bad guys without benefit of due process. Now that Dexter has him imprisoned, Doakes might be a source of clues to Dexter’s origins.

Agent Lundy may be the most dangerous of them all, however. He’s too studied for his act to be real. For all his Eastern philosophy, he’s a predator, lying in wait for his prey to make a fatal misstep. He’s more feline than mantis, constantly throwing Dexter off track. Does he really believe Doakes is the Bay Harbor Butcher, or is that a mere ploy to flush out Dexter? Does he actually care for Deb, or is his relationship with her a ploy to bring the killer to justice?

There are only three episodes left in this season of Dexter. Since Showtime has already announced a third season, Dexter will obviously find a way to elude all the potential traps laid before him. In the meantime, the writers have laid out a scenario that leaves the viewer bewildered at best. It’s an ingenious mystery that twists serpentine through the darkest corridors of Dexter’s mind. He’s no longer a Merry Prankster—he’s more akin to a trapped animal. He’s perverted his much vaunted Harry’s code to make not getting caught his prime directive.

How it will all play out is anybody’s guess. Dexter the TV series parallels Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter novels, but is by no means an adaptation. It’s safe to assume that somebody is not going to survive this season. I’m not going to even hazard a guess as to who dies.
The genius of Dexter is that it defies all guesses, and goes in totally unexpected tangents. Yeah, it’s twisted that we find ourselves empathizing with a character who’s gone beyond the sociopathic and teeters on the edge of all-out psychopathy. On the other hand, Dexter affords us a refuge from the realities of evil. It’s creepy to realize a monster slumbers in all of us, but it’s also liberating. If nothing else, Dexter shows it’s best to let sleeping monsters lie.

Dexter airs Sunday nights on Showtime, with repeats throughout the week. It is the best show on American television—bar none. It’s the only series I can think of that’s consistently compelling, and certainly the only series that keeps me guessing. If you have cable, but don’t have Showtime, you’re missing the only programs worth watching on a regular basis..