Thursday, January 24, 2008

Dexter and the Writers' Strike Revisited

Dexter has made the transition from the premium cable ghetto to traditional network TV. Beginning 17 February, CBS will add the exploits of the vigilante serial killer to its primetime lineup. Actually, the Big Eye will be offering an “edited” version of the critically acclaimed first season of Dexter.
As someone who’s been writing about Dexter since its premiere way back in September 2006, I suppose I should be excited. At the very least, I should feel vindicated. After all, I’ve been extolling the virtues of a loveable psychopath for the past eighteen months. That Dexter has finally made its way out of the cable ghetto should make me feel all warm and fuzzy.
But it doesn’t. And here’s why.
In the first place, I don’t want to see Dexter co-opted to make it more palatable to a mainstream audience. Admittedly, CBS tends to push the envelope with series like Criminal Minds and even CSI in its finer moments. Even at that, they ultimately end up being procedural dramas, with the white hats winning over the black hats in the end.
Dexter’s approach has always been more complex. It puts the viewer into the killer’s mind, and even makes us feel a certain empathy for him. The supporting characters are complex, and frequently profane. It is a show intended for adults. I doubt the nuances in it are going to translate well to network television. That’s not what causes me concern, though. What bothers me is the fact that Dexter most likely would not be making the transition from premium cable to network were it not for the writers’ strike. Here’s what CBS President of Entertainment Nina Tassler had to say about the network picking up the series:

We’re excited to work with our corporate cousins at Showtime on this unique programming opportunity. Dexter is a high-quality, compelling series that will be new and original programming for most CBS viewers. It’s also a great match with our existing line-up, affording us the opportunity to promote this critically decorated series in CBS’ top-rated crime dramas.
And Showtime’s President of Entertainment, Robert Greenblatt, added this:
We're thrilled to have the chance to expose Dexter to a wider audience on CBS. I think it will be very compatible with their line-up as well as be a great opportunity to promote our brand on a platform that reaches every home in America.

As lofty as all that sounds, it’s actually a classic exercise in doublespeak. The truth of the matter is the networks are pulling every little trick they have to squash the writers’ strike. I hinted at this outcome in November, when I first guessed that the networks had lost their vision, and that cable TV might offer the best hope for meaningful television. I didn’t realize at that time — though I should have — that the corporate types would simply cannibalize their own programs, and present them as fresh and daring.Here’s the thing — the writers are still getting screwed. It doesn’t matter if the Director’s Guild has reached a tentative agreement with the producers. Nobody knows the details of that agreement. Supposedly, it’s something the producers (AMPTA) and the directors DGA) can sleep with, and that’s all well and fine.There’s a problem in that line of reasoning, though. What’s good for directors is not necessarily good for writers. Film has traditionally been the province of directors, visual medium that it is. But what people forget sometimes is that none of those magnificent images — from Scorcese, Spielberg, Scott, whomever — would not exist had it not been for a scribe typing “FADE IN” to make the project take wing.And that’s why I’m almost, but not quite, offended by the eminent debut of Dexter on network TV. On the one hand, I’m delighted that Dexter, however abbreviated, is finally reaching the audience it always deserved. Dexter has always been one of the most original, and most daring series ever produced in America. On the other, a diluted, censored version of the series can’t convey its impact. Much of what makes Dexter so engaging are the complexities of the characters. Once those are censored for network viewing, the series loses much of what makes it great.
And therein lies the rub. The producers are counting on the idea that consumers will obligingly march to a sea of mediocrity, as evidenced by Deal Or No Deal, and shows of that ilk. They may be right. Viewers, in the producers’ view, are lemmings who have no idea what they want until it’s spoon fed to them. A game of chance, or a so-called reality show, will trump a well-written drama or comedy anytime. NBC, especially, is counting on that strategy. They, and the other networks, sweeten up the pot, of course, by pulling out unaired episodes already produced before the strike, and tout them as “brand new” episodes
So that puts us back at square one. The well will go dry soon, and both sides appear to be resolute in their contentions. As much as I love Dexter, Weeds, Entourage and a few other cable offerings, I don’t see them as the producers’ salvation. Their edgy moments simply won’t translate well in a censored, edited version.
I hope I’m wrong, but I seldom am. Maybe it’s the populist in me, but I believe the audiences for those series want to be challenged. By the same token, I don’t think the average network viewer, kickin’ back on a Sunday night with the family, will take kindly to a series with a serial killer protagonist.Maybe I’m too jaded. Perhaps the producers will finally realize their success hinges upon the betrodden writers, and there will be joyous celebrations, replete with flowers and dancing with wild abandon.
Naahh. Bean counters can’t dance.