Thursday, April 8, 2010

Dexter: You Don't Need CGI for an Uncanny Valley

I recently started watching Dexter Season 1 via Netflix Instant Watch. My wife caught these episodes when they originally aired back in 2006, so she's been guiding me through, making sure I watch during crucial sequences (as I am occasionally less than focused). It never ceases to amaze me how a woman who claims that she has no love for horror or gore can watch (and even obsess) over shows like Dexter, Supernatural, and CSI: Some City. But I'm getting off topic (see what I mean about focus?).

Five episodes in, I'm really digging this show, and it largely has to do with Michael C. Hall's carefully layered performance as Dexter Morgan, forensics specialist by day, serial killer of serial killers by night. A key component of Dexter is that he is playing a character, or rather, characters -- affable co-worker to the Miami PD, caring boyfriend to Rita (Julie Benz), and supportive big brother to Debra Morgan (Jennifer Carpenter). The genius of Hall's performance is that we never see him playing those parts. Hall plays Dexter, troubled sociopath, and then lets Dexter do the rest of the acting. This apparent disconnect gives an eerie unreality to the friendly faces that Dexter puts on, one that hits the proverbial "uncanny valley" usually reserved for purely visual media (i.e. the closer something gets to looking human without actually being human, the more disturbing it is).

Dexter isn't a normal person. He doesn't have the responses to stimuli that a normal person would have. He has to fake all of these things and over the years, he's gotten quite good at it. As an audience we know it's all a show, so we're more apt to look for the places where he gets it wrong, but the achingly skin-crawling truth is that he really doesn't. He's dead-perfect, except... somehow he isn't. There's some element, some intangible tell that gives him away to those "in the know." The more effort he puts into being normal, the more subliminally discomfiting he becomes -- and the hardest part is that no-one around him (save an angry, suspicious cop named Doakes) seems to see it. Just watch Dexter as he apes a playful surrogate father figure to Rita's two children and tell me you don't get the screaming heebie jeebies.

Here's a quick promo video that appears to be from the show's first season:

No comments: