Consuming television on DVD, however, changes the equation. All television becomes appointment television by necessity; you have to make a conscious decision to buy or rent the DVDs and finish the set in order to get any return on your investment. Watching tv on DVD can be exceptionally rewarding. Television as a medium gives writers a lot of freedom, and more time to explore characters and story-arcs than movies. Watching episodes in order, in quick succession, serves to highlight these strengths.
But this process can also underline tv’s weaknesses. When episode after episode fails to impress; when the story loses its luster; when the characters cease to be compelling (or never become so in the first place), it’s time to throw in the towel.
These two radically different shows, Dexter and Homicide, are categorical examples of all of the above. Everywhere that Homicide succeeds, Dexter fails.
Them’s fightin’ words, I know! I haven’t yet met the person who’ll argue about Homicide’s greatness (on the rare occasion that I meet someone who’s seen it), but Dexter is a successful and acclaimed show! But it kind of blows.
The premise is ridiculous, but interesting: Dexter’s eponymous main character is a serial killer who kills serial killers. He’s also, incidentally, being stalked by a serial killer. Michael C. Hall has won an Emmy for his performance as Dexter, and deservedly so; he’s a thousand times better than his material. The problems with the show are legion. The acting is generally fine, but occasionally awful. The characters are, Dexter aside, colossally stupid. Like, egregiously, offensively stupid. The individual episode stories are forgettable at best. The representation of policework is – well, Christ. I forgive the Dexter crew for not having seen Homicide, which presents an accurate picture of the excruciating tedium of law and order, because no one’s seen Homicide. But Law & Order has been on for twenty fucking years! (And was actually pretty good for about ten of them.) And yet, somehow, the audience is supposed to swallow the Dexter’s shoddy excuse for policework.
Jared and I quit before we’d even finished the season, after one particularly ridiculous episode (penned, disappointingly, by a Buffy/Angel alum) in which the writing is so bad that, for example, a child tells her mother that she’s “too tired to go trick or treating.” No kid ever in the history of ever has been too tired to go trick or treating. It’s just one of many ugly examples of how the show sacrifices character and believability at the altar of (stupid) plot.
Now Homicide is a different beast entirely, and if you’ve never seen it (especially if you’re a fan of The Wire), it’s time. NBC plagued the troubled production with increasingly ridiculous demands, but the first two seasons appear mostly unaffected. Based on David Simon’s monumental Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, (and you should put that on your list, too), Homicide follows the lives – mainly professional, occasionally personal – of a shift of homicide detectives in Baltimore in the early 90s. Detective work is presented in all its gritty, tedious glory: witnesses lie, evidence goes missing, departmental politics intrude, cases go unsolved. The detectives smoke like chimneys, drink like fish and struggle with their marriages, health, and sanity.
There’s no season-long arc in Homicide; the hook is the characters and their interaction with each other and with their jobs. It’s a brilliant conceit, and as the cast is exceptionally talented and the writing is superb, it works.
The first two seasons are only 13 episodes total, and they’re so perfect we may not ever finish the series. That said, I’ve seen much of the rest of the series on my own, out of order, and may sit Jared down in front of a few of the stand-out episodes.
I understand, in theory, why a show like Dexter succeeds where a show like Homicide fails. Dexter is flashy, beautiful, filled with gorgeous actors and locations, and compelling (if stupid and occasionally offensively obvious) stories. But Homicide, and a small raft of other early 90s shows (Twin Peaks, The X-Files), showed what television is capable of, as a medium. Homicide raised the bar nearly 20 years ago; Dexter failed to meet it.