4.22.2008

Dexter - skewing the moral center one writer's group at a time

So, in case you didn’t know or haven’t read my previous related blogs, I’m in search of a writer's group. I haven’t been in one for a while and it’d be good for me. I have a small network of friends whose opinions I respect, and I have them read my work. My friend P and I also get together once every couple of weeks or so and give each other notes on our work. Which is great.

But I’ve been feeling the need for an actual writer's group. If anything, that social sort-of-equivalent to a Room, or just the diversity of perspective and opinions – it sounds good right now. So I’m looking. Yesterday, I attended the writer's group that my alumni association runs. And it was good. But what ended up striking me most about the evening was the power a Dexter spec had to redefine one’s moral center – and give one a shiny reminder of their stance on spec-writing.

Someone in the group had submitted a Dexter spec to be read by the group. This was an all-signals-go for me, because I’m finishing up my outline for my own Dexter spec right now. So good stuff. I was geeked. This person’s spec, though – in my humble opinion – broke all the specing rules of which I’m aware. And it also – in my slightly less humble opinion – broke a few inherent rules of the show itself.

As it’s not my spec, I won’t really go into the intricate details, but these points should suffice: this spec has Dexter musing over killing children, the draft I read was flirting with actually killing Astor, and interprets Dexter as truly and completely empty.

[Just to get it out of the way, here’s my take: Dexter would never hurt children. More importantly, a spec writer should never hurt children – seeing as this one is a main character. And – and I think this one is KEY – Dexter isn’t actually empty. He says it constantly, maybe he even believes it at times (though I think "An Inconvenient Lie" clearly shatters that illusion). But Dexter isn’t, and never was, truly empty. He’s just not. He’s a psychologist’s wet dream, but that’s about it. ]

Anyway, I (and several others) put those feelings out there in what I hope was a constructive way. But the author (and this person’s own set of several others) disagreed. They thought, in the right conditions, that all was fair game. In short, they were of the school of thought that you needed to push things as far as you can, the whole do-what-you-can-to-get-noticed thing. Or what I think they’d probably call the Pull-em-in-with-shock-and-then-show-them-you-can-write method.

Which, in part, I can agree with, but on the whole I’m of a different school: You need to the write the prototypical episode of the show, a shining parallel of that show’s best episodes. You need to dig down to the series' heart, and show that you can mine new ideas out of the show's central concepts. If they can’t tell if it was a produced episode or not, then you’re golden. Blind-them-with-verisimilitude, I guess. And shock with your story-telling, not story-gimmicks.

So those two groups of people were engaged in a difference of opinion last night. And I found it interesting that this Dexter spec shined a spotlight on that central specing issue by redefining one’s moral center.

Here we have a crafty little series about a serial killer. A show that operates off of the old trick that if you want a bad guy to be your good guy, you just put him next to someone that’s worse. It’s like something I read about Mike Leigh's Naked. Essentially, to get us to follow this horrible guy, this rapist, he just put him next to an even worse rapist, and there you go. He’s somehow more acceptable as our lead.

So Dexter does the same thing all the time. They did it right in the opening sequences of the pilot. Dexter kills a killer of children. Boom. Done.

But still, Dexter actually is a show with heart. It’s about a guy with a code (read: morals), with people that he cares about, trying to figure out how to live his life and do the right thing. And it’s all dappled in shades of grey, and shades not so grey. It’s about a killer, but one that you can relate to and care about. Which is why I thought crossing that line for this particular show – allowing him to break his rules, crossing from “heartless” to truly heartless, and using violence for entertainment and not for a purpose – is wrong.

Isn’t it interesting that you can take a morally questionable show, and reestablish a moral code? Draw a new line in the sand? And it can still be shocking and horrific when someone crosses that line. It can end up feeling like a game, taking things a step further, and then a step further, etc. But I think there’s a difference here. Someone created a new character and a new perspective – but it’s all linked to the relationship between Dexter and the audience. That connection. And pushing that line for no good reason isn’t just provocative – in my opinion, it’s ruining the show.

And it also happens to further cement my standing in the group of spec-ers who believe that one shouldn’t violate the rules of the show, or the rules of specing, no matter what daring-do you think you have up your sleeve. One can be daring and innovative without being reckless and insouciant with the world they’re working with.

But I did find the whole disagreement interesting. I knew it was a discourse of sorts among our ilk. But I’d never run into anyone who so heartily espoused it. I’d be curious to see where people stand on it.

To have a code, or not to have a code?

ps. Josh, in his latest post, is pointing to some delectable tid bits from the Dollhouse pilot… impossible to resist. Gorge, people, gorge!

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