14 September 2010

Cable Culture

Dexter Morgan is a man with a code. He is good with kids. He is a loyal brother and a thorough scientist. He is also a merciless serial killer. Well, near-merciless.

My wife and I recently finished watching the third season of Showtime’s hit drama, Dexter, on DVD. Dexter, and the constellation of people who occupy his cable-ready version of Miami, already has a loyal following. He probably needs very little introduction. But, for those among us who don’t follow his exploits, here is a very quick overview.

Michael C. Hall (of HBO’s equally popular Six Feet Under) plays Dexter Morgan – an endearing, hard-working, and slightly creepy forensic specialist working for the Miami Metro Police Department. As of the end of season three (we haven’t bought our copy of season four yet, so don’t ruin it) he is very recently married to his long-time girlfriend, Rita. Rita is pregnant with their baby – his first, her third. On nights and weekends, Dexter hunts and kills people. But not just any people.

You see, his adoptive father, a veteran homicide detective, trained young Dexter to live by a strict code to ensure he would never be caught and that he would only kill people who deserved it. That is, other killers who had not been brought to justice through more conventional, less gruesome means.

All told, Dexter is equal parts Hannibal Lecter (minus the eating people) and Charlie (minus the Angels). He is a vicious hunter, but he only goes after really bad people. He makes things right – kind of. He’s a character you hate to love. But you don’t really hate it as much as you should.

In season three, Dexter breaks his code and allows a kindred spirit into his secret life. It turns out, though, that his new partner – Assistant District Attorney Miguel Prado – does not share Dexter’s perfectly constructed set of rules and sense of justice. As the season progresses, we discover that Miguel (played by Jimmy Smits) simply enjoys power and gets a sick thrill out of slaying the people who get in his way. In a moment of rage, as their friendship unravels, Prado tells Dexter that he will “do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and to whomever he wants. Count on it!” The man is seriously cold – though it is hard not to be impressed by the appropriate use of “whomever.”

Miguel’s descent into pure, terrifying violence was a major disappointment to me and my wife. I couldn’t help commenting that “I really didn’t want Miguel to be such an evil nut bag.” But, as I thought about it, I ultimately felt that the show’s creators may have been exercising some kind of social responsibility. Maybe, just maybe, in spite of the endless loop of complaints about the endless stream of sex and violence on TV, the writers, directors, and cast on Dexter were stepping up to the plate and providing a reality check.

After three years of viewership in world built around Dexter’s gruesome proclivities, the emergence of Miguel as a far more realistic and less endearing murderer shakes things up. Despite their freedom to fill the airwaves with over-the-top gore, the writers behind Dexter took a moment to break away from the title character’s skewed, self-serving morality to show the true violence of violence. It’s unexpected and jarring. But there is a certain decency in confronting viewers with an image of realistic, murderous rage. In contrast to Dexter’s semi-righteous battle to live within some sort of ethical boundaries, Miguel shows us the kind of horror – primal terror – that accompanies actual killing.

Somewhere between denigrating “popular culture” and bemoaning the state of film and television, we have to ask ourselves: Are the peddlers of pay-per-view movies and foul-mouthed cable shows always and necessarily the problem? What if we took our time as viewers and consumers to look at the whole picture, genuinely dissect the content of our culture, and reflect upon our personal reactions?

There are those who cash in on the masses’ love of spectacle – especially bloody spectacle. But is it fair to conclude that Dexter and the people who produce it are mere smut mongers? Are they simply falling short of common decency and pushing violence on us for a quick buck?

According to some, the answer would be a resounding yes. Allan Bloom spoke to this directly in his widely read diatribe on modern higher education, The Closing of the American Mind. He declared, for example, that because of rock music, MTV, and the walkman (it was 1987) “life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbation fantasy” complete with “the joys of onanism and the killing of parents.” (p75) According to Bloom, the truly educated and serious person defies these trends of popular culture in favor of big questions and the work of long-dead orators, politicians, and philosophers.

(Special thanks, by the way, to Professor Bloom for providing a reason to learn the word onanism.)

Bloom is not alone. Other educators have denounced popular culture. Howard Bowen, for example, cites “esthetic sensibilities” as a goal of higher education in his book Investment in Learning: The Individual and Social Value of American Higher Education (1977). He believes that higher education ought to promote “knowledge of, interest in, and responsiveness to literature, the fine arts, and natural beauty.” (p56) In-and-of itself, this goal is fine. Snooty and paternalistic, but fine. Unfortunately, as proof that higher education succeeds on this measure, Bowen cites the work of other researchers who flatly denounce the “addiction to popular culture” that most of us apparently suffer from. To this crop of researchers and educators, that which is popular is not true culture.

What do we do with popular culture – be it seemingly tasteless, violent, over-sexualized, or just plain stupid?

Jazz was once considered nothing more than the uncivilized, noisy underscore of gin joints. Even worse, it was promoted by an uncultured, unsavory (read: “colored”) crowd. Yet, today the classiest of listeners tune into the nearest public radio station in order to walk in the giant footsteps of John Coltrane. Ironically, many of these stations are broadcast from colleges and universities, home of the intellectual elders who so thoroughly enjoy dismissing the vulgarities of popular culture.

As educators, parents, and community members, should we really focus on infusing the next generation with an appreciation for what we consider high and worthy art? Is this the greatest use of energy and resources? Or might we consider developing the individual, the viewer, the listener, the citizen as a thoughtful participant in the on-going process of creating and recreating our culture?

Not all products of popular culture are or will ever be considered art. And not all art is good. But maybe the screen writers, musicians, and performance artists aren’t all out to make a fortune by liquefying your mind and dismantling the fabric of society. Although, I am fairly confident that most of them would certainly like to make a fortune – or at least a living.

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, a substantial burden falls on the observer. The audience is duty bound to engage. Dexter Morgan is one scary, messed-up dude, but I can assure you that season four of his story will appear high on my updated wish list. Except this time, rather than worrying about the message this show sends, this viewer will be focused on the message received.

Meaning, it seems, is in the I of the beholder.

Photo from the National Archives & Records Administration

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