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Fall TV 2009: 'Dexter' becomes a daddy

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Dexter
9PM — SHOWTIME — Returning Drama — Premieres Sept. 27

Two serial killers drive into the woods with a hacksaw, a chain saw, a handsaw, and… Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. In a Southern California botanical garden, Michael C. Hall and John Lithgow are filming a scene for Dexter, in which Dexter (Hall) is posing as someone else to learn more about Arthur (Lithgow), a.k.a. the Trinity Killer. On their van ride to find timber to build a cross (long story), Arthur hits a deer, and the two stop to inspect the mortally wounded animal.

”You need to kill it,” says Hall, handing Arthur an ax.

”No, I can’t,” demurs Lithgow, shuddering.

”It’s in pain — you need to end its suffering.”

”I can’t.”

Hall takes back the ax, raises it, and slams it into its intended target. THHHWACK! Debris flies all over the camera. ”Sorry,” says Hall sheepishly to the director. ”I just wanted to give him something to react to.”

Dexter has never had a problem getting a reaction out of fans. Showtime’s crafty drama — about a Miami police blood-splatter analyst who satisfies his own sociopathic bloodlust by killing murderers on the side — returns for season 4 with Dexter facing down his biggest nemesis yet: fatherhood. Oh, right, and an intriguing mass murderer in Lithgow. ”It feels like the best thing we’ve done,” says exec producer Clyde Phillips. ”And it feels like the appropriate escalation.” In fact, Dexter has been on the upswing, collecting buzz, ratings (season 3 averaged 3.4 million viewers weekly, counting repeats and on-demand), and Emmy nominations (including the second consecutive best-drama nod and best-actor nod for the mesmerizingly dry Hall) by offering up a complex, grimly clever portrayal of a man struggling to assimilate into the human race and control what he calls the ”dark passenger” inside him. (That condition can occur when you witness your mother being chainsawed to death.)

Dexter will delve into terrifyingly normal territory this season, as its antihero and Julie Benz’s Rita — whom he married in the season 3 finale — move into a lovely suburban neighborhood with their new son, Harrison, and Rita’s two other children. Suddenly, diaper-shopping is interfering with Dexter’s body-chopping. ”Dexter is going through what every human being goes through: Can I juggle a career, personal life, family life, and, in Dexter’s case, a dark passenger?” explains exec producer Sara Colleton. ”He’s got to learn compromise, intimacy, and [explore] his feelings for the baby.” Just don’t expect too much growth from everyone’s favorite killer with a moral code. ”It’s a fine line we’re walking,” notes Phillips. ”If Dexter becomes too human, it’s over.”

There’s also that Trinity dude to worry about. Posing as a bland citizen, Lithgow’s Arthur is a cunning killer who’s been doing his femoral-artery-severing work in threes for 30 years. (”The Ice Truck Killer [from season 1] is a piker compared to Trinity,” warns Colleton.) When Dexter stumbles across Arthur during a murder investigation, he becomes obsessed. ”Dexter does crave human connection, in spite of any claims he might make,” says Hall. ”He also tends to be a bit of a darkness magnet. And Trinity fits the bill unlike anyone ever has, in terms of the depth of connection and of the darkness.”

Although he wasn’t terribly familiar with the show, Lithgow was instantly fascinated by the character. Plus, he says, ”everybody I knew who had any brains told me I had to do it.” The veteran villain (Cliffhanger, Blow Out) is eager to get back to his baddie roots after scoring three Emmys as 3rd Rock From the Sun‘s loony Dick Solomon, but he’s not spilling much about Trinity: ”So far, I have committed nefarious acts, I have sung a song, and three times I have appeared naked as a jaybird. That’s all I will tell you.” Meanwhile, the retired FBI headhunter of serial killers, Special Agent Lundy (Keith Carradine), returns to track Trinity, causing drama for his ex/Dexter’s sister, Deb (Jennifer Carpenter, Hall’s real-life wife), who’s dating former informant Anton (David Ramsey). In addition, look for an unlikely romance at the station, and for Dexter to spot Detective Quinn (Desmond Harrington) in a compromising position.

With a juicy season in store — and with the rollout of Dexter extras like animated prequel webisodes (coming later this fall), an iPhone game (users can stalk prey as Dexter), and ”Cereal Spiller” onesies (available now at sho.com) — Showtime is hoping that the series will carve out an even larger audience. In the meantime, fans continue to find increasingly creative ways to show their love. ”We were on set recently,” shares Hall, ”and one woman took a knife out of her kitchen and asked me to sign it. The next thing I knew, everybody else in the neighborhood was bringing me knives from their kitchen. One person had a handsaw.” And…? ”I signed away.” At least it wasn’t a chain saw.

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