By Ken Tucker
Updated December 05, 2011 at 02:27 PM EST

As its current season winds down, it’s become clear that Dexter may have peaked with season 4’s Trinity Killer storyline. When John Lithgow took his perfect, small-mouth sneer and walked off with an Emmy from the series, much of the fresh air left the show –- its formula (a season-long Big Bad plus a big, bad-romance subplot for sister Deb) became obvious and mechanical. UPDATE FOR LAST NIGHT’S EPISODE BELOW.

Which is not to say that the current season hasn’t had its share of good jolts. The image of a corpse stuffed with live snakes, sewn up and left to be found by Michael C. Hall’s Dexter and his police colleagues, was a gross-out wowser. And promoting Jennifer Carpenter’s Deborah to lieutenant has proven to be a good move, because a Deb who’s not in her foul-mouthed comfort zone is a lively Deb, and Carpenter equals Hall in intensity, scene for any-given scene.

The challenge, post-Trinity, is inventing a villain who comes close to Arthur Mitchell’s freakish evil. In general, the series seems to have lost something — its wicked quality — since the departure of producer/show-runner Clyde Phillips after the fourth season. Last season, Jonny Lee Miller’s sleek creep Jordan Chase was blown off the screen every time the corrupt cop played by Peter Weller showed up looking like a vivid refugee from a John D. MacDonald 1960s crime novel. So the producers doubled down in the current season 6 on a villainous duo, played by Edward James Olmos and Colin Hanks. The Doomsday Killers supposedly murdered while inspired by a hash of inspirations that include the Book of Revelation and the seven signs of the Apocalypse. Playing a religious scholar and his student-disciple respectively, Olmos and Hanks look pained and constrained –- they’re no fun, and Dexter’s best opponents are always the ones that share the serial-killer killer’s puckish sense of irony. Then last week, it was revealed that Olmos’ character didn’t exist; or rather, existed only in the Hanks character’s head. The fake-out was meant to be stunning; instead, it just let the air of suspense out of the series a little bit more.

Then too, the show is invariably better the less voice-over Dex-talk there is of Dark Passengers and the “There’s no light in me” remorse to which our antihero pays lip service. Which is why the recent reappearance of Dexter’s dead brother Brian, the season-1 Ice Truck Killer (Christian Camargo), has proven both a drag and a desperation move — as though, behind the scenes, writers were shouting, “Wait! You’re not buying our new bad guys? Here’s an old fave for you! Or how about Mos Def?” The latter had a brief arc as Brother Sam, a redeemed addict and criminal who went out with a violent but saintly death. Like Julia Stiles’ run last season, Mos Def’s well-acted cameo unfortunately felt like one too many in an already cluttered show.

Hall continues to find new ways to keep Dexter Morgan from becoming a mere killing machine, and as I said, Carpenter is aces. But sometimes a series, no matter how good it can be, starts to run out of creative steam. Dexter is beginning to feel that way. Recently renewed for two more seasons, the series might consider it time to strap the Dark Passenger malarkey on its own kill table and plunge a knife in that strategy, so as to inspire a new, fresh approach.

UPDATE: Last night’s Dexter, titled “Richochet Rabbit,” contained a lot more maundering about the old DP (“Travis’ Dark Passenger is a part of him”; “The only way to kill the Dark Passenger is to take out the driver”), and featured Colin Hanks talking to the air (i.e., the dead Gellar) in the manner of Harvey. The new lab assistant Louis, now upset that Dexter doesn’t appreciate his serial-killer video-game prototype, is becoming all too obviously a guy Dexter is going to have to take out sooner or later. (Danger, danger, young Harrison!) It’s also become clear that Travis talking to an absent, dead Gellar parallels Dexter’s series-long chats with his dead father. Is this one of the moves toward the entire series’ endgame, that Dexter will start to think, in the final two episodes of the season, that this communing with the past is something he must stop, or it will transform him? (Same goes for Deb’s increasing, new interest in figuring out her own motives — one of the things that’s made Deb a good character in the past is her lack of self-consciousness, so I don’t necessarily see this as a good move.)

Twitter: @kentucker

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Michael C. Hall plays a serial killer who only murders evildoers in this gruesome drama

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