Bryan Caplan  

Dexter and Dostoyevsky

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After watching the finale of its second season, I'm ready to stick my neck out and say that Dexter is the best show in the history of television. As an aficionado of plot, I am in awe; but it excels on every other margin too: dialogue, performances, theme, even music.

As I see it, Dexter is at root a re-telling of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. The protagonists in both stories willfully transgress moral law by taking life. In Dostoyevsky, of course, Raskolnikov's action fills him with guilt and self-loathing. In Dexter, we see the alternative: Dexter embraces his actions, and thereby condemns himself to live a lie - to be himself with no one but his victims. I know of no other work of literature that so powerfully explores this theme of isolation that flows of out the need to live life wearing masks.

Dexter is also a deep work of political philosophy. All of Dexter's victims are murderers. His procedural safeguards are more stringent than those of the criminal justice system. So why would most of us condemn his vigilantism? Doesn't it just boil down to status quo bias - the system that we have is better because it's what we got? Or perhaps it reflects statist quo bias - we can trust government, but not individuals... even though government employees are individuals.

I could go on. But for a show this good, spoilers would be a crime. All I can say is that Season 1 is available on DVD, Season 2 just finished on Showtime, and Season 3 is coming in 2008!


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COMMENTS (18 to date)
Brad Hutchings writes:

Bryan, I agree it's the best show on TV. I can't wait until CBS takes it to prime time, where they will clean up Debra's filthy potty mouth and add David Caruso to the cast. Kidding. But it is the best show I've seen, and I would add cinematography to your list too. It feels like Miami, especially in HD. Even the casts' physical flaws are detailed and exploited.

However, I think the final moments show that his safeguards are not thought out, just applied. Lila set the fire, but ultimately, Dexter was responsible for the death of Dokes. In killing her at the end, he was just going through the motions of whatever he thought his code was. But I'm not complaining, because I thought that Lila character was repulsive!

Robby writes:

Thanks for the recommendation, I plan on checking out Dexter soon. If you are a fan of well-written tv shows then you must check out The Wire. I have never seen a tv show explore race, poverty, the criminal justice system and local politics with half the authenticity of this show. Check it out.

ErikR writes:

> So why would most of us condemn his vigilantism?

Lack of oversight stands out. What if he makes mistakes, has deteriorating standards, becomes (more?) corrupt, etc. Where is the accountability? Of course, if he makes mistakes that result in his capture, then he is accountable. But what if he excels at avoiding capture but begins making mistakes in determining guilt?

Mike writes:

While Dexter is a fine show, I nominate The Wire as the best show ever to air on television.

David Robinson writes:

I couldn't agree more. Season 1 of Dexter was just a really good show, but Season 2 was amazing. The last four episodes were PERFECT.

But in terms of a show rich with political philosophy and economics, I'd have to go with Lost. You get to see a society build in microcosm on the island, including a paternalist socialist, Jack, who has no problem enforcing the common good with a gun, and a selfish individualist, Sawyer, who hoards and then trades luggage from the wreckage. In one episode, Jack even tortures Sawyer to force him to reveal where he hid asthma medication. It's as good as it gets.

http://www.lostpedia.com/wiki/Economics

Brandon Berg writes:

Or perhaps it reflects statist quo bias - we can trust government, but not individuals... even though government employees are individuals.

The quality of decisions made by individuals has greater variance than the quality of decisions made by groups. Sure, some vigilantes would make better decisions than juries, but some would make worse decisions. And I suspect that there would be more of the latter than of the former.

So while I don't object to Dexter's actions in principle, I don't think that vigilantism is likely to work this way in practice. Has it ever?

Robert Watkins writes:

Maybe it's just the fanboy in me, but i would say that some comic book characters do a pretty damn good job of conveying those themes as well such as batman (the dark knight is going to be the best movie of 2008, mark my words) and spider-man. In this case they literally wear masks. However they just don't outright kill people.

Bryan Caplan writes:
Robert Watkins wrote: [S]ome comic book characters do a pretty damn good job of conveying those themes as well such as batman (the dark knight is going to be the best movie of 2008, mark my words) and spider-man. In this case they literally wear masks. However they just don't outright kill people.
Um, what about Batman killing the Joker in Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns? But you're main point in right. Probably the best comics parallel to Dexter is Rorschach in Watchmen
TGGP writes:

I think the first season was better than the second.

eddie writes:

Bryan, you must have read a different Dark Knight Returns than I did. The Joker killed himself, by snapping his own neck, after Batman had beaten and crippled him.

Chris Rasch writes:

I haven't seen Dexter yet, so perhaps my opinion will change. But I too believe that "The Wire" is the best TV show made to date.

abe writes:

Bryan, I will have to check out Dexter. I saw the first episode but something about its premise--humanized serial killer--turned me off.

I will agree though with several of the comments above--HBO's "The Wire" takes the cake in terms of greatness.

I mean, Stringer Bell takes classes in Economics to run a more efficient drug business!

Bryan Caplan writes:
eddie writes:

Bryan, you must have read a different Dark Knight Returns than I did. The Joker killed himself, by snapping his own neck, after Batman had beaten and crippled him.

I stand corrected. I always read the narration ("With a devil's strength... he twists... and twists") as describing Batman killing the Joker, but on closer study, your version makes more sense. :-)

While Dexter is probably my number two, I would argue that HBO's Tell Me You Love Me is the best show currently airing on television. Even then Arrested Development and Six Feet Under are both better than Dexter in the "all time" category.

Also, I wouldn't be so sure about Dexter coming in 2008. If the strike keeps on even it will be affected and will have to be pushed back further.

And to Abe: I wouldn't say that Dexter is a show about a humanized serial killer. In fact, the overarching theme is based on the struggle to be a "normal" human.

Larry writes:

Best series ever: BSG season 1

I would nominate the Hillary 08 campaign as the best recent drama about living the masked life.

David Robinson writes:

"I saw the first episode but something about its premise--humanized serial killer--turned me off."

I had a similar initial reaction to the first episode (the graphic violence and bizarre fetishism bothered me), but I continued the show and couldn't be happier that I did. After a few episodes, it's impossible not to like the main character.

N. writes:

One more vote for The Wire as the best show of all time, but more importantly, the most economically literate show of all time.

The series demonstrates the effects (and side effects) of incentives and disincentives on the drug trade, the process by which well-intentioned laws become camouflage for rent-seeking behavior, why trade unions don't function as advertised, and, yes, even conducts an extraordinarily well orchestrated thought-experiment about the consequences of legalization ('Welcome to New Hamsterdam!').

I know Prof. Caplan has mentioned before that for whatever reason The Wire failed to resonate with him... but please, sir! On behalf of me and your other commenters, give it another chance! If you do, I predict you will play excerpts in class for your econ students. And that's a bet I'm willing to take!

asg writes:

I don't know if Bryan has read the novels; the first two are very good, but the third is awful. It betrays the entire story and the entire concept underlying the character. I wanted to un-read it. I fervently hope the folks doing the TV series decide to just ignore the third book.

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