8 p.m. Sunday on Showtime
How do I articulate my love for "Dexter" without revealing myself to be a horrible person? I don't ordinarily enjoy watching unpleasant characters - and Dexter, after all, KILLS PEOPLE, with something approaching glee - and yet I consider him one of my best fictional friends.
Friends are not perfect. They borrow your sweater and return it all stretched out, or post embarrassing Facebook pictures of you. You forgive friends. Dexter, for instance, might be late for drinks one night because he's misplaced severed body parts. But you don't mind, because you like the guy. That Dexter!
He's back for a fourth season, and he's been missed. The series is as compulsively watchable as ever, with Dexter's marriage, stepchildren, newborn son and stifling suburban life complicating his leisure time. How's a guy supposed to stalk his next victim with the neighborhood watch on the alert?
Michael C. Hall is shockingly believable as someone sub-human doing his best to fit in, navigating bewildering rituals such as the summer barbecue. He understands that serial killing is frowned upon. But is it any less barbaric to throw a party with the intention of setting fire to enormous slabs of meat and pushing each other into the pool? Dexter passes through life like Peter Sellers in "Being There," with other people projecting qualities like "good listener" and "relationships expert" onto him. He just shrugs and gets back to work.
Michael C. Hall's low-key bemusement is contagious. Try looking through his eyes at office politics, or dating games, or the expectations of family. "They're always there," Dexter says wonderingly of his wife and kids, who would have a hold on his heart if he only had one.
In tonight's episode, Keith Carradine is back as FBI agent Lundy, who is spending his retirement tracking the one that got away: The Trinity Killer. He's played by John Lithgow - there's a stretch - as possibly the most successful serial killer in history, considering he's gotten away with it for 30 years. (WARNING: Buttal nudity. On Lithgow's part.) Trinity kills the first victim, always a young woman, in her bathtub. Next, he forces a young mother to jump off a building. The last murder is a bludgeoned man. And then the cycle starts over again in another city.
Lundy's return is bittersweet for Dexter's sister Debra, who never got over the older man. Actress Jennifer Carpenter is unforgettable as the foul-mouthed, intense Deb, who is utterly incapable of concealing an emotion or keeping a blunt comment to herself. I love that she is married to Hall, her TV adoptive brother, in real life. How appropriately creepy.
There are some truly chilling moments as hunters confront the hunted, and vice versa. Don't be surprised if you find yourself holding your breath. But the office drama is just as absorbing, as Lieutenant Laguerta (Lauren Velez) and homicide detective Angel (David Zayas) continue to agonize over their romance. They should clash the way Angel's Hawaiian shirts clash with Laguerta's leopard-print suits, but this damaged twosome is surprisingly touching.
Dexter has his own problems to deal with. The sleepless nights with baby Harrison are causing Dexter to make sloppy mistakes, both at work and while enjoying his "hobby." The slips could break his stepfather Harry's No. 1 rule: Don't get caught.
I won't try to justify Dexter's killings by pointing out that he watched his mother get chain-sawed to death at an impressionable age, or that he only kills bad people. There's really no excuse for enjoying dismemberment that much. But he's as fascinating when he explores the extremes of human behavior as when he observes the absurdities of "living the dream." Whether you understand Dexter or not, you have to admit: Life would be a lot less interesting without him.