When did murder become so entertaining?
Throughout history death has been the center of classic literature. Think Cain and Abel, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. But there's something very different about reading the great books and what passes for entertainment these days.
Take television for example where murder is served up as a nightly ritual. Law & Order, C.S.I., Cold Case, N.C.I.S.. Some have become so popular they've spawned their own spin-off shows.
But none takes murder to the level that Showtime's Sunday night showpiece Dexter does. The cable network has just announced the program broke a ratings record with total viewers jumping 21% over last year.
When Showtime first began airing Dexter and then when it's parent company CBS aired episodes on the network during the writers strike, some church groups spoke out about its storyline.
Now it's my turn.
Dexter is a program about a crime lab forensic tech who helps investigate serial killers, all the while struggling against his own serial killer urges. As the story goes, Dexter Morgan was adopted as a toddler by a police officer who, after recognizing the boy's sociopathic personality, trained him to exercise his murderous tendencies only on those who truly deserve it. Naturally, Dexter (played by Michael C. Hall) doesn't emerge from the darkness into light. Oh, nooo! Where would be the fun in that? No, Dexter serially kills off serial killers and mysteriously dodges detection from his law enforcement colleagues, including his own police officer sister.
I've watched the program because, well, who doesn't like a good mystery? But in the end I come away wondering the same thing I wondered after watching old episodes of Superman. Why didn't all those smart people around Clark Kent figure him out? Why did none of them realize what he was really up to? More disturbingly, with Dexter I'm left wondering if Showtime isn't somehow glorifying the taking of life. As if it's okay for Dexter to resort to the very tactic the show's various serial killers employ -- cold blooded murder.
And, frankly, it bothers me that the program is shown on Sunday nights. That was always family TV night in our house, the final time for all of us to be together before the new work week. Sunday nights were special when I was a kid because after a big family meal my cousins, Sandy and Terry, and I were allowed to snuggle up and watch Ed Sullivan or Bonanza.
Somehow I think Mr. Sullivan and Little Joe (not to mention Hoss) would be horrified at Dexter's antics. Yet TV guide calls the program "Bloody good stuff." Showtime promotes it with the phrase, "A killer show at a killer deal!" Murder as a magnet to sell cable TV programming -- amazing.
The Dexter website features a screen that becomes slowly spattered with globs of blood. It invites visitors to "Dexter-ize" the website of their choice. You can also play the Body Bag Toss Game that "helps Dexter get rid of the evidence." Then there's the Scramble Slay Game or the Dexter marketplace where you can buy a set of coasters with the chalk outline of a dissected body or a set of blood spattered pillow cases.
What's happened to us?
Look, I love a good crime story. And I don't mean to preach here. But I've dedicated a big part of my career to covering crime and justice and so it's with first hand certainty that I tell you that real murder is never entertaining. The smell of it hits you the moment you arrive at a scene, the amount of blood can, literally, make you gag and most of the time seeking justice for the dead is a pretty ugly experience. What takes the cast on Law & Order an hour to achieve -- discovery, trial and verdict -- often takes years in real life, if it happens at all. None of the steps after murder are fun.
Ask the people who clean up crime scenes, a homicide detective or a staffer in the District Attorney's office if murder is entertaining to them. Like me, they probably watch many of these programs that highlight what they do every day. But unlike you they may come away with a heavy heart thinking, "That's not really the way it is."
I don't want to curb television writer's creativity or abridge free speech but I would like it if we could, collectively, take a step back once in a while and judge things on an ethical and moral plane.
It's one thing to read a book or see a program about solving the world's most heinous crime -- murder. It's quite another for an entertainment vehicle to choose murder as a method of payback.
Murder is murder. Can't they figure out another way to entertain us?
Diane Dimond's website is: www.DianeDimond.net. She can be reached at: Diane@DianeDimond.net