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TELEVISION REVIEW

Stylishly graphic,'Dexter' pleases with a killer twist

It's not a stretch to imagine the crime scenes in ``Dexter" as a Vanity Fair photo spread. This fiendishly excellent new Showtime series turns blood spatter into a pop art form, like Jackson Pollock meets Annie Leibovitz . Always framed by pristine white walls, the carefully displayed gore has the cool, sterile feel of an AIDS-era still life.

From its early shot of the moon in a pool of red, ``Dexter" makes one thing loud and clear: It employs the most audacious set designers on TV right now. They illustrate this pulpy story of a serial killer who kills serial killers with a fetishistic, almost pornographic glee. And don't think they ignore any of the stark, Art Deco potential of Miami, where ``Dexter," which premieres tomorrow night at 10 , takes place. This show rivals ``Nip/Tuck" in sheer perverse visual wit.

But opening a review of ``Dexter" with its graphic thrills might mislead. The sum of this show, based on Jeff Lindsay's novel ``Darkly Dreaming Dexter" and starring Michael C. Hall from ``Six Feet Under," is so much more than its body parts.

On the surface, ``Dexter" is a neo-noir with a gruesome central mystery -- the ``ice-truck murders" -- that will stretch across the season's 12 episodes. Who's killing hookers and draining them of blood? Then it is also a fascinating character study of Dexter, a man raised by his cop foster father (James Remar ) to channel his violence into taking out society's trash. And deepest of all, it is an intelligent and sustained exercise in moral irony. Dexter may be an obsessive murderer, but he's also a hero of sorts.

He's Hannibal Lecter , but he's also Clarice Starling .

By day, Dexter helps the Miami police as a CSI expert. By night, he's stalking killers, gathering proof against them, and lecturing them about their sins before chopping them up. ``I have standards," he screams at a child killer before finishing him off. And he does have standards, which he calls ``The Code of Harry" after his father, who taught him to kill only those who'll kill again. In flashbacks that play like mythology scenes in a superhero comic, we see Harry mentoring young Dexter in murder as if he were teaching him to shave.

By episode two, I'm betting you will not hate Dexter, despite his vigilantism and his slippery personality. And that is one of the many miracles of ``Dexter," as well as of Hall's grand performance. TV anti-heroes have been popular since Tony Soprano showed us how a two-timing mobster could somehow be an everyman. The fact that Hall makes Dexter likable is even more impressive, since Dexter is so profoundly controlled, with none of Tony's passion. He can only mimic human warmth -- bringing doughnuts to co - workers, courting the mother of two kids -- because he is a shell of a man.

Hate him if you will, the show's makers seem to dare us, but he solves more crimes than the self-serving detectives around him, notably Lieutenant Maria La Guerta (Lauren Velez from ``Oz" ). On a network procedural such as ``CSI: Miami," the butch Sergeant Doakes (Erik King ) would be the famous closer. On ``Dexter," he's a cop whose human feeling taints his pursuit of a local gangster-killer. Dexter, meanwhile, doesn't do feeling.

We get to know Dexter inside out, because we can hear his thoughts in a beautifully stylized, hard-boiled voice-over out of a 1940s movie. ``Another beautiful day in Miami," he says with typically dry humor; ``mutilated corpses with a chance of afternoon showers." It sounds like Hall is talking inside a box, as he intimately shares both the mundanities of Dexter's days as well as his philosophy. ``I'm a neat monster," he confides. Of his girlfriend (Julie Benz ) he tells us, ``Rita's perfect because she is, in her own way, as damaged as me."

Dexter's self-awareness in these oral thought balloons is seductive -- but possibly misleading. He thinks of himself as a master of fakery, a sort of Mr. Ripley who takes on the attributes of those around him so they won't suspect he's twisted. But as we watch Dexter clown lovingly with Rita's kids, or loyally help his cop sister, Debra (Jennifer Carpenter ), get a new job, we have to wonder if he's an undependable narrator. Maybe he's not as cold-blooded as he thinks he is?

Hall was remarkable on ``Six Feet Under" as David , the stiff-faced brother who struggled throughout the series to express himself. On ``Dexter," he also hides behind a mask, but he is even more transfixing here. David was a masochist; Dexter is a sadist. David was in denial; Dexter is so eager to face reality that nothing scares him.

David tended to already dead bodies; Dexter, alas, is more of a supplier.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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