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TELEVISION REVIEW

Hall endearingly creepy as ‘Dexter’ returns for a fifth season

Michael C. Hall as the serial killer in Showtime’s “Dexter.’’ Michael C. Hall as the serial killer in Showtime’s “Dexter.’’ (Sonja Flemming/Showtime)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / September 25, 2010

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It’s creepy-funny how “Dexter’’ and Showtime have turned Rita’s bathtub into a promotional icon. The blood-filled ivory tub, like a tureen of watery tomato soup, is a wink-wink reference to the shower scene in “Psycho,’’ the Hitchcock thriller whose hero, like Dexter, was an adult child.

It’s creepy-funny, which is true to the tone of the show itself. “Dexter’’ is a masterfully creepy-funny serial-killer series, and it continues to both frighten and amuse as it enters its fifth season on Sunday at 9. We’re used to hybrid TV shows that marry drama and comedy, but “Dexter’’ has a unique blend that extends to noir, psychodrama, and horror. Take the scene on Sunday when Dexter (Michael C. Hall) accidentally wears a Mickey Mouse hat — looking like the overwhelmed, overgrown boy that he is — while telling Rita’s children their mother is dead. How queasy is that?

Even Dexter’s voice-over is simultaneously eerie and amusing, as he shares his notions of twisted justice while making flippant jokes. He speaks in the intimate narrative tones of a movie like “Double Indemnity,’’ his mouth seemingly pressed up to the microphone as he veers between existential angst and ironic commentary. He is a monster, and yet there is something profoundly relatable about him as he talks — just as there is about Larry David, or Don Draper, or Dr. Gregory House.

I’m not going to spoil the major twists in the three episodes of “Dexter’’ that I previewed. But I will say that the story line is sturdy enough to help me forget the weakly plotted moments of last season, when Dexter made uncharacteristic errors that never seemed to have consequences. With one exception in the premiere, this season appears to be specifically about consequences, as loose strings from last season dangle. The “Dexter’’ writers have generally made every detail count — remember the blood on Rita’s wedding dress? — and I’m hoping they’re back to creating that kind of tightly knit web.

Hall is excellent, as usual, making the most of his closed-up face. He is dazed by Rita’s death, and, like a visiting alien, fascinated by the human responses that surround him. When the funeral director says he’s sorry for Dexter’s loss, Dexter thinks, “How does he do that? . . . He sounds like he actually means it.’’ It’s a testament to Hall’s performance on this show that, surrounded by funeral trappings, he remains indelibly Dexter, disconnected from his years burying people on “Six Feet Under.’’

Jennifer Carpenter is wired and foul-mouthed as always as Deb, as she tries to be there for her brother in his time of need. Debra has become more interesting as she has shaken off her victimhood and become a stronger individual, and I think Carpenter has been unfairly denied an Emmy nomination or two. Desmond Harrington, as Debra’s partner, Quinn, is more prominent this season, and Maria Doyle Kennedy — who was extraordinary as Katherine of Aragon on “The Tudors’’ — joins the cast as a nanny.

Also onboard this season: Julia Stiles, Jonny Lee Miller, and one of my favorites, Shawn Hatosy from “Southland,’’ who will play a strange guy responsible for dead-animal removal in the Miami area. Now that’s definitely on the creepy side of creepy-funny.

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

DEXTER

Starring: Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter, Lauren Vélez, David Zayas, Desmond Harrington, C.S. Lee, James Remar

On: Showtime

Time: Sunday night, 9-10