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UCLA

Is Dexter the Real Deal?

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By Fern Siegel

Published Sep 8, 2009 2:34 PM


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UCLA professor Park Dietz has evaluated more than two dozen serial killers, including Jeffrey Dahmer and Joel Rifkin and has been an FBI consultant for 30 years.

The rule of law is a hallmark of civilization, but like the original iBook, it's nifty, but slow. Sometimes, you need to jump-start the system — and that's where Dexter, the acclaimed Showtime hit series that returns for a fourth season on Sept. 27, comes in.

But does the Peabody Award-winning TV portrait of a personable serial killer ring true? Not so much, says Dr. Park Dietz, clinical professor of psychiatry and bio-behavioral sciences at UCLA and founder of Park Dietz & Associates, a forensic consulting firm. Dietz has evaluated more than two dozen serial killers, including Jeffrey Dahmer and Joel Rifkin.

By day, Dexter Morgan is a top-notch blood specialist with the Miami PD; by night, he's an avenging angel who eliminates killers with élan. He's like Batman without the animal fetish. Dexter is a moralist in a form-fitting shirt; his calling card is laser-light precision and a can-do American spirit. If he rented himself out, he'd be our leading entrepreneur.

According to Dietz, that's a stretch. "Almost every serial killer in history has passed for ordinary when he wasn't committing crimes," he notes. "The vast majority — perhaps 80 percent or more — work at least some of the time, have domestic partners, pay some of their bills and say 'thank you' when given a gift," says Dietz. "What's unrealistic about Dexter is his selectivity about killing only bad people, his doubting himself and his empathy."

In real life, the bad guys aren't always punished. On the series, it's a done deal, which may explain its appeal. "The show is so thematically rich and layered with humanity that audiences of all kinds have flocked to it," says Showtime entertainment president Robert Greenblatt.

Despite his homicidal tendencies, this serial killer also sports a moral compass: First, it's important to right wrongs. Second, everyone appreciates a pleasant co-worker. The man brings doughnuts to work! Third, family matters. Dexter treats his girlfriend's kids like gold. Fourth, stand by your principles. Dexter insists on definitive proof of guilt. He may be a vigilante, but he's thorough.

All of which makes Dexter pretty unrealistic, says Dietz, who has consulted for Law & Order, Murder One and CSI in addition to producing forensic evaluations of real-life serial killers. Though he's a big fan of the show, he disputes the notion of an ethical executioner.

"If there has ever been a serial killer who only takes the lives of confirmed murderers," Dietz says, "he's probably been killing rival gang members, not making the world a better place."

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