Dexter: Season One Blu-ray Review

Television shows on Blu-ray have been few and far between despite the format picking up steam heading into 2009. One show that should provide a sales lift and open the door for many others is the January 6 release of Showtime’s Dexter, the first program from the pay cable channel’s original lineup on Blu-ray and first television show on Blu-ray to be distributed by Paramount Home Entertainment.

Dexter brings to Blu-ray a history of moral uncertainties and consequential controversy unlike any show prior. Based on Jeff Lindsay’s “Darkly Dreaming Dexter,” it revolves around a sociopath serial killer who has been trained since childhood by his adoptive father to channel his killing “urges” at criminals whom the arm of the law cannot reach. Dexter’s father has also taught him the importance of blending in with society as to not arouse suspicion of the “monster” within. This upbringing, told via timely flashbacks, leads Dexter to become a blood splatter specialist for Miami’s police department by day leaving nights free to venture out and “play.”

Dexter’s controversy stems from a combination of the ingenious premise, the superb writing and a “dream team” cast any producer and director would die for. Leading the charge is Michael C Hall as Dexter, a dark role he was born to play even after finding success on Showtime’s Six Feet Under. Michael creates a protagonist devoid of sympathy or remorse, yet at the same time someone audiences find empathy with and even root for as he reads monotone voiced-over monologues to convey Dexter’s unabated disturbing thoughts.

Cheering on a serial killer to evade capture goes against society’s unwritten rules. While Dexter walks a fine line between vigilante hero and an out of control killer, audiences face a moral tug-of-war match with his every questionable move. Should Dexter eliminate his girlfriend’s abusive ex-husband because he is capable? Is that the “right” thing to do?

Similar questions are sprinkled throughout the first season under the shadow of an over-arching season-long hunt for The Ice Truck Killer, a surgically-precise murderer most would fear but Dexter admires. Trying to guess “who” the Ice Truck Killer is and why they appear to be speaking directly to Dexter via grisly crime scenes over the course of 10+ episodes is rewarded with a rare fulfilling payoff filled with twists and turns. Perhaps the biggest reward of all is getting to intimately know Dexter and his equally flawed in their own way co-workers with knowledge a second season awaits.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to catch the first season Dexter during its run on Showtime HD so I cannot compare the picture quality versus that 1080i presentation. I did watch the entire first season on DVD and am happy to report the 1.78:1 1080p Blu-ray transfer encoded with AVC MPEG-4 sinks that one like Dexter’s victims to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

The cleverly framed opening title sequence of Dexter getting ready for work is a perfect example of everything right with this transfer. Super tight shots of Dexter’s face as he shaves, blood hitting the sink, a knife cutting meat in a frying pan and a blood orange being gutted on a plate are so lifelike and full of detail that they almost jump off the screen. The vibrant colors, stark contrast, inky blacks and sterile whites are all fantastically rendered.

This pattern of gorgeous imagery continues throughout most of the show, at least where is appears the director intended it to. Both outdoor and indoor scenes range anywhere from perfection, especially numerous beach sequences, to isolated instances of almost standard DVD quality. This makes me wonder if the filmmakers didn’t use stock footage or an inferior camera for second-unit photography.

Season one’s finale goes off on a different direction altogether with heavier grain than previous episodes. I didn’t necessarily find this distracting but it is curious given the sparkling clarity of almost every scene in every episode before.

For every scene with more than acceptable grain, washed-out blacks and loss of sharpness there are at least 30 more that will make your jaw drop. The scenes shot inside the hockey area, in the back of the Ice Cream truck and on the ocean’s edge are just a few examples of why Dexter: Season One on Blu-ray is worth a double-dip for owners of the previously released DVD.

Dexter’s audio also receives an upgrade over DVD and the Showtime broadcast with a leap to 5.1 Dolby TrueHD lossless. The subtraction of compression adds a little more depth and clarity to dialogue and the melodic music, but isn’t as big a leap as the video provides. Still, the decision by Showtime to pursue lossless audio on Dexter bodes well for future shows making their way to Blu-ray.

Showtime put a lot of effort into ensuring Dexter’s high definition presentation is top-notch. The same can’t be completely said for the rest of Dexter’s package. The Blu-ray version of season one features the same cover art, menus and disc art (re: none) as the DVD and was not even granted a small PS3 XMB graphic. The only real difference in packaging is, aside from the blue snap-case, three Blu-ray Discs inside versus four for DVD.

I was genuinely hoping Showtime would abandon the practice of pushing viewers online to retrieve numerous bonus features like they did for Dexter: Season One on DVD. With the arrival of BD-Live on Blu-ray, Showtime has taken this practice a step closer towards alienating the majority of the title’s prospective owners that may not own profile 2.0 compliant Blu-ray Disc players.

With the exception of two audio commentaries that were also available on DVD, all of Dexter’s bonus features are only available via BD-Live including several that were available straight from the disc on DVD. At the time of this review, Showtime’s BD-Live portal returns a “text page” screen so I cannot comment on most of what Showtime is advertising as being available to view.

Episode Audio Commentaries – The first of two commentaries was recorded for episode 6, “Return to Sender,” and features actors Jennifer Carpenter, David Zayas, Lauren Velez and Erik King. The lively group share amazing chemistry in the show which naturally translates into a laidback commentary focusing more on personal opinions and jokes than meaty behind-the-scenes information. Erik compares a particular scene to an erection which is classic.

The more structured and informative commentary comes from producers Sara Colleton, Clyde Phillips and Daniel Cerrone. The shows masterminds offer not only their thoughts on the season finale “Born Free,” but also use this one-shot commentary to introduce ideas and retrospect on the entire season such as deliberate decisions to stray from the novel and how the development of characters affected their growth on the show. As a group, with Sara taking the lead, they’re beyond confident about the season they’ve put together and love to talk about the good fortune they shared.

The remaining bonus features available only via BD-Live and not available until the January 6 release date include Witnessed in Blood: A True Murder Investigation featurette, The Academy of Blood: A Killer Course featurette, Michael C. Hall Podcast (Blu-ray exclusive), episode one of Dexter: Season Three (Blu-ray exclusive) and the first two episodes of United States of Tara (Blu-ray exclusive). Not ported from the previously released DVD are cast biographies and two chapters of the novel.

Dexter: Season One is an ideal title to kick-off Showtime and Paramount’s TV on Blu-ray era. Not only is it one of the best television shows airing today, but it’s also riding a wave of publicity with the recent nominations of Michael C Hall for a Best Actor in a Drama Golden Globe and the show for Best Drama. If you haven’t seen a single episode, there’s no better way to be awestruck by the presentation and show than on Blu-ray.

– Dan Bradley

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