Dying To Be Entertaining

by Diane Dimond on October 18, 2008

Why Are We So Captivated?

Why Are We So Captivated?

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 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 is 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.

Its 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?

Dan "Danno" Hanks October 18, 2008 at 10:57 am

Diane: I remember the first time that you and I walked a crime scene togeather and the smell was just as you describe. It was the serial rapist/murderer that the cops had dubbed “Red Dragon”. If you recall, your story got the man caught. Most people only know of Diane Dimond, the reporter, not Diane Dimond, the crime fighter. I know better………Danno Hanks

Diane October 18, 2008 at 10:38 pm

Ah…yes. Those were the good old days! BTW – Dan Hanks is a great L.A. based Private Detective if you ever need one! Thanks for the stroll down memory lane, Danno. ~ DD

marc October 18, 2008 at 1:19 pm

i admit watching dexter. the show seems put together very well.

the twist of a killer killing killers is what i think gets attention. has a show ever been made like it ?

i view it as escapism.
i do find it hard to root for the good guy when he really isn’t a good guy. there are very few shows that are family shows anymore. even less of them are done well.

Diane October 18, 2008 at 10:39 pm

And, Marc – with so many channels now I guess there is room for prime time adult only shows. I just miss the old Bonanza days! ~ DD

jeff hughes October 18, 2008 at 2:21 pm

The show “Dexter” brings to light that most of us taxpayers are tired of cops that have their hands tied when confronted with a murder or murderer, and the fact lawyers seem to get many killers off the hook, and with good pay, too! I think most of us think of Dexter as a way to think justice really is being served. As long as a guy like that leaves innocent people alone, I think a few killers could be weeded out here and there. After all, if a killer KNOWS he/she will be punished, they will likely think twice before committing a crime!

Diane October 18, 2008 at 10:40 pm

Jeff – Its hard not to root for someone who rids the earth of a serial killer. ~ DD

Diane October 18, 2008 at 3:21 pm

FROM A CRIME VICTIM – Danielle P. who lost her mother to an unsolved murder 16 years ago. At my request Danielle watched an episode of ‘Dexter’. Here’s her reaction: ~ DD

“….As much as I love the idea of one serial killer killing another serial killer (this way you can kill many birds with one stone … and efficiently since they are pathologically intelligent), it is still a sick premise for a show.

Murder is, and should never be promoted as being, an acceptable practice. This series makes murder seem sexy, appealing, justifiable and even somewhat normal.

The MRI scene in which a tech explains to Dexter that he has the same type of brain as another serial killer, (one without conscience) gives an outsider insight into why criminals are incapable of understanding the ramifications of their actions. Because they are incapable of feeling.

However, does knowing that fact help benefit a crime victim? Does that make me feel more sympathetic towards the person(s) who killed my mother and ruined my life? Knowing that a killer doesn’t feel the gut wrenching pain that I experience every day of my life, makes me even more furious than I already am.

I want that person to suffer the way I suffer. I want that person to feel guilty every day of their life. And mostly, I want that son-of-a-bitch to pay for what they did. I pay every day of my life for what that animal did to my mother. So, now I am serving a life sentence for the crime and I am crippled with the knowledge that (most likely), that person doesn’t even feel empathy for what they did to me and my broken family.

Congratulations, “Dexter” for making me realize that victimization never ends.

Diane October 18, 2008 at 10:42 pm

Danielle – As you well know there are tens of thousands of cold murder case survivors like you out there. Thank you so much for writing your thoughts about this. You are the poster child for all victims who left behind grieving loved ones. I will always remember that you wore a T- shirt long ago that read: “Murder is NOT entertainment.” Bless you and others like you. ~ DD

Diane October 18, 2008 at 5:34 pm

From Leslie an Albuquerque Journal reader:

I read with interest your editorial denouncing the teevee show Dexter. I’ve never seen the show myself, so I’m in no position to comment on its artistic value, but if I understand you correctly, you object to the portrayal of a sociopath as a sort of hero, a bit like Hannibal Lecter (who preferred eating the rude).

Worse, you say, this show airs on Sunday nights, a night you remember from your childhood as filled with Ed Sullivan and Bonanza. Here’s my question to you: How often did Ben, Hoss, and Little Joe shoot and kill somebody? How many times was a dead body left lying on the streets of Virginia City? I never counted, but my guess is, nearly every week.

But, you say, those who were shot always deserved it, right? They were always bad guys, people who endangered the peace-loving members of the community, they were nameless and interchangeable, and there seemed to be an endless supply of them riding into town. Ben and his boys were the very angels of justice in that show. Just because none of them were actually elected lawmen, was no reason for them not to go around with their guns locked and loaded, because they felt a duty to protect and defend.

They were vigilantes. Just like Dexter.

Newspapers are no place for philosophical discussions, and I applaud your efforts in this never-ending conversation. I just wanted to remind you, gently, that violence on television is as old as television, the only difference being that now, the special effects are more realistic.

Diane October 18, 2008 at 10:43 pm

What a well written response to my column! Thank you, Leslie, for reminding all of us that television has long been the conduit for murder and violence. Wish it wasn’t so – but you are right. Thanks for writing! ~ DD

jeff liddell October 18, 2008 at 5:35 pm

I think we need to go deeper and quite sometime before Dexter to the Death Wish series starring Charles Bronson and the Dirty Harry series starring Clint Eastwood. Both of those characters take the law into their own hands when law enforcement reaches a dead end and who of us has not had thoughts similar to them about exacting justice when all else fails. The character of Dexter relates the same theory only using a serial killer to catch serial killers. If you recall, detectives in their efforts to catch the Green River killer tried to extract ideas from Ted Bundy in order to help them. Maybe that is where the idea for Dexter originated. I do know that once you have been a victim of any crime, either directly or indirectly, you look at the world and people in a different way than those who have never been victimized. The serving up of justice becomes more important and the manner in which it is served becomes less important. I firmly believe that good breeds good and bad breeds bad and the simply watching violent shows on TV influences anyone unless they are already living a situation that would teach abnormal behavior. Diane, I believe you touched on this subject in your article about helicopter lawyers, media coverage of violent crimes and disasters is so complete and graphic, don’t you think that feeds the public demand for this type of television fare? When I see stories of children being harmed, I pray for just ten minutes alone with the perpetrator of the crime, is that right or wrong, someone else will have to judge my thoughts.

Diane October 18, 2008 at 10:45 pm

Jeff – In keeping with your theory that bad makes bad, good breeds more good – I guess it doesn’t matter then if TV depicts murder as entertainment. If a child is raised right they’ll be able to seperate fiction from fact. ~DD

jeff liddell October 19, 2008 at 1:11 am

Surely exceptions exist, but when raised properly, most children and adults will do the right thing. Perhaps the public channels should at least give us one family night each week, but the premium pay channels are and should remain free from any pressure that dictates what they choose to air. The thought of any censorship, which I don’t believe you would advocate, reminds me of the book burning by Adolph Hitler in which the works of Hemingway, Einstein and Jack London were destroyed.

Lyn October 18, 2008 at 7:56 pm

Hey Diane…wow, what an interesting and in my opinion “fascinating” (for want of a better word) subject. I admit, I have been fascinated by crime/murder/serial killers since being very young. Coming from England…I got to learn alot and got interested in the cases of the still unsolved Jack The Ripper (I watch everything on tv I can on this) and Crippen, Christie, Yorkshire Ripper, etc….I admit I watch alot of this on tv but not because I am a sadist or anything of the sorts but because I am genuinely interested. I have always wanted to know how Jack the Ripper got away with it…and many others of course. Virtually every book I read is about Serial Killers or True Crime…always non-fiction….I read this to learn…what made these sadists and disgusting people commit their crimes? I do watch Dexter (and it is repeated almost every night) because of the concept of the show and I do appreciate that victims of crime would be offended by it. I guess if I were a crime victim then I would not watch anything like it.

Diane October 18, 2008 at 10:48 pm

Lyn – You and I are very much alike! From a young age I’ve been fascinated by all sorts of human behaviors … especially those that go completely against society’s rules, like murder. How do people do it? How do they live with themselves afterward? Do they REALLY think they’ll get away with it?
Now, Jack-the-Ripper…wow! That’s the poster boy for what I’m talking about! ~DD

Lyn October 18, 2008 at 10:52 pm

Thanks Diane..I appreciate your comments cos the last thing I want people to think of me is that I am some kind of nutter that loves to know about crime/murder etc…I am a nutter but in other ways!!! It is a fascination that has lasted years and will continue to do so with me. Also, watching your reporting on various crimes – OJ for one – has always been incredibly educational and interesting to me.

Diane October 18, 2008 at 10:34 pm

Ken writes via FaceBook:

“Diane knows that in all the focus groups done on news that the public loves to hear about crime! True!”

Diane October 19, 2008 at 2:03 pm

From Joseph S. – An Albuquerque Journal reader:

“… I am product of the Great Depression, WWII, and I volunteered as an enlisted man in the Korean War. I served as a Hospital Corpsman in the US Navy. Thirty three months of my four year enlistment were spent with the US Marine Corps. I wore both uniforms and was discharged honorably in 1955.

One of the most popular paperbacks during my time in the military was the series by Mickey Spillane…the Mike Hammer stories. Mike Hammer, a private detective, was one bad hombre. He once described himself as bacteria, a good bacteria that kills bad bacteria, but bacteria never the less. Like Penicillin he brutalized the bad guys or bad

I watch all the programs that you listed in the subject article, and it makes me feel good , at least on TV, the good guys win most of the time. We both know that today in the real world there are not many good guys. If there were, our Systems would not be broken … education, medical, VA and so forth. I responded to you earlier on this subject.

I whole heartedly agree with you that “Dexter” should not be shown at a time when children will be viewing TV. Enter parental guidance. This may be the only answer. I believe that parental guidance is sorely lacking in our society, hence the increase in sociopathic behavior in our society.

Keep up the the great work.

Diane October 19, 2008 at 9:11 pm

From FACEBOOK friend Diane: (nice name!)
“…Very good article and oh so true!!! We seem to be a society obssessed with killing, fascinated with the details….it is really sick! What are we doing to our children who see a constant diet of this stuff??”

Diane October 20, 2008 at 12:11 pm

From Jeffrey an Albuquerque Journal reader:
“I loved your column on death and entertainment, and couldn’t agree with you more. I am one of those people who has taken an all too cavalier approach to death. I’m an archaeologist, and I have published two novels that marry archaeology and murder. It’s a great marriage, mysteries of the past wrapped around mysteries of the present. It’s easy to wrote about, but recently I was confronted with the real thing. Not murder, but death nonetheless. I was involved in the archaeological excavation and analysis of 64 soldiers, women and children, left behind by the U.S. Army in the late 1800s. I saw every one of them, the soldiers were mostly young, lives cut short. The women, old before their time, one of whom must have been in tremendous pain as she had all the symtoms consistent with tertiary syphilis. There was one infant, so well preserved that its hair was still combed, it’s lips were intact, and its tiny hand bones still clasped aginst its breast, holding the remains of flowers. It was a very sobering time. This experience has taught me that we take life for granted, and do it no service when we treat its ending as entertainment. If I write any more novels, no one will die.”

Diane October 25, 2008 at 3:24 pm

Albuquerque Journal Reader Doug writes:

I’m an Albuquerque resident, and it was funny that I watched my first Dexter DVD (Season 1) last night as a rental from Netflix, then I saw your column in today’s Albuquerque Journal.

My friend had told me that “Dexter” was “dark.”

I’ll admit to you right away that I abhor violence in real life, am fundamentally against war and any form of torture and don’t own a gun. Yet somehow I was addicted to shows like “24” and enjoyed the sheer quirkiness of the first few episodes of “Dexter.”

I can’t explain it, but it is certainly something to think about, and your column is food for thought. I suppose there is a portion of our society that does not see the division between TV violence and real life, and therefore it is dangerous. To me, it is simply entertaining.

“Dexter” is, at it’s heart, a comedy. Nothing portrays this better than when Dexter declines to have sex with his girlfriend (because he is fundamentally confused and distressed by it) and she hugs him and says, “You are probably the only truly decent man in the whole world.” The irony made me laugh out loud.

So, in the end, I’m conflicted about the portrayal of violence and murder on TV, but for now, I’m enjoying it. Maybe I should see an analyst!

Diane October 25, 2008 at 3:39 pm

Benita writes:
I was so glad to read your column on Dexter. The basic premise of the program has bothered me for some time. I do not watch it, regardless of how well-told a mystery it may be. You made a lot of interesting and valid points. I would like to share a few additional thoughts with you.

1. Foster Dad recognizes that this young child is “destined” to become a serial killer. Dad does NOT tirelessly attempt to get his son any and all kinds of treatment that might avoid this fate. Nor does he hope that his son will be caught after his first victim, so that society will be protected. Instead Dad trains Dexter to “channel” these urges in such a way as to not get caught and to kill only people who “deserve it.” Imagine the story this way….a foster dad recognizes that his young son has been abused in such a way that he is destined to become a serial sadistic rapist. Dad then guides him to channel his urges in such a way as to not get caught and to only torture and rape people who deserve it. Can you imagine the outrage?

2. The notion is presented that these killings fill a “need” in Dexter. Need and desire are two different things. Dexter may indeed need to deal with his early childhood traumas. He may have a need for a sense of control or safety. He does not “need” to torture and kill people; he has a desire. Anyone professionally familiar with obsessive and compulsive patterns should know that giving in to the compulsion actually strengthens the obsessive desire. The obsessive desire builds and builds until the action is performed, resulting is a sense of temporary relief. This sense of relief actually acts as a reward and decreases the tolerance for handling the obsessive desire, causing the action to be performed more, not less, frequently. Think of a person who “needs” to check their door locks multiple times a day. The more often they give in to checking the locks, the stronger and more persistent the pattern becomes and the more frequently they will feel the “need” to check the locks. So Dexter isn’t satisfying a legitimate hunger that will then be sated for a time, he is actually increasing his “need” to satisfy this desire.

3. The premise panders to the belief that some people “deserve to die.” I think most people agree that some individuals need to be dealt with in some permanent way such that they can never again be a danger to others in society. Some favor life imprisonment without the possibility of parole; others favor the death penalty. Some go farther and believe that such a death should fit the crime, and thus be as painful and brutal as what their victims have experienced. This, to me, promotes the basest of human impulses.

4. Dexter is presented as having a positive side and his actions are believed to have stemmed from his horrific childhood. Thus the audience is expected to have at least a degree of compassion and sympathy for him. Yet, if his victims are also “horrible people” who “deserve to die,” then didn’t THEY probably have horrible childhoods? Don’t they probably have SOME positive aspects to their personality?

Some may say that this gives us, as a culture, a chance to explore these issues. And as a movie or even a mini-series, that might be true. But because of the extended format of a television series, it sets up Dexter to be a kind of hero or role model. By encouraging viewers to identify with Dexter, it actually promotes and validates revenge fantasies in the audience.

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