Text, Context, and Dex

As far as I’m concerned, nothing is more relaxing after a long day of immersing oneself in rhetoric history than watching a fictional serial killer solve his world’s problems through internal monologue and the ritual kill that follows his decision: to kill or not to kill, that is the question. As an invested audience member, I tend to vote for the former option. Luckily, the show’s producers would have its audience vote for brutal premeditated murder, so I feel less guilty about the morbid gratification.

I’m talking about the Showtime series Dexter, which follows the exploits of blood spatter analyst Dexter Morgan, forensics specialist by day and serial killer who hunts serial killers by night. While I could write a dissertation on the brilliance of this TV show, I want to focus on my favorite part of it, the introductory sequence. Take a look:

Slap. Scratch. Cut. Bite. Chew. Crack. Slice. Squeeze. Press. Crunch. Pull. Clench.

The opening credits showcase verbs of the disturbing yet gratifying persuasion, all of course, through visual representation and subtle sound effects layered on top of the show’s theme music. Equally brilliant, the creators spill a trail of blood throughout one minute and fifty four seconds of delicious mosquito bites, shaving cuts, hot sauce, and fleshy grapefruit slices. To connect the blood to (1) the imagined violence done to bodies, (2) Dexter, and then (3) the viewer, the camera shifts from close-up shots of the main character to the breakfast/shaving carnage that can only be viewed from Dexter’s (and by extension, the audience’s) point of view. The viewer and Dexter remain disturbingly close up until the end when viewers are forced to face him eye to eye. The camera zooms out. The audience is able to finally separate from the monster as he steps out into the world, locking his door behind him (gotta be safe there, Dex). Of course, the visuals imply the question: Can we ever fully separate from Dexter after we’ve shared such an intimate and gruesome morning ritual with him?

The sequence is clearly persuasive and ethos/pathos saturated, but I wonder, what would Dexter’s introductory enthymeme look like?

The mundane is violent; Breakfast is mundane; Therefore, breakfast is violent (and so are you, viewer, you disturbing breakfast preparer)

Textual readings aside, I also imagine Dexter’s appeal to the visual in contrast to the audio-saturated opening credits that have preceded it in prior years. Remember the opening credits for Growing Pains, Family Matters, Who’s the Boss, The Brady Bunch? Good. Now see if you can get their theme songs to stop playing in your head.  These shows relied on opening credits with horrible lyrics that captured the cheese we were guaranteed in every single episode. Similarly, while the visuals in the All in the Family opening sequence are definitely important, much more telling are the brilliant lyrics that comprise “Those Were the Days.” Going back even farther in time, I Love Lucy and Leave It to Beaver didn’t have lyrical theme songs, but they had memorable melodies—much more so than the images accompanying the sound. While I can vividly see Opie and Andy walkin’ on down to the fishin’ hole, I’m more likely to begin whistling when I think of the opening credits than imagining fishing poles.

Of course, there are definitely exceptions to a trend that I’m noticing in the present in terms of these pop culture texts: less attention to lyrics, more attention to melody and sound effects; less attention to sound in general and more attention to visual aspects. Heck, maybe it’s just that I’m watching all the same kinds of shows.

I wonder, though, do Dexter’s opening credits offer proof of a shifting emphasis from what we hear to what we see? Has the audio become secondary to the image?  Perhaps this is too simplistic. How about this: How does the interaction among  visual and  audio aspects of these texts tell us something about the relationship among mode, message, and context? For instance, I can’t help but feel that the explicit cheesy TV theme songs of the 80s tend to work at the level of depth that should attend the “me” decade. Dexter’s rejection of words and the care taken to overwhelm visually expresses a kind of silence on the verge of an utterance. It’s very “at any moment I could possibly speak, or I could perhaps cut you with my extra large grapefruit knife.” It’s smart, reasonably subtle, and o so 21st century. Blood spatter and all.

What do these texts tell us about their contexts, and how does this discussion expand our New Media knowledge base?

Still have the Brady Bunch theme song stuck in your head? I’m sorry.

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3 Responses to Text, Context, and Dex

  1. mojoofrhet says:

    Yes, yes I do – thank you very much, Mandy. . .jerk.

    But more importantly, your post left a whole lotta cool thoughts in my head! I think Dexter’s opening here does what the “genre” (we can call it that, right?) aims to do – provide a bit of premise, a platform or even doorway into an understanding of the subsequent media (the show). And how interesting that viewers don’t really need, or want even, a narrative and melodious “back story” – we want something more abstract. A “choose your own enthymeme” kind of opener. Consider Rubicon (intelligence file notes of crossword clues and world maps), Boardwalk Empire (Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson meditatively wading through Atlantic Ocean waves), Weeds (Creator Jenji Kohan’s name outlined in marijuana leaf designed from objects crucial to a scene in the upcoming episode) – all of these cable television shows rely on visually-communicated meaning to place the viewer and provide paradigm. But these meanings are so much more “up for grabs” than the old shows of our childhoods, right? “Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale. . .” is just not going to cut it anymore. Perhaps this is because audiences know there is no longer one way to understand media, plot, characters – and Dexter is the perfect reflection of this. He is just too multi-faceted to re-tell in linear lyrics! He’s a serial killer, he’s a good father – maybe, he’s a hero, he’s – a choose-your-own enthymeme kind of character – and this seems to be the direction of the stories – the rhetoric – of our culture. I suspect the genre of “good guy, bad deeds” (Breaking Bad’s Walter, The Big C’s Catherine, Dexter, Hung’s Richard) comes from the recession, really. Morality is shifty when times are tough. My mom and dad would have never shirked a mortgage or medical bills – but I don’t think the television viewer my age would see either action as unethical. Shit happens, and you murder people, sell weed, crack, your body, etc.

    Things are increasingly fuzzy, open to interpretation, less black and white. And so are our opening intros. Thanks for making me think. 🙂

  2. rylandjj22 says:

    Mandy–I think this is really remarkable insight you have made. And it makes me recall other theme music–such as the Monday night football music, which I hate (I do enjoy sports, but really can’t stand the NFL), but listened to for so many weeks of my life because it was the thing to do on Monday nights. I can’t say that I’ve seen Dexter or any of the other modern shows that focus on the visual that Morgan pointed out (I need to watch more shows!), but I do agree that there is a move in this direction. Yet at the same time, I do watch CNN frequently and wonder how we might apply your insight to the “in your face” 24-hour news cycle: Are matters more open to interpretation here as well? Could it be beneficial–allow us to consider what is moral differently and perhaps more empathetically–to watch more shows like Dexter before flipping to 24-hour news stations and their direct, biased-heavy comments we find here? At any rate, interesting thoughts from both of you–you should form a panel or co-write a piece on the relationship between the move to visual interpretation and ethics.

  3. leighgruwell says:

    Mandy,

    I LOVE Dexter. There is something strangely relaxing for me in sitting back, and letting Dexter take over– I’m just a passenger on his ride (not his ‘Dark Passenger,’ though- right?). I’ve always been kind of fascinated by how the viewer always roots for Dexter, a man who is by his own admission a monster, a serial killer. What an incredible task for Dexter’s writers: get an audience to identify with a murderer. Yet everyone that I’ve ever talked to about Dexter loves the show, and loves the character. I always thought the reason why the audience identifies with Dexter is because of his ‘code,’ his devotion to controlling and channeling his murderous instincts in ‘productive’ ways. Nobody’s really going to mind if a child molester is murdered, right? But I think you’re on to something with the opening credits. I always kind of loved these opening credits; the ritualization of routine is really smart. Yet it’s more than that: it’s rhetorical, it draws us in, it makes us realize how “normal” Dexter is, and, at the same time, how monstrous our daily lives are. The thin line between horror and mundane is blurred (the Brady Bunch opening credits accomplish the same task-HA!).

    Thanks for a smart post. As always, I enjoy reading your thoughts!

    Leigh

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