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.