Michael C. Hall is impressed by the technique of his scene partner. It's not that he's a good improviser, or the kind of actor who reveals a lot of backstory through subtle inflections. Actually, the guy has no lines at all. He's just an extra lying on a gurney in the closed wing of an old Pasadena hospital used for TV shoots. His eyes are shut, his chest still, and his skin blue with makeup. Hall who's playing a professional blood-spatter expert with the Miami police department on Showtime's shocking new series Dexter (premiering Oct. 1 at 10 p.m.) inspects him, looking for a cause of death. As fake corpses go, this guy has nailed it. ''It's probably one in 10 people who can close their eyes without a flutter,'' Hall later says. ''He's born to be dead.''
After five seasons playing repressed gay mortician David Fisher on Six Feet Under, Hall is, of course, an expert in all things deceased. But this time, the 35-year-old is looking at daisy-pushing from a slightly less emotional vantage. Dexter may be a brilliant investigator...but he's also an extracurricular serial killer whose idea of a wind-down is a warm bloodbath. So these days, it's actually a rare moment when Hall gets to evaluate a body that's intact. That said, he cracks, ''The parts I've dealt with on this show have been very convincing.''
You can't get any higher on the evolutionary ladder of cable-TV antiheroes than Dexter Morgan. Sure, Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey have their dark sides, but come on, now: serial killer! Yet in some ways, Dexter is actually more sympathetic than those two villainous protagonists. A character first introduced in Jeff Lindsay's 2004 crime novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter (a sequel was published last year), Dexter is a murderous sociopath, yes, but one who only butchers people who deserve it. When he was young, his foster father, a detective named Harry (Sex and the City's James Remar), spotted signs of his son's unquenchable thirst for blood; recurring flashbacks show Dad teaching Dexter how to slake it by tracking and slaughtering deserving murderers and pedophiles with meticulous gusto. It's a hunt made easier because he thinks just like them: Call it slaydar. ''I think it's a lot harder to understand what Tony Soprano does,'' says Showtime entertainment president Robert Greenblatt. ''He has more of a moral bankruptcy than Dexter, who has a very clear moral conscience.''
Morality is a strange word to attach to Dexter, a character who confesses in narrative voice-overs to lacking true human emotions and a sex drive as per the serial-killer psychology. Something happened to him as a child (a mystery that will be explored all season), and it made him such a sociopath that he has to simulate all feelings with his co-workers, his cop sister (The Exorcism of Emily Rose's Jennifer Carpenter), and his girlfriend Rita (Angel's Julie Benz), a former abuse victim and single mother who, fortunately for him, is still so emotionally scarred that she can't manage a physical relationship. The only thing that gives him legitimate joy is bloodshed, which is why he finds his job at the cop shop so rewarding. ''It's the perfect place for Dexter to hide in plain sight,'' says Hall. ''He's surrounded by people who are, for lack of a better word, creepy. He loves his work. His day job and his night job.''
As he brings doughnuts to his fellow cops, double-dates with his sister, and chats about sports chummy interpersonal skills he must work to feign Dexter seems nothing like the usual heavy-breathing, knife-sharpening, suit-of-human-skin-knitting serial killers we're so used to seeing in movies and TV. ''Bob [Greenblatt] always said, 'I don't want Dexter to be creepy,''' says executive producer and former Paramount production head John Goldwyn, who brought the project to Showtime with partner Sara Colleton. ''He said, 'You want to spend time with this guy, you want him in your living room, you want him in your life.''' But not just anyone could pull off portraying a murderer who audiences would want over for Yahtzee and pie. ''We had to find the guy who was really complex and really tortured and also sympathetic and likable,'' says Greenblatt, who'd exec-produced Six Feet Under before arriving at Showtime. ''It was a really tall order.'' And it was one that he filled by suggesting Hall: ''I knew he wasn't anything like David.''
When the Dexter script was brought to Hall in July 2005, he'd just wrapped Six Feet Under and had no intention of returning to TV so quickly. ''I was back in New York, and hoped to get back on stage,'' says Hall, a seasoned theater vet who logged 493 performances as the Emcee in Broadway's Cabaret in 1999 and 2000. ''I didn't have a definitive plan as to what I'd do next. But then again, when Six Feet came along, I certainly wasn't anticipating it, either.'' With that in mind, Hall signed on because he was intrigued by the macabre mix of dark humor, chilling violence, and a unique central character. While there were superficial similarities to David (the strong father figure, a regular proximity to corpses), in every other way Dexter proved to be opposite: You can't get any less repressed than a guy who binds his victims in plastic wrap and dismembers them alive with a bone saw. (Let's reiterate that for skittish viewers: The killings can get very intense.) Says Hall, "Yeah, this guy's a bit more proactive than David."
In order to further separate himself from his signature TV role, Hall was given a different look, breaking free of David's rigidly parted hair and persnickety gait. With his tousled reddish locks, long sideburns, and casual Miami wardrobe, Dexter is the hippest-looking killer since American Psycho's Patrick Bateman. That's less a concession to fashion than to character; everything about Dexter is calculated to avoid the serial-killer template. Says Hall, ''He's aware of every nook and cranny of the profile he's avoiding fulfilling.''
David Fisher was such a popular and deeply inhabited character that it may be tough at first for people to imagine Hall wielding anything more dangerous than an embalming hose. Even some of his co-workers arrived with a deep attachment to his old role. ''I was a disgustingly huge fan,'' says Benz. ''To the point that my cell-phone ringtone was the Six Feet Under theme song. When I got cast, I had to change it, because I thought, How embarrassing to have it ring! I didn't want to freak Michael out.'' Once he got into character, though, memories of the fussy younger Fisher brother were soon forgotten. ''When we have our table reads, everyone's sitting around informally and eating lunch,'' says executive producer Clyde Phillips (who also writes mystery novels and, incongruously, created Suddenly Susan). ''And when he drops that octave to read his voice-over, everybody stops, you see slices of pizza halfway up to people's mouths, and everyone just stares.''
Dexter and his fellow cops work far from Ocean Drive in Miami's funkier, grungier corners or at least the L.A. stand-in equivalent; after the pilot was shot in Miami, Florida's hurricane insurance proved too pricey to shoot there full-time, as was the producers' original hope. But it's an appropriately colorful backdrop. The show has an arresting high-contrast look and artfully designed crime scenes, especially the ones left behind by a tidy butcher who drains his prostitute victims of blood, chops them up, and neatly wraps them in brown paper. (This killer, recognizing a kindred spirit in Dexter, instigates a game of hide-and-creep in the premiere episode, one that will continue as the season progresses.) Fortunately, some of the actors are used to a bloody workplace, like Lauren Vélez, who (along with costars David Zayas and Erik King) is an alum of the Grand Guignol prison drama Oz. Vélez, as Dexter's superior, Lieut. Maria LaGuerta, develops a crush on him, proving her taste in men really hasn't improved since her Oz doctor fell in love with a psychopathic inmate. She laughs, ''My twin sister saw the pilot and said, 'God, it's brilliant.... Now I would like you to do a Disney-type show.'''
So, yes, the slayings are plentiful and the red stuff flows freely, but Dexter is not really about crime-solving in the same way that Showtime's Weeds isn't about the drug wars. ''It's character-driven,'' says Phillips. ''He works in the world of cops, but I wouldn't call the show a procedural.'' As such, Dexter is more interested in how murders whether a result of Dexter's own handiwork or someone else's can slowly force a killer to recognize traces of his humanity. ''In the most extreme way,'' says Colleton, ''this will hopefully force the audience to examine themselves. Every week he's grappling with some aspect of human behavior that we have to grapple with.'' So will Dexter learn and grow, and someday (cue ''Man in the Mirror'') close down his abattoir and open up his heart? Reflecting on this in his trailer, Hall begins a thoughtful analysis of how, when Dexter's play-acted relationships start to fall apart, he may realize that he felt a human connection to them the whole time...and then he stops himself and laughs. ''I mean, he's still a serial killer.'' Then he flashes a faintly creepy smile, one that would completely terrify poor David Fisher.
A KILLER CADRE
Your guide to the key players who drift in Dexter's orbit and know nothing about his dark secret...for now.
HARRY MORGAN (James Remar)
Dexter's late foster father spotted his son's serial-killer tendencies early, and trained him to channel it into untraceable vigilantism.
DEBRA MORGAN (Jennifer Carpenter)
Devoted but clueless, the foulmouthed vice cop depends on her brother's killer insights to help her get transferred to homicide.
RITA BENNETT (Julie Benz)
Dexter's timid, damaged girlfriend gives him the perfect cover: a loving relationship and two kids to play house with, but no nookie. Yet.
LIEUT. MARIA LAGUERTA (Lauren Vélez)
The Miami Metro homicide division head has a not-so-secret crush on Dexter and, therefore, a deep resentment of his sister.
SGT. DOAKES (Erik King)
This fiery, brutish detective never lets Dexter forget that he finds him creepy. Dexter, in turn, can't help but wonder why he's the only one who does.
ANGEL BATISTA (David Zayas)
Detail-oriented detective who loves cryptic crimes as much as Dexter, and often brings him into cases over Doakes' objections.