Dexter Pilot

I am still trying to find some time to sit down and finish up my novelette. It needs some proper attention and the small window I have before work starts hasn’t been enough. I haven’t felt inspired and yesterday I once again wrote three sentences then stopped. I need some time at home with this one. It has barely been two weeks with it, but I know I should be able to say the first draft is done. It basically is and I just need to put the finishing touches on it…

That being said, making time to read is easier. Works been a little slow so I was able to read Showtime’s Dexter pilot today. Dexter is heading into its fifth season this fall. The pilot, written by James Manos, Jr. and based on the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay, was controlled, concise, intelligent and engaging, much like the character Dexter himself. I still get uber impressed when I read scripts that are just, plainly stated, well written. I guess I shouldn’t be. It just shows you that there is a standard by which all other scripts are measured.

When I was in charge of SPEC, my college’s screenplay club, we workshopped a couple of shorts or half a feature each week, all written by students unless we had a special presentation. We followed the table reading with a friendly critique. SPEC was a great forum to see what others were writing and to gage how scripts should and should not unfold/look. Also, it was just fun. I loved everyone who was in SPEC with me. Great club. Anywhoo, some scripts were solid examples of proper screenplay format, but some of the recurring formatting and stylistic problems that we encountered over the four years I was in SPEC could have been answered by one read through of the Dexter pilot. Meaning, if you read this pilot and could emulate it, you would be well on your way to being a well-informed TV writer. It just gets everything right.  So really, it’s a great script to learn off of and I really shouldn’t be surprised: James Manos, Jr. won an Emmy for his writing on the Sopranos.

What didn’t I love about this script? Well, here are some aspects that really stood out:

There was ZERO noticable passive voice! Made me SO happy! I stand by my strong dislike for passive voice. Passive voice weakens writing. Writing is weakened by passive voice.  (which one sounds better to you??)

The details were alive and unique. Example: 

[Dexter]  heads toward A CROWD OF polyester-wearing RETIREES, handme-down-wearing CUBANO refugees and bikini-wearing TOURISTS, standing behind the yellow police tape cordoning off this dingy low-life, hell-hole of a motel advertising hourly rates. But right now, the rooms are empty and the parking lot is full with COP CARS, AMBULANCES, and MEDICAL EXAMINER VANS.
Here’s one more example:
Dexter, light footed as ever, walks through the large, glass enclosed lab, passing the “Analytical,” “Forensic” and “Serology” (blood) sections all packed with SCIENTISTS and ANALYSTS in white coats, hovering over microscopes, computers, and other high tech machines. He reaches into his box of donuts, grabs the last one. Stares into the empty box.
Let’s break the pilot down so my notes can be typed up:
The following will contain “spoilers” for the pilot but with Dexter in its fifth season I’m not sure you’re losing out on much…
It was a 67 page pilot, a unique length, but this is for Showtime so commercial breaks and a specific length etc. are not as much of a strict factor (it seems).
The opening inciting incident is over and done by page 7 (Meet Dexter, watch as he kills a choir master who we learn killed little boys)
p. 8-10 Dexter dumps his victim and we get a flashback glimpse of his father.
p. 10 a new victim (Jaworski) on Dexter’s horizon is set up and a voicemail from his sister draws him to–the first clip I pasted–a crime scene.
 p. 12 we discover he is a blood splatter expert as he flashes his badge and finds his sister at the scene.
 p.12-19 at the scene Dexter gets a glimpse of the remains of a victim killed by an unusual and unknown killer. Dexter is impressed with this killer’s MO, so impressed that he postulates: “he may have exceeded me” in skill level. This is important because it sets this murderer apart from perhaps any other Dexter has encountered thus far in his life. A quick flashback with his father and then–

We are back to the Jaworski plot as Dexter stalks him, watching him at work, taking notes.

p 21 Dexter at work at the police headquarters. Dexter engages with coworkers, picks up a file on one of Jaworski’s supposed victims.

Dexter reaches his office only to be confronted by Sargeant Doakes, the one man who doesn’t seem amused by Dexter’s casual charm. Dexter finds it amusing that Doakes is the only cop who gets the creeps from him. More importantly, Doakes reminds Dexter to complete a blood-splatter analysis of a case he calls “the coke head murders.”

p 26 Dexter at the scene of the crime Doakes assigned to him.

p 29 Dexter at Jaworski’s, breaks in,  looking for clues to his crimes. Based upon found evidence, Dexter surmises that Jaworski’s turned violent fast. This is matched to a quick flashback of young Dexter with his father, who once again gently interrogates him and tries to help him with his “urges” (killing animals).

p 32 we meet Dexter’s “love interest” and her two children.  Their dynamic is set up, which includes the fact that it is a sexless relationship, which suits them both just fine (Rita being an abuse victim from a previous relationship and Dexter being disinterested in sex), they go on a date, while on the date, they cross a crime scene: the new and unique killer has struck again and the victim’s head is missing. (Notice this happens right at the script’s midway point)

p 40 as the date ends Dexter is distracted, excited even, by the newest crime scene. He uncharacteristically kisses Rita, who runs inside. Like the new killer’s MO, this action is brand new to Dexter and interrupts the normative nature of his daily life. (answering the general question: why is this story starting right now?)

p 41 At home and after going through found clues, Dexter watches a video he found online of Jaworkski appearing in a snuff film. He confirms that he is a killer. Flashback: establishes that Dexter’s father wants him to use his sociopath nature for “good” and that he will not institutionalize him. He will, instead, teach him “rules” to follow.

Back to present, at a deli with his sister Debra. They talk about the new killer out there. Debra wants help from Dexter who, we learn, has good “hunches” about stuff like this. We learn the last body has tissue damage from the cold. Based on a few other aspects of the murder as well, Dexter decides a refrigerated truck was probably used to transport the victim. In voiceover we learn how “impressed” he is by this. It’s a “why didn’t I think of that” moment for Dexter.

p 48 Dexter preps for his Jaworski killing. (the Jaworski subplot is an example of his normal routine/life)

p 49 police headquarters. The choir master’s wife from the inciting incident is at the station. Dexter observes her presence, which creates a fuller image to what Dexter does and who he affects. Also, his interest in the woman allows Doakes to once again question what makes Dexter tick.

A police meeting at the station. Debra tries to sell the refrigerated truck idea but no one buys into it. She is embarrassed and Dexter tries to talk to her afterwards.

Next moment, Dexter meets with LT. LaGuerta and Doakes. Dexter gives his blood-splatter analysis of the “coke head murders,” which goes against the theory Doakes had formed. Doakes is not happy with Dexter’s findings.

p 57 Dexter kills Jaworkski. He gets a call from Rita while cleaning up, she asks him to come over even though it’s late.

p 59 On his way to Rita’s he spots a refrigerated truck. He tries to follow it but it turns on him and heads straight for his car. As it passes him, it drops a severed head onto his windshield.

Police arrive. Debra is happy. Doakes is uneasy. LaGuerta tells Dexter he was right about the cokehead murders. She makes him uncomfortable, there’s some un-returned sexual tension between them and Dexter narrowly deflects her advances.

p 64 At Rita’s. She comes on to him, says she’s ready. He ends up being ok with it.

The next day he returns home. All is normal, except there is a barbie head on his fridge. He opens his fridge door and finds the barbie’s body parts tied up with little bows inside and we end on:

And then he notices —
Stuck in one of Barbie’s hands. He pulls the tiny mirror out of the doll’s hand, stares into it. And we see little fragmented images of Dexter’s face off the mirror.  (V.O.=voice over)

No…In fact, I think this is a friendly message — Kind of like, “Hey, want to play?”

Dex puts the mirror down, closes the freezer door, and as he looks down at the little Barbie head swinging on the refrigerator door again, we —

 And yes, I want to play…I really, really do.

And on that, we —



So there you go. The format doesn’t translate super well into blog form so if you’d like to see the script (or many others) click here.  

A few things I noticed. The opening scene and ending scene both use “we,” however the rest of the script does not. That’s important. Sometimes writers get caught up in using phrases like “we see” or “we pan down to” every time a new scene opens up and it becomes a distraction. Manos uses it only to bring us into Dexter’s world and to exit from it.

I left out a few notes as I typed this up. One was a description of how Debra set up Rita with Dexter after answering a domestic dispute call. Debra subdues the abusive husband and cuffs him. This scene shows Debra’s competency, just as the “coke head murders” subplot shows Dexter’s competency at his “day job.” This small moment just seems extra important because Debra is somewhat blunderous in the rest of the script.

The elevated word choice stuck out as well. Manos uses words like corpulent, bacchanalian and cardoned instead of fat, drunk, or roped off. This simply made the script feel more alive/look more vivid in my mind.

Last summations about this script:  I loved reading it as much as I enjoyed watching it a while back. I can see some similarities between Dexter and the character Phoenix that I’ve been working with lately. Both are detached from their lives and devoid of real emotion. But Dexter has a purpose and an order to his world, whereas Phoenix’s life keeps spiraling out of control. The world acts on Phoenix. Dexter acts on the world. Dexter’s life starts out ordered and becomes unbalanced. Phoenix’s life is unbalanced and he uncovers a hidden balance to it all that he wasn’t aware of.  Both find humor in life’s  banal everyday moments and in the everyday people they encounter. Dexter is better at this though and it has to do with just how low Phoenix has fallen. Either way, it’s safe to say that what makes both of these characters interesting is their ugliness. In my mind, their ugly tendencies make them beautiful characters. Or at the very least, entertaining ones.


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