Sometimes the actor Michael C. Hall likes to think about his own obituary. He knows that “Dexter,” the Showtime drama he starred in for eight seasons, will make its way into its first paragraph.
“If not the first sentence,” he said.
A show about Dexter Morgan (Hall), a Miami blood spatter analyst who moonlights as a quippy serial killer, “Dexter” premiered in 2006, at the knife point of television’s antihero obsession. A perennial Emmy contender during its run, the show has a complicated legacy. It ended in 2013 with an episode, “Remember the Monsters?,” that often ranks with the worst finales in TV history. (Quick recap: flatlining sister, murder by pen, well-timed hurricane, Dexter is a lumberjack now.)
“It left a bad taste in audiences’ mouths and in mine as well,” he said. This was on a sun-glazed October afternoon at an outdoor cafe near his uptown apartment, and he was bettering that bad taste with a scone and an Americano. Hall likes his coffee the way he likes his prestige series — dark — and his sense of humor skews bleak, too. He made several jokes about cancer (he survived Hodgkin’s lymphoma a decade ago), which he leavened with his thin smile.
Hall has a square chin, broad Cro-Magnon brow and flinty green eyes. (Paleolithic, but sexy with it.) In a baby blue shirt with long underwear peeking out beneath, he looked like any other fashionably rugged Upper West Sider. But fans recognize him pretty often, and when they do, they shout, “Dexter,” not “Michael.” They ask him to pretend-murder them for selfies. They used to tell him that they wished that the show would come back. And in some ways, Hall wished for that, too.
“It wasn’t some tremendous burden,” he said. “But I had been preoccupied with the unfinished-business feelings.”
Hall has put that burden down. “Dexter: New Blood,” a 10-episode limited series, arrives Sunday on Showtime. While it appears in the midst of television’s current fascination with reboots, revivals, prequels and sequels, “New Blood” feels less like a reprise and more like a reprisal, a deliberate redress to the sloppiness of the original’s last several seasons and an attempt by Hall to recuperate the character that has defined his career.
“If I’m going to do this,” Hall’s Dexter says as he contemplates his first kill in a decade, “I’ve got to do it right.”
Set in a snowbound town in upstate New York, “New Blood” (“In Cold Blood” was already taken) finds Dexter living under an assumed name, working at a fish and game emporium and abstaining from murder. (The series was shot in Western Massachusetts.) Trading Miami’s sweaty pastels for coniferous forests and flannel, this new show quiets Dexter’s overwrought internal monologue and keeps the original’s gruesome comedy to a minimum.
Dexter relapses, of course. But he doesn’t enjoy murder the way he used to. His “dark passenger,” the drive that moves him to kill, has taken a back seat, and there’s less separation between Dexter the killer and Dexter the snowsuit-wearing man about town.
“I may be a monster, but I’m an evolving monster,” he says in the “New Blood” pilot.
It seems odd to revive a series while abandoning much of what made that series distinct, replacing equatorial heat with a mood that Clyde Phillips, the showrunner for the first four seasons of “Dexter” and for “New Blood,” called “cold and monastic and abstemious.” But the difference is purposeful.
“We didn’t want it to be ‘Dexter’ Season 9,” Phillips said on a recent video call. “We wanted to honor the fact that 10 years have passed.” (Arriving eight years after the “Dexter” finale, the reboot fudges the calendar slightly.)
Showtime and Hall had entertained various “Dexter” pitches over the years, including one from Hall’s mother that found Dexter in a monastery. (Monastic? Yes. Monastery? No.) Only Phillips’s idea, which reunited Dexter with Harrison, the son he abandoned a decade ago, felt right.
When Hall heard the pitch, about two and a half years ago, he agreed to it immediately. He appreciated how it allowed Dexter to move in new directions while still maintaining “connective tissue” (this is Hall’s body-horror metaphor, not mine) with the original show.
Aside from Harrison, who is played in “New Blood” by Jack Alcott, much of that continuity arrives in the ghostly form of Jennifer Carpenter’s Debra, Dexter’s foul-mouthed foster sister. Dexter killed Deb in the finale, unplugging her from life support and dumping her body in the bay. But dead Deb still shows up to razz her brother, taking over the role of conscience from Harry (James Remar), Dexter’s dead adoptive dad.
Carpenter never felt especially bad about the finale. “Because I was at the bottom of the ocean dead,” she said, referring to her character’s fate on an early morning phone call. But she and Hall, who eloped and then divorced during the run of the original show, have remained friends, and when he described the new series, she wanted to join it, however ethereally.
Hall was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma during production on the fourth season of “Dexter” — he kept the news private until shooting wrapped and received treatment during the show’s hiatus. Dexter had a painful secret and for a while Hall did, too, which was useful for the role, he said.
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But he has been in remission for more than a decade, and is married, seemingly quite happily, to Morgan Hall, a literary editor. Which would seem to place him at some remove from the darkness that a character like Dexter requires. Where will he find that darkness now?
“Oh it’s there,” he said, making his voice rumble just slightly. “It’s there.”
Probably it is. Hall’s particular genius — from his breakout role as a mortician on “Six Feet Under” (2001-05) to “Dexter” to his frequent collaborations with the playwright Will Eno to his stints in Broadway musicals — is projecting a pleasant, somewhat blank exterior while also suggesting the torment and the mess roiling just underneath.
“He has these great multitudes and contradictions” Eno, a close friend of his, said. “And he covers it all with a pretty down-to-earth regular wrapper.”
A low-key version of this emerged even in casual conversation. (Or as casual as a conversation can be when there are a couple of digital recorders in between the coffee cups.) On the surface, Hall was placid, thoughtful, unfailingly polite. But he fidgeted constantly — tapping fingers on the table, rubbing his palms on his pants — and was hyper-aware of his surroundings, pausing every time an engine revved or a truck backed up. He can seem like a man performing a chat rather than having one.
Hall is mindful of this doubleness, which he traces back to his very early adolescence in Raleigh, N.C. Hall’s father died of prostate cancer when Hall was 11, and Hall intuited, rightly or wrongly, that showing the full range of his feelings wouldn’t be appropriate. So he learned how to cover up those feelings, and then later how to channel them into acting.
Dexter, too, has taught himself to sublimate his more extreme impulses; the parallels can seem uncomfortably apt. Hall is mindful of this, as well.
“Maybe I’m drawn to characters who have some sort of stormy interiority that they don’t feel free to let out,” he said. “Maybe that’s how I experience my own life. Maybe I experience it less in my life for having the chance to take it into my work.”
Then he raised his eyebrows waggishly. “Who knows what I would have done over the past 16 years if I hadn’t been able to simulate all that murder?” he said.
He simulates it, in the old series and the new one, with a mix of what Phillips calls “utter control and absolute abandonment.” (Carpenter was more pragmatic in her praise: “He works his butt off. He’s on time, he never carries sides. He’s just a workhorse.”)
After that first “Dexter” finale, Hall took on other roles — some theater, a few movies, a limited series or two. But no one really talks about his work in “Safe” or “The Defeated.” No one wants a selfie with the guy from “Cold in July” or “Lazarus.” “Dexter” has even somewhat eclipsed his Emmy-nominated role on “Six Feet Under.” He played a killer so well that audiences don’t seem to want to see him any other way.
“There’s not a ton I can do about it — other than to return and play that character again,” he said. How long will he play him? “I definitely didn’t come back thinking we were going to do eight more seasons,” he said. So unless the producers botch this finale, too, Dexter may soon lay down his very many knives for good. That doesn’t mean that Hall will ever quite escape him. (If you have seen the show, you know that Dexter has few escapees.)
Does that ever bother him, that his life will forever be manacled to a fictional killer’s? That Dexter’s name will introduce any obituary?
“Sure,” he said. But then he thought better of it. “I mean, I don’t know. I’ll be dead. I won’t be here for that.”