DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli.

There's something wrong with broadcast network television, and this week makes it glaringly obvious. This is Fall Premiere Week, when ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW are trying their best to impress us with their new and returning shows, yet their thunder continues to be stolen by cable. Last Sunday, it was the premiere of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," which did so well after one showing - with critics and viewers - that it already has been renewed for season two. AMC's "Mad Men" continues to serve up fabulous first-run hours on Sundays. And now, beginning this weekend, a third cable network is competing for bragging rights as having the best prime-time drama series on television. That's because Showtime is presenting the fifth-season premiere of "Dexter," one of the most inventive and exciting shows on TV.

Michael C. Hall, who played the uptight gay undertaker on HBO's "Six Feet Under," stars as Dexter Morgan, a blood-spatter forensics expert. He helps solve murders and track down serial killers as a member of the Miami Police Department.

But he has a deep, dark secret: He's a serial killer himself, and channels his murderous impulses by hunting and capturing other serial killers - and serving, secretly, as judge, jury and especially executioner. Yes, it's a twisted idea for a series. But "Dexter," over its first four seasons, has explored those twists with breathtaking imagination.

We've learned, and witnessed in flashback, the childhood trauma that made Dexter into the emotionless shell that he is. And over the years, we've watched him go from faking emotions to experiencing some real ones - and even finding love. Rita, played by Julie Benz, was a battered woman with two young children when Dexter met her, and they found peace simply by being together. Eventually, they got married and had a baby of their own, and Dexter seemed happy.

But after years of spilling blood in secret, Dexter had his unexpectedly normal life shattered in just as bloody a fashion. He had a showdown to the death with another serial murderer, called the Trinity Killer, and played all last season by guest star John Lithgow. Dexter was victorious, then returned home to find that the Trinity Killer previously had claimed his final victim: Dexter's wife, Rita. The series ended for the season, Lithgow won an Emmy for his performance, and Sunday, we finally find out what Dexter will do next, with his wife gone, his world shattered and three young kids in tow.

Season Five begins exactly where season four ended: at the crime scene, with Dexter cradling his baby, whom Dexter found sitting and crying in a pool of his mother's blood. Where do you go from there? Well, to some of the obvious places: police reports, funeral preparations, conversations with coworkers and in-laws. But it's the non-obvious places that make this character and this series so daringly original.

From the start, "Dexter" the TV series has relied on the same crucial narrative gimmick introduced in the original novels by Jeff Lindsay. We see things through Dexter's eyes and hear his thoughts - which, in the TV version, come through in a variety of ways. Sometimes, he sees and talks with the ghost of his late foster father. Other times, he has vivid flashbacks. And always, he's dropping in quick bits of voice-over narration to tell us what he's really thinking, even after one of his own flashbacks.

That's what happens here, in a scene from Sunday's season premiere, as Dexter is recalling a phone conversation the night he first met Rita: We hear their conversation, then, returning to the present, we hear Dexter's final thoughts as he revs up the engine on his boat and drives away. Julie Benz plays Rita, Michael C. Hall is Dexter.

(Soundbite of Showtime's, "Dexter")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JULIE BENZ (Actor): (as Rita) Yeah, I know I should hang up right now, but I just need to say it. I don't why exactly, but you make me feel good, like things can different.

Mr. MICHAEL C. HALL (Actor): (as Dexter) So do you, make me feel that way, too. I mean...

Ms. BENZ: (as Rita) I'm glad I called. I know I felt up in the air the way things ended. You know, like, we never said a proper goodbye. So...

Mr. HALL: (as Dexter) Good-bye, Rita Bennett.

Ms. BENZ: (as Rita) Good-bye, Dexter Morgan.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HALL: (as Dexter) Good-bye. I'm sorry.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of boat engine revving up)

BIANCULLI: So where is Dexter driving his boat, and where does his life go from there? I'm not telling. But I will tell you that, like almost every episode of "Dexter," it's a surprising, sometimes jaw-dropping journey. Long-time "Dexter" fans have come to expect moments that have you all but screaming at your TV set in disbelief, or wondering how you'll be able to wait a week for the next installment. I've previewed this season's first three episodes, and I had to pick up my jaw twice. And at the end of episode three, I was angry at Showtime that they hadn't sent number four. "Dexter" is that good.

(Soundbite of music, "Blood Theme")

BIANCULLI: Coming up, author Nick Hornby. This is FRESH AIR.

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