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10 Killer Facts About Dexter

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Showtime

When Dexter debuted on Showtime on October 1, 2006, the disturbing show changed the landscape of TV. It premiered before antiheroes like Don Draper or Walter White were household names, and it helped put Showtime on the map with its original programming.

Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) works as a blood spatter specialist at the Miami Metro Police Department, but also moonlights as a serial killer. He has a code, though: Don’t kill innocent people, don’t get caught, and don’t get emotionally involved. For eight seasons and 96 episodes, Dexter literally got away with murder. But as heard through his internal dialogue (a.k.a. The Dark Passenger), he was conflicted about his real self and only shared the truth with a few people—most of whom ended up dead.

On the show, Dexter’s not-biological sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) falls in love with him, which added to the conflict—especially since, offscreen, the two got married and divorced during the run of the show. The series ended in September 2013 with a polarizing finale: Dexter lived but others died in his wake. Here are 10 deadly facts about the Emmy- and Golden Globe Award-winning show.

1. MICHAEL C. HALL WASN’T LOOKING TO DO ANOTHER TV SHOW.

Hall’s first show, the funeral home drama Six Feet Under, went off the air in 2005, so he wasn’t looking to jump back into TV again. “I got a call about a new pilot,” Hall told Entertainment Weekly. “I was reluctant to the idea of doing another television series in general.” He heard the pitch and asked himself, “‘Do I want to be surrounded by dead bodies for another indeterminate number of years?’” He read the book and the script and decided he liked that Dexter “operated in a morally gray area.”

“The tragedy of Dexter is that it’s not his homicidal behavior that’s gotten the people in his life in trouble but it’s his appetite to play at becoming a human being—his desire to have real relationships," Hall said. "I guess a lesson that’s emerged is that you can’t have your cake and kill it, too.”

2. THE FIRST SEASON WAS BASED ON A BOOK.


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In 2004 Jeff Lindsay published Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the first of eight novels surrounding the titular killer. The book was the basis for the show’s first season, but the rest of the seasons strayed from the novels. Lindsay said the inspiration for the character came to him rather randomly: “I was speaking at a business booster’s lunch. I don’t know why, but I looked out at the crowd, and thought, ‘Serial murder isn’t always a bad thing.’" That was the message Lindsay tried to get across in his book, and the idea that carried through to its television adaptation.

"I think Dexter is actually very moral—there are lines he will not cross, no matter what," Lindsay said. "I’m hoping he makes us think a little about what is and isn’t moral, and where the whole idea of a conscience comes from, but if not, hey, just enjoy the book.”

3. JOHN LITHGOW THINKS DEXTER AND TONY SOPRANO HAVE A LOT IN COMMON.

During an interview with the Los Angeles Times, a reporter asked John Lithgow—who played the Trinity Killer, the main antagonist in Dexter's fourth season—who some of his favorite villains had been. “The great evil creation of the last 10 years has been Tony Soprano, and I see a lot of similarities between Dexter and Tony,” Lithgow said. “Obviously, there are a lot of huge differences, but he’s a captivating character. You can’t get enough of Tony Soprano: even when he was slapping a Russian prostitute on the butt or killing people in the most gruesome manner, you’re still with him all the way. I think Michael C. Hall and James Gandolfini are both great, smart actors who really understood that duality, that’s what made it so hypnotic.”

4. DAVID ZAYAS WAS A COP IN REAL LIFE.


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David Zayas portrayed Lieutenant Angel Batista on Dexter and was a cop in real life, too. While working for the New York Police Department, Zayas studied acting. “The moment I was involved in that world, it electrified me and I realized that it was something that I wanted to do,” Zayas told NPR. He didn’t tell many of his co-workers he was trying to become an actor, but his partner knew.

“I remember riding in the cars with [my partner] during the midnight shifts and he would run lines with me for my audition the next day,” Zayas said. For the past two years, Zayas has played another police officer on the second and third seasons of Bloodline, another show set in Florida.

5. JULIE BENZ MADE A JOKE OUT HER CHARACTER’S DEATH.

Julie Benz played Dexter’s wife, Rita, until the end of season four, when the Trinity Killer sought revenge and murdered her. But Benz felt shocked when she discovered her demise was coming.

“I found out an hour before they put out the script,” Benz told MTV. “Then I only found out an hour before we shot the scene how I was going to die—they wouldn’t tell me or anybody. It was the last scene of the season, so my family—the crew, who I spent five years with from the pilot forward—was very emotional and upset because they couldn’t believe it. I at least had a couple of days to process it, so I brought in a Styrofoam tombstone and I floated in the bathtub that said R.I.P. just to make a joke. I needed some kind of levity! Saying goodbye to my character, my job and people I love, was just too heavy.”

6. LITHGOW DIDN’T THINK THE TRINITY KILLER WAS PURE EVIL.


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During an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Lithgow—who won a Guest Emmy for playing the Trinity Killer—said his character was “far more than one-dimensional. Even in the first episode, you see him commit this horrific murder, and it looks like pure evil, but the next time you see him, he’s in that scalding shower, torturing himself with remorse. Something’s going on: there’s a lot more going on here than just sadism and evil.”

When he's not killing people, Lithgow's character, Arthur Mitchell, tries to be a family man and fit in with society, which humanized his character. “To me, the most fascinating thing is that he’s an evil man who does not want to be evil,” Lithgow said. “In that sense, he’s sort of a mirror image of Dexter, just a much, much more extreme case.”

7. YVONNE STRAHOVSKI THOUGHT HANNAH WOULD DIE IN SEASON 8.

Yvonne Strahovski played Hannah, Dexter’s serial-killer girlfriend in seasons 7 and 8, and was one of the few people who had enough of an emotional attachment to Dexter to survive. “I was surprised when I got to the end of Season 7, and I read that scene where she leaves the black orchid at his doorstep, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a pretty open ending. This might mean that they want me back,’” she told Collider. “And sure enough, season 8 happened and I thought, ‘Well, I probably will end up dying in this season, seeing as I didn’t die in season 7, and traditionally, most of the guest stars on that show usually die.’”

The show ends with Dexter’s son Harrison and Hannah fleeing to Argentina, with Dexter battling a hurricane in Miami. Later on Hannah hears about Dexter’s death, which unbeknownst to her was faked. “There is no happy ending in any of it,” she said. “I walked away feeling very depressed, and it really stayed with me. That feeling lingered for a while after I watched it.”

8. JENNIFER CARPENTER WANTED DEB TO DIE.


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Jennifer Carpenter told The Hollywood Reporter she wanted her character to die but didn’t want Dexter to do the deed. “In a strange way, I wanted her [death] to be a suicide,” she said. “I wanted Deb to take the one thing that was totally alive in his life away. But how it played out was much better. Deb deserved to die an organic death.”

Carpenter also said if Deb had lived, she probably wouldn’t have had a happy ending. “She always would have been making sure she was piling enough dirt on the secrets that existed with Dexter. I’m not sure a happy ending was possible for her. This was her happy ending.”

9. THE SHOW MIGHT HAVE INFLUENCED SOME REAL-LIFE MURDERS.

In 2009, an Indiana teenager named Andrew Conley strangled his 10-year-old brother. The reason? “He felt just like Dexter.” And if that wasn’t bad enough, Mark Twitchell built a Dexter-like kill room, lured strangers off the internet saying it was part of a Dexter movie he was making, and then murdered Johnny Altinger. In 2011 Twitchell was sentenced to prison, where he continued to watch the show and even drew pictures of Michael C. Hall.

10. DEXTER WASN’T ALLOWED TO DIE.


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The big question of the series finale was: Would Dexter live or die? He almost died in a hurricane, but Showtime was adamant he needed to live. “They [wouldn’t] let us kill him,” producer John Goldwyn said. “Showtime was very clear about that. When we told them the arc for the last season, they just said, ‘Just to be clear, he’s going to live.’ There were a lot of endings discussed because it was a very interesting problem to solve, to bring it to a close. People have a relationship with Dexter, even if it doesn’t have the size and the ferocity of the fan base for Breaking Bad. But it has a very core loyal following.” 

Dexter did sort of die, though. He faked his death and ended up at working as a log driver in the Pacific Northwest. “He banishes himself, if you will, into exile,” executive producer Sara Colleton told TV Line. “When he looks into the camera in the end [of the finale], the rest is silence; there’s not even a voiceover there anymore. It’s just emptiness ... Committing suicide is too easy; that’s letting himself off the hook.” 

Hall commented on the finale saying, “Sometimes I wish he’d offed himself, wish he’d died, wish Deb had shot him in that train compartment—of course, that would have made an eighth season difficult to do … But the idea that he imprisons himself in a prison of his own making I think is fitting [for the character].”

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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Pop Culture
Epic Gremlins Poster Contains More Than 80 References to Classic Movies
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Ape Meets Girl

It’s easy to see why Gremlins (1984) appeals to movie nerds. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Chris Columbus, the film has horror, humor, and awesome 1980s special effects that strike a balance between campy and creepy. Perhaps it’s the movie’s status as a pop culture treasure that inspired artist Kevin Wilson to make it the center of his epic hidden-image puzzle of movie references.

According to io9, Wilson, who works under the pseudonym Ape Meets Girl, has hidden 84 nods to different movies in this Gremlins poster. The scene is taken from the movie’s opening, when Randall enters a shop in Chinatown looking for a gift for his son and leaves with a mysterious creature. Like in the film, Mr. Wing’s shop in the poster is filled with mysterious artifacts, but look closely and you’ll find some objects that look familiar. Tucked onto the bottom shelf is a Chucky doll from Child’s Play (1988); above Randall’s head is a plank of wood from the Orca ship made famous by Jaws (1975); behind Mr. Wing’s counter, which is draped with a rug from The Shining’s (1980) Overlook Hotel, is the painting of Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II (1989). The poster was released by the Hero Complex Gallery at New York Comic Con earlier this month.

“Early on, myself and HCG had talked about having a few '80s Easter Eggs, but as we started making a list it got longer and longer,” Wilson told Mental Floss. “It soon expanded from '80s to any prop or McGuffin that would fit the curio shop setting. I had to stop somewhere so I stopped at 84, the year Gremlins was released. Since then I’ve thought of dozens more I wish I’d included.”

The ambitious artwork has already sold out, but fortunately cinema buffs can take as much time as they like scouring the poster from their computers. Once you think you’ve found all the references you can possibly find, you can check out Wilson’s key below to see what you missed (and yes, he already knows No. 1 should be Clash of the Titans [1981], not Jason and the Argonauts [1963]). For more pop culture-inspired art, follow Ape Meets Girl on Facebook and Instagram.

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Ape Meets Girl

[h/t io9]

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