Michael C. Hall's "Dexter" has faced the police and out-smarted the feds. He's outfoxed ambitious and psychotic attorneys, dealt with crazed British sexpots and even dispatched his own brother. 

If the clips shown to the Comic-Con crowd on Thursday (July 23) afternoon were any indication, the new season of "Dexter" may find our serial-killing blood-spatter expert coping with his biggest challenge yet: Fatherhood.

[There are some spoilers in this post, after the break...]

Yes, that sounds a lot like a cheesy tag line. And yes, the Showtime promotional department will probably find far more clever ways of making the same point. But there's something potent about the image of the frequently vicious, generally remorseless Dexter cradling an infant and attempting to be nurturing that's as chilling as any sequence with a scalpel and a microscope slide.

Perhaps that's why it didn't take long for Hall to be asked if the baby -- Harrison, named after Dexter's dad -- might be... Oh, how do we put this? A pint-sized psychopath?

"It's a good question," Hall said gamely. "The baby has yet to exhibit any signs of that, but that possibility always is there, lurking. But we'll see."

When the fourth "Dexter" season begins on Showtime this fall, Rita (Julie Benz) will already have had the baby and Dexter will be settling into life as a suburban husband or father. Diaper changing? PTA meetings? Lawn mowing? That sounds like a full season of suspense to us, but the "Dexter" team is raising the stakes with the addition of John Lithgow as a mysterious figure on the Miami serial killing scene.

Lithgow admitted to the crowd that he'd never been a "Dexter" viewer before getting the pitch for the new season, but that he signed on an immediately sped through the show's first three years.

"I'm the only one on the set who knows what's going to happen in the next 12 episodes," Lithgow laughed. "It's a fantastic feeling. I could actually speak two sentences right now that would make this entire building explode."

Through five episodes, though, fans shouldn't expect anything capable of exploding a San Diego Convention Center Hall.

"My only regret is that I still lurk and stalk," Lithgow laughed. "I haven't worked with any of these wonderful people yet."

So expect the plot involving Dexter and Lithgow's Walter "The Trinity Killer" Simmons to unfold slowly. But there will be plenty of other things to keep the Morgan family busy, because with the arrival of this new killer comes the man on his trail, none other than Keith Carradine's Lundy, formerly the slightly icky mentor/father-figure/lover to Jennifer Carpenter's Deb.

"It's inevitable that the two are going to have some interesting scenes together," said executive producer Clyde Phillips.

 

Other highlights from the "Dexter" Comic-Con panel:

*** If they could play any other character on the show, Benz would play Deb  ("Because I love to swear!"), Hall would play Matsuka ("Because he's got the funniest lines and, I dunno, he's an intriguing guy"), Carpenter would play Dexter ("I'd love to play Dexter, because I'd love to feel what it's like to kill people") and Lithgow wouldn't change a thing ("I'm so completely content with my part. I feel like I have the best part of the season").

*** Showtime will be producing animated webisodes titled "Dexter: Early Cuts," while a "Dexter" game is on the way for your iPhone or iTouch.

*** Hall on the oddball commerciality of "Dexter" products: "Very strange, but it's fantastic. When we were shooting the pilot, I had no idea it would lead to this, bobbleheads, action figures." The "Dexter" action figure -- Now with Killer Scalpel Grip? -- is, indeed, available for purchase.

*** Benz on Rita's failure to recognize Dexter's Dark Passenger: "You could show her the show ['Dexter'], say, "Watch this!" and she'd say "No, no. It couldn't be true."... And not out of stupidity, out of love." I have several friends, Rita-haters, who would beg to differ on that last point.

*** Jennifer Carpenter on whether Deb's potty mouth mirrors her own: "It is and I cannot turn it off."