The creative team behind Showtime's "Dexter" has only begun breaking story ideas for the killer drama's fifth season. 
 
Production won't begin until June and viewers won't see episodes until late summer/early fall.
 
That's an easy explanation for why Thursday (March 4) night's PaleyFest2010 panel for "Dexter" wasn't exactly awash in spoilers, or even coy hints of how the show is planning on following up on the shattering shocker that concluded the fourth season. It's a lot easier not to give anything away when you don't have anything to give away.
 
Fortunately, between that Season Four twist and star Michael C. Hall's cancer battle and Golden Globe win, there were plenty of things to entertain the packed house at the Saban Theater on Thursday.
 
[I'm going to put in a page break here, just in case you happen not to have seen "The Getaway," that rare game-changing finale that really will change the game for Dexter Morgan going forward... Seriously, spoilers ahoy...]
 
Probably, I'd be better off talking about Hall first. The show's star revealed in January that he's battling Hodgkin's lymphoma and then promptly won the Golden Globe just days later in one of the ceremony's most emotional moments.
 
That was nothing, though, compared to the standing ovation Hall received from the Paley Festival crowd. Panel moderator Kristin Dos Santos said it was the first time she remembered such a reception from a Paley crowd and even though I've been to Paley celebrations for some of television's most revered personalities, this was an outpouring on a scale that I'd never seen before in my seven years of attending these events. Hall, looking scruffy and just a bit tired, is usually very droll and understated at public and press events, but on Thursday he seemed overwhelmed, appreciative and just a bit sheepish about the prolonged cheers.
 
Asked about his health, Hall replied, "I'm great on the health front," adding that he had his second-to-last treatment on Wednesday, with the final treatment coming in a couple weeks. The subject never came up again during the panel, which has to be a good sign.
 
Of the Golden Globe victory, which saw him knocking off big names like Jon Hamm and Hugh Laurie, "It was a thrill. It was really fun. I'm glad everybody was there. I felt like we shared the recognition. It was nice."
 
Hall also won the Screen Actors Guild Award a week later, further confirmation of the respect given to the show's fourth season, which also set Showtime ratings records. 
 
The focus of that season's shocking climax, actress Julie Benz, took the stage to loud and warm applause and even got a sympathetic hug from panel moderator Kristin Dos Santos.
 
"I don't know what happens," Benz joked when the finale came up. "Please don't spoil it for me."
 
As fans know, the finale ended with Dexter returning home and discovering that his wife Rita, his major anchor to civilized society, had been murdered and left in a bathtub, presumably the victim of John Lithgow's Trinity. 
 
"My role as an actor is to just facilitate a story. I'm really there to help tell the story that the writers are writing and when that story ends, go," Benz said, recalling her reaction to reading the plot developments. "In the beginning, when I first heard the news, it was very shocking. My first response was, 'Oh God, I just lost my job. How am I going to pay my mortgage?' And once I got over that, I realized it's very aggressive storytelling and that's why we watch Showtime. If you want to see less aggressive storytelling, you watch regular network television. That's why we have cable, why we pay for cable, why we watch cable is to see this very aggressive storytelling."
 
Executive produce John Goldwyn admitted that some friends and loved ones had a strong reaction to Rita's death, noting "They felt gut-punched."
 
But fellow e.p. Sara Colleton defended the move by saying, "But at the same time, everyone I spoke to, after they had processed that initial gut response and their surprise, it felt right."
 
Colleton added "If it's possible a death can be 'earned,' it was."
 
And Rita's death isn't just be quickly forgotten, nor will the grieving be something that gets skipped over as part of the kind of time leap familiar from shows like "Mad Men."
 
"The death of Rita is something that we feel is so awesome that needs to be honored and the process by which Dexter deals with it will allow the audience their own catharsis. We're not going to jump ahead. We're going to actually process it," Colleton promised.
 
Hall said, "The landscape definitely has changed. The fundamental structure, there's no scaffolding around it anymore and how solid is it, what he's built around himself to find himself as a real little boy. I guess I'll have to cultivate some some sort of relationship, but I don't know. The guy remains a whackjob."
 
That doesn't mean that Season Five of "Dexter" will be all misery and darkness.
 
"Dexter's cluelessness sets things up for comedy," Hall explained. "Hopefully he will, now that this traumatic thing has happened to him, find himself in situations that are inherently comedic, because he's going to have to learn about what it's like to be somehow who everyone's treating as if he's been through something traumatic. Grief is a thing he's never had projected on him before and that will be... um... funny."
 
Then again, there's also the very real possibility that Dexter may be a suspect in Rita's death, given the circumstances.
 
"No, he's in hot water, I think, to a degree," Hall acknowledged. "I think there's a way out of it, but that's what we like to see, him figure his way out. His capacity for stress management rivals his capacity for straight-up killing."
 
While the "Dexter" team hopes that Rita's death has carryover for viewers and for the characters within the series, Hall noted a couple cast members he hopes don't carry any scar from their role in the staged scene of gore and mayhem.
 
"Hopefully the babies themselves have some vague memories of playing in jelly," Hall said.
 
Regarding how "Dexter" seasons evolve, Goldwyn pointed out, "Dexter always asks the question 'Can I have it all?' 'Can I have a family?' 'Can I have a friend?' In every season he asks a simple question and the audience wants to see it in some way answered. We watch him try to work out the answers to those questions."
 
What will be Dexter's question in Season Five? We have no idea.
 
Some other quotes and observations from the "Dexter" PaleyFest:
 
*** Kristin Dos Santos is a friend and I thought she did a great job moderating the panel, mostly playing the role of "Dexter" fan and letting the audience feed off of her excitement. She's always good in this role, but she was every bit as fine when she hosted the first "Dexter" Paley event after the show's first season. My own personal vote would have been to bring in a different moderator just for the sake of getting a fresh perspective and angle. There were a number of answers, especially during the audience Q&A, which were identical to the ones given four years ago at a different Paley venue. Like how many times have I heard Michael C. Hall that in his mind, Dexter's first victim was his "Six Feet Under" character David Fisher? At least a few.
 
*** Another familiar question for Hall involved how much he relates to Dexter, which usually prompts awkward looks and coyly raised eyebrows, but I liked the part where he noted, "Thankfully, I'm not compelled to dismember, but I know what compulsion is."
 
*** One thing that's changed since "Dexter" last did Paley was that on-screen siblings Hall and Jennifer Carpenter have become off-screen husband-and-wife. "To us, it doesn't actually seem weird," Hall said. "We met at work. I realize it's titillating to a degree... to a certain element." Sara Colleton noted that since the characters aren't blood relations on the show, there's no legal reason why Dexter and Deb couldn't go the same way as Michael and Jennifer. It was obvious she was joking, but that doesn't mean that everyone on the dais wasn't just a bit disturbed.
 
*** Speaking of a more viable romantic possibility for Deb, Desmond Harrington (Quinn) responded, "They're both wounded people and I definitely think that they have a chemistry. I don't know if it's too obvious that they would hook up." To which C.S. Lee responded, "This whole 'Dexter' series is in Masuka's mind, so eventually you're going to see Deb and Masuka hook up."
 
*** Carpenter seemed touched when a questioner praised her ability to play duress, especially her wide variety of facial expressions, to which she replied, "I will say that the facial expressions are all an accidental and quite shocking for me to see."
 
*** In the book series, Deb learned about Dexter's Dark Passenger relatively early, but the writers have purposely avoided going in that direction, largely because they see the brother-sister relationship as part of the show's core, with Carpenter chipping in "There are days I really want to know and days I want nothing to do with it."
 
*** We almost made it through a whole panel and set of fan questions without a reference to Julie Benz's time as Darla on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Almost. Oh well.
 
*** You can't help but feel bad when talent comes to these events and they sit in silence for 90 minutes. Brando Eaton, Trinity's son last season, fielded one question about working with John Lithgow -- "At some points, I just wanted to laugh because he's such a nice guy and he became so creepy" -- and was never looked to again. It was already a big panel and including a tertiary actor from a previous season, especially one unlikely to return next season, did nobody any favors and felt slightly awkward. Now if Lithgow had been able to make it, obviously nobody would have cared that he won't be back.
 
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