Witness the frightening Dexter-ity of Michael C. Hall.

That Dexter Morgan really, really enjoys what he does - and what he does is kill people - you might suspect that Showtime has gone off the deep end in trying to out-HBO HBO. Mob boss Tony Soprano proved unrepentant lowlifes are people, too, not to mention a ratings draw. So his incarnation has emerged in various degrees on cable television - Michael Chiklis as the brutish cop on The Shield, Denis Leary as the troubled fireman on Rescue Me, Andre Braugher as the career criminal on Thief - where likability and redemption aren't mandated as character virtues.

Portrayed with icy precision and emotional depth by Michael C. Hall, whose performance on Six Feet Under was often like dipping into a weekly treasure chest, Dexter has the opportunity to be the most dark, complex, and awfully weird character on television. He's the kind of basket case that, if he landed on Dr. Melfi's couch on The Sopranos, would send the poor woman into early retirement.

Dexter, premiering on October 1, pushes the boundaries of viewer tastes and tolerance. Plucked from Jeff Lindsay's e-novel, Darkly Dreaming Dexter, Dexter is a forensic investigator for the Miami police who's so good, he's able to conceal his own crimes. That he's hunting down murderers who get away (evidence doesn't lie, but that doesn't keep good lawyers from getting the guilty off) makes for a vigilante we can root for. How he does it - well, that's another psychoanalytical story. Whether viewers will digest this weekly adventure of vengeance is another matter, of course. Showtime is banking on viewers following a protagonist who - unlike the more-civilized-in-comparison Tony Soprano - is clearly not suited to walk among us.

If the pilot is any indication, Dexter is the best new series in a new season of pretty good shows, even among commercial networks like NBC (see: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Kidnapped, Friday Night Lights), which is good news for Showtime. The network itself is looking for redemption or is at least trying to crawl out from under the large shadow of HBO. Granted, HBO has okayed a number of misses lately - surely you caught Lucky Louie, or if you're lucky, you didn't - but the HBO brand is so synonymous with "quality" television, hoodwinked viewers don't see Lucky Louie as bad so much as daring.

Dexter, on the other hand, isn't so much daring as it is honest, particularly in the writing and in Hall's multilayered portrayal. When we first meet Dexter, he's been doing this sort of thing for well over a decade. Part of his journey (and ours) is coming to terms with just who he is and what he is.

The series - produced by John Goldwyn (grandson of Hollywood legend Samuel Goldwyn), Sara Colleton, and Clyde Phillips - works hard to give viewers a road map to Dexter's soul (such that it is) by exploring, in flashbacks, the roots of his torturous ways. His father, a cop played by James Remar, recognized his son's disturbing behavior early and crafted Dexter to use his, well, desires for good, not evil.

"You can't help what happened to you," he tells young Dexter. "But you can make the best of it."

Because Dexter has had this "code" ingrained into him, he's as moral as we are - in his own reality, at least. "As long as you take situational ethics seriously," says Jeff Lindsay, author of the Dexter novels. He has earned the right to do what he does, Lindsay adds, "because he follows the rules that he has learned to live by."

Hall is extraordinary, playing Dexter as an emotionless drone, though not completely void of humor. He even has a relationship with a woman (Julie Benz), albeit one as emotionally detached as he is. It's a tricky character, yet it's one Hall pulls off with ease.

"I saw him and went, 'Oh, my God, that's Dexter,'?" says Lindsay, who initially wasn't convinced Hall was right for the part. "I mean, he absolutely nails it."

Given the subject matter, I'm not sure if that's good news for Hall. But it is for viewers.