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FALL TV PREVIEW: Returning series -- Dexter (Showtime)

Keith Carradine joins Dexter this season as a "rock star" FBI agent.

Newly impotent in his own uniquely shivery way, "America's Favorite Serial Killer" is having a tough time cutting it as Showtime's Dexter returns for a 12-episode second season.

Those who missed the first or have largely forgotten how it ended will get a pretty thorough recap (Sunday, Sept. 30 at 8 p.m. central) before the plot re-thickens.

In short, a spooked Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) is fresh from executing the notorious "Ice Truck Killer," who turned out to be the brother kept secret from him. He's also being doggedly followed by the surly Sgt. Doakes (Erik King), who's long been suspicious of Dexter's crimesolving techniques with the Miami PD.

"I'm coiled, and I'm ready to strike," says Dexter, who's gone more than 36 days without carving up someone who deserved it. He then rolls a bowling ball toward 10-pins as a member of the "Bowl Till You Bleed" team. Love this show's style.

Dexter's heightened urge to kill again initially isn't matched by his ability to follow through after he's meticulously immobilized a victim. At the start of the new season's Episode 2 (Oct. 7), he lays it all out: "Where is the orderly, controlled, effective Dexter? How did I lose him? How do I find him again?"

This second episode, where the show really starts humming again, also introduces old reliable Keith Carradine as formidable FBI agent Frank Lundy. He's been sent to town to track the so-called "Bay Harbor Butcher." That would be Dexter himself, whose carefully packed trash bags full of various body parts are discovered deep underwater by a pair of divers.

This adds a big monster of a storyline, with Dexter still desperate to kill on a regular basis while Lundy and company try to piece together evidence that might well lead to him.

"There is no such thing as the perfect crime," says Lundy. And he says this with the certitude of a man who's already caught some big fish in his day.

Also returning to the series is Dexter's still traumatized foster sister, Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), a fellow cop who unknowingly had been dating the "Ice Truck Killer" before nearly becoming his victim. And Rita Bennett (Julie Benz) is back for another stab at being Dexter's girlfriend. He's always had problems with intimacy, but she's someone he reluctantly really cares about.

Hall continues to make Dexter one of the more oddly compelling characters in prime-time history. Will he eventually get boxed in? Can he ever really love someone who's still among the living? For now, Dexter mostly loves a challenge. And he's ready to play cat and mouse to the hilt with Lundy and anyone else he enlists.

There's always that Dexter-ous sense of humor, too. As when Rita calls while he's sinking his latest victim in a new watery grave.

"I was just droppin' somebody off. Can it wait?" he asks.

No, Dexter isn't for everyone. But neither was The Waltons.

Grade: A-minus