Thursday, October 8, 2009

Bound for the Attic?

I fear Joss Whedon will soon be known as "That guy who makes shows that could have been great." Apparently, Fox is pulling Dollhouse from its November lineup in favor of House and Bones re-runs. Even more worrisome is the news that it will be aired in two hour blocks upon its return. For FOX, it is a product that has reached its expiration date, and now they desperately clear their stock before it stinks up the storehouse. Somehow this just doesn't cover it.

To be fair, Dollhouse didn't make things easy on itself. To begin with, the show is inherently hard to market. Describing it's premise is a task which is probably better left to Wikipedia, but essentially, it's about a shady organization (guess what it's called!) that rents out programmable people (Actives or Dolls as you please) to cater to the fantasies of the rich, well-connected and over-privileged. Our heroine, is Echo, a Doll played by Eliza Dushku who has a nasty knack for remembering the fabricated personalities and engagements she's supposed to forget.

At it's best, the show is an intelligent exploration of exploitation with some truly fresh sci-fi elements to drive the plot. At it's worse, it's an over-complicated version of The Pretender, at least from a weekly story-telling perspective: The early episodes of the first season saw Dushku trying on outlandish outfits and disposable personas to navigate canned TV perils. Guy who hires Dolls to live out his Most Dangerous Game fantasy? Check. Stuck-up super-star in need of a bodyguard and a lesson on being yourself? Check. Ironically, I think these throw-away scenarios might have been Whedon's attempt at simplifying things for general audiences. Unfortunately, they were still far too confusing for general audiences, and too stilted for his normally stalwart fanbase. By the time the show arrived at truly interesting questions and scenarios ("Can dead people's personalities be imprinted on Actives to get life after death?" "Yes!" "Wow! Altered Carbon much?") almost everybody had lost interest.

The very thing that makes the show so interesting is the thing that makes it so challenging to watch: It strains audiences' abilities to empathize. Whedon's casting and characterization is brilliant as always, but everyone has serious relatability issues. When unprogrammed, the Dolls are amusingly vapid and vulnerable, which is good for a few quick laughs, but quick to wear thin as well. Their programmed presonalities are engaging enough, but too short-lived to get attached. That being said, both Victor and Sierra, the other main dolls aside from Echo, are played brilliantly by Enver Gjokaj and Dichen Lachan, who you probably haven't even heard of before now.

The people who run the Dollhouse are also a real mixed bag. The Dollhouse's resident mind fabricator, Topher, is clever, nerdy and at times disarmingly vulnerable, but he's also obnoxiously conceited and detached from the people whose heads he fucks with for a living . British Boss Lady Adelle is deliciously dry and cold in a curiously endearing way, but she's also the head of an organization that rents people out for everything from sex, to manslaughter, to really dedicated daycare. Head of Security Boyd and disgraced FBI agent Paul Ballard bring some boy scoutly heroics to the mix, but both are administered in controlled doses to prevent them from stealing the show from Echo.

On the subject of Echo; I was skeptical at first as to whether Dushku would be able to carry the show, and while she has given a few trully exceptional performances (like her recent stint as a mother for rent) I'm still a bit ambivilant about her character. Some of her roles seem to bleed together in ways that make it difficult to tell if she is intentionally blending personas (which would be consistent with the shows plot) or if it's just less-than-stellar acting. Furthermore, while Echo's persistent memory affords her a more stable personality than the other dolls, the personality which emerges is that of a perfect doll, or actress. I'm a huge fan of metafiction and the ironies in play here are still a bit much for me to swallow.

Meet the Dollhouse! From left to right we have Ballard, Victor, Echo, Sierra, Topher, Adelle and Boyd. And yes, every doll is named after a character in the NATO alphabet. So far!

Given all it's inherent challenges, I was fairly certain that Whedon couldn't do anything to sell the show to the kind of viewership FOX was expecting without completely compromising its plot. But then a friend invited me to watch one of the unaired episodes exclusive to the Season 1 DVD, an episode titlted Epitaph One. From what I understand, it was intended to serve as the series de facto ending in case of cancellation, and it does a beautiful job of validating all the characters' grim predictions that the Dollhouse could very easily be the downfall of mankind. Those of you who have not seen the episode but intend to would do well to skip the next three paragraphs, and the general point of this post.

In the episode, we have fastfowarded ten years into the future, and find ourselves faced with a world that has been utterly ravaged by Dollhouse technology. Somehow imprinting signals were unleashed through cellphone signals: everybody who picked up was implanted with a homicidal Doll, and everybody who didn't suddenly found themselves facing off with said doll army. In a way, that scenario is simpler by far than the plot of the first season. You've got a nice, fairly clean binary opposition (the dolls and the people controlling them vs. the survivors), with plenty of opportunity to blur the lines and uncover the mystery of what happened.

If it was up to me to launch my brilliant new show, I'd open with this edgy ruined hell-scape to show people what was at stake, and fill in the blanks as I went along. I'm the sort that sits back and spends a good half hour speculating about stuff with friends and even I was blown away by how fucked up things were, though given the situation presented, the aftermath seemed completely appropriate. As for flashbacking, what better environment could a writer ask for than a world where you can download a person's entire being into a flashdrive?

There are obvious virtues to Whedon's subtler, more gradual approach to the story pf course. We grow increasingly attached to the show's characters as fissures creep through western society, right under our noses. We watch the technology push further and further, breaking boundaries that seem so innocent at the time. If anything, I am a sucker for brilliant plotting. But sadly, most folks aren't patient enough to watch a five year plan unfold. Hell, if Robot Chicken and Family Guy are any evidence, five minutes of continuity is pushing ones' luck. I love both those shows, don't get me wrong, but it saddens me to think that longer term, serialized story-telling is loosing it's place in television.

In conclusion, if you are a Browncoat who was turned off by Dollhouse's early offerings, come back and give it another look, preferably guided by a friend who knows the show well enough to take you through the good stuff. It may already be too late to launch a fan campaign strong enough to save the show, but trying never hurt anything. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to be late for my Treatment.

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