Monday, December 20, 2010

Why Dollhouse Collapsed

I'm late to the party. When Joss Whedon's Dollhouse premiered in 2009, I took a look at the premiere and, despite the presence of the weirdly disarming Tamoh Penikett, yawned. When friends of mine started nagging me to give it another chance, I dug in and became stubborn about it -- as is my wont, for the more I am nagged, the less likely I am to comply.

Oh come on, they said. At least check out Episode Six, when everything goes through the roof.

I dug in some more. My time is valuable, and I hate wasting it on crap.

It never entirely disappeared from my radar, though, and when it showed up, both seasons, as available for streaming via Netflix, I decided to take another look.

And, well, having watched it all in a compressed time frame, having, in effect, taken it in as though it were a 20+ hour movie, I can see why it got the axe; indeed, I am somewhat stunned that it lasted as long as it did.

That is not to say it was bad, though. Far from it. That's not to say it was good, however. What it was, was challenging, and not in the ways America really likes.


I dig Joss Whedon. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was lots of fun, adventurous, amusing and full of cracking good storytelling. Angel somewhat less so, but it contributed some fine characters to our pantheon and had its own melodramatic charm. Firefly was his real triumph to date, and its premature death was a true tragedy. And Dr. Horrible was just goofy, in all of the best ways.

I dig Joss Whedon.

But I am in a minority.

Sure, it doesn't feel like a minority. On the internet, everybody feels like he or she is part of the great cultural zeitgeist. Everywhere one turns, because one does not generally turn in directions that face stuff we don't like, she finds people in agreement. Captain Mal is a big damn hero. Jayne is awesomely quotable. Buffy kicks ass. Willow is adorable. Cordy should STFU. Felicia Day is our geek sweetheart. Yes, yes, yes.

But there are just as many spheres out there who cherish Sarah Palin as a model for modern womanhood. Who think vampires should, and do, sparkle. Who think television exists only to bring Sports Center and Monday Night Football. Who think gays not only shouldn't be allowed to marry, but shouldn't be allowed to exist. Who think if English was good enough for Jesus it's good enough for them. And they all hang out in consensus clusters that amplify and rebroadcast those opinions right back at them.

We all hang out in the echo chambers that please us.

So when Joss Whedon -- good old Joss! -- came out with a new TV series, starring one of his discoveries, Eliza Dushku, alongside Mr. Penikett, beloved for his turn on Battlestar Galactica, of course this was exciting news for our consensus cluster. And it was going to be all science fiction-y! Neuroscience, even! So we -- and only we -- flocked to watch, ready to be pleased, so ready to be pleased that we were, overall, whether it was actually any good or not.

And we weren't entirely wrong to be, those of us who, unlike me, watched beyond the pilot. There was some good stuff on offer -- daring stuff. Even smart stuff. Challenging allegories, red herrings, villains that were really heroes and heroes that were really the ultimate over-arcing bad guys.

And as the show progressed, more and more of our gang joined the reunion: Amy Acker from Angel! Alexis Denisof, of Buffy and Angel fame! Vincent Vintresca, The Invisible Man! Summer Glau from Firefly and Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles and The 4400*! So many familiar faces, of course we were happy!

But what about people outside our consensus cluster. What did they see when they tuned in?


Neuroscience is the new bugbear, which is no doubt why Whedon chose it as the hook for his latest show. Those who aren't actually involved in the study of brains and the nervous system entertain all kinds of shibboleths about the goals of those who do, and mostly seem to focus on the scary idea of brainwashing in one form or another.

We all like to think of ourselves as unique individuals, self-directed and in control. A lot of us were taught in Sunday School and church that man is the pinnacle of creation, fundamentally different from and better than all other life on earth because we possess immortal souls. OR, we got a skewed idea of how evolution worked, that it was a progression from lower or less-developed to higher or more-developed, with man as, again, its pinnacle and goal. Either illusion is comforting and safe -- and is fundamentally challenged when someone comes along and suggests that the soul is just a pattern of data, or that we are just as manipulable as lab rats or pet cats and dogs. Or both!

Enter Dollhouse, the premise of which is that someone has found a way to reduce souls to patterns of data, to remove them from people to be copied and stored, and to install new ones in bodies at a whim. Furthermore, those souls can be altered, bits kept, bits erased, new bits added on. People are suddenly not just trainable, but reprogrammable.

And a commercial use for this tech has, of course, also been found, and found to be hugely profitable. And of course that use is mostly for sex. Specifically a highly specialized form of sexual slavery.

This is ugly, ugly stuff. Squirm-inducing and uncomfortable, and it's supposed to be. But it's not to everyone's taste, is it?

And that's even before the show's heavy rhetoric is taken into consideration.


Nobody likes big corporations, even though many, if not most of us owe our livelihoods entirely to their activity. Soulless, powerful, bottom-line driven, they are not nice. They make a convenient villain, even when they are not engaged in obvious evil.** In fact, it's very hard to create a corporation that is not, in some way, villainous, because corporate ends are not our ends as individuals.

With an ice queen like Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) in charge of operations, we are quickly shown that the Dollhouse here is no exception to that trope. It's all about pleasing the client and the corporate overlords/shareholders, not anyone's consciences, and anyway, the dolls volunteered to be dolls, as Adelle never tires of reminding folks. They sign contracts, agree to be wiped and put to use as mere receptacles, and are well-compensated for their time.

There is an implicit contempt for humanity inherent in Adelle's attitude, and the corporation's -- not as much for the dolls as for the clients. This is your fantasy. This is what you really want, you creeps, and you'll pay whatever we charge you for it, and keep coming back for more (just like you, yes you, viewer on the other side of the glass, do for internet porn).

This may be going out there, but I also think I detect a weird attitude towards the acting profession in this set-up. Here are people who completely lose themselves in the role and are absolutely convincing, but when the director yells "cut", they do not flounce off to their trailers, do not demand massages and bowls of green-only M&Ms, do not get themselves caught in tabloid scandals, do not in any way misbehave. When the director says "cut" -- or offers a "treatment" -- these actors become perfectly tractable. They won't even binge and gain weight! Sure, they require looking after, but they eat their vegetables, do their exercises, and even go to bed when you tell them to!

And finally, well of course this show turned out to be an apocalypse fantasy. As we've known since Edith Nesbit's The Magic City, if not before, once we've wished for a machine, we're stuck with it; if we don't use it, someone else will. Either despite or because of our heroes' corporate-busting efforts, the tech that allows the erasing and re-writing of human brains has been augmented (now it works on everybody and has been weaponized) and is loose in the world with civilization-wrecking consequences. !

Wish fulfillment, all of it -- with a nasty edge. And you who are watching and loving it must be nasty, too.


As conceived, Dollhouse was a show that demanded a lot of its actors. Everyone playing a doll not only had to play that doll but also every role that doll had to play -- and these dolls all were called upon to play a wide variety of "characters" in the run of the show.

Unfortunately, only one of them -- the amazing Enver Gjokaj -- was up to the task. The first surprise doll reveal, he spent the first several episodes playing a Russian or Eastern European gangster, carefully leaving a trail of crumbs for our FBI hero (Penikett) to follow, and then, once revealed as Victor, a dizzying array of other characters. His accent as Adelle's loverman Roger was upper-crust British and as flawless as the one he sported as a gangster, with subdued mannerisms to go with it. He was a soldier. He was one of the other characters in the show, the neuroscience mastermind Topher -- admittedly one written with lots of hooks and idiosyncrasies that made him easy to ape. He was a pleasure to watch every time, and as the show progressed Whedon and co. seemed to notice that he had more chops than the rest of the cast put together and gave him more to do.

The rest of the crew, well, they tried. This was as much Dushku's baby as Whedon's from the start, that is clear (Dushku has a producer credit, I believe from the beginning), a showcase for her talents and... well, she sure is pretty. And athletic. And very good at playing a tough, bad girl (which is exactly who she played in Buffy/Angel, to great effect as the dark Slayer, Faith). Unfortunately, that seems to be the only character she ever plays, so even when she is an asthmatic psychological profiler (as she is in the very first episode) or a happy housewife, she seems seconds away from clenching her jaw and delivering a roundhouse kick. That many of the clients she's servicing deserve little better is beside the point.

I wouldn't mind this in the slightest if she weren't the focal point of the entire show, and the one character who is supposed to seriously develop and change as the arc of the story progresses.

Gjokaj should have been the star.


I sound, by now, like I hated the show, but that's not really the case. Had I hated it, I wouldn't not, finally, have watched, not only Episode 6, where everything did ramp up and change, but the rest of the series. But as I watched, I saw exactly why it was only and ever my consensus cluster who was ever going to even give this show a chance.

Because we who were watching and loving the show, at the time and later on, were not really loving the show as it was, but its potential, which it was just beginning to realize. We were forgiving flaws that most people won't, out of faithfulness to Joss and Eliza, out of curiosity about the premise, and out of a certain desperation because at the time (and arguably still) TV science fiction was offering us precious little that didn't suck a lot worse.

And let's face it: after Firefly's premature demise, we were all waiting to see just how long this new effort of poor Joss's would survive. We tuned in, in part, to watch something die. Because Joss is our standard-bearer, and while we think we're vast and mighty, the rest of society is still vaster and more mighty, and it's the guy in front, carrying the flag, who gets cut down first and hardest. And we love him for it. And when he gets knocked down once, we yell at him to get up and wave the flag again, however tattered it may now be, until it gets shot to pieces again.

And we hope that somewhere he's busy with his sewing machine and his scrap-basket, working on a new one.

*Summer Glau is assembling a c.v. that is riddled with characters that require her to play blank or damaged or not altogether there, isn't she? A crazy, damaged girl who is secretly a psychic and a killing machine (Firefly), a killer robot (Terminator: SCC), a crazy, damaged girl with the power to compel others to do her will (4400) and now a neuroscientist with zero affect and social skills (Dollhouse). She's a lovely woman with a stunning resemblance to Sigourney Weaver (it's all in that wide, wedge-like jaw and small mouth) and a prima ballerina to boot. Will she ever get to play a real person? Or is she not actress enough to do so? Maybe she needs to fire her agent? It's puzzling, this case of Miss Summer Glau

**Serious sci-fi geeks howled when the Dollhouse's parent company was revealed to be a corporation called Rossum, a shout-out to Karel Capek's R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), the play that introduced the word "robot" to the English language. Capek's robots are not the metal creatures the trope became later on, but more like clones or otherwise artificial humans (perhaps shades of the "skin job" Cylons of Battlestar Galactica), from whom unproductive qualities like emotions, preferences and individual will have been removed. In other words, Rossum's Universal Robots are the originals for Whedon's dolls.

1 comment:

  1. Yes! That is exactly it. As I started watching, I thought, "Wow! This show has enormous potential..." but it started to fizzle out as it progressed. I told James, who did not have any interest in actually watching, that it felt like they knew they were going to canceled, so they crammed as much crammable cram in as they could. The last two episodes of both season one and two were just awful and disappointing. So here we are at the end of the world. There's no avoiding it... um... really? It felt too much like Terminator. It's an unavoidable overtaking of humanity, even though by all rights, we should have been able to stop it. I enjoyed it, but it definitely wasn't my favorite Whedon offering. Great stuff, Kate!


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