Watching Dollhouse over these past few weeks—as FOX hurriedly burned off the last few episodes after giving up any hope that the show would build an audience—has been a strange, almost schizophrenic experience. With each new episode, my opinion of the show has jumped between considering it to be a slightly flawed masterpiece or a fascinating failure. Not that there’s anything unusual about a television show finding or losing its sense of direction in a short period of time: I’ve seen plenty of shows that needed time to make good on their potential (as Parks and Recreation has done in its second season) or that peaked early and then screwed up so royally you have to wonder if the creators ever understood what made them successful in the first place (Heroes being the obvious example). With Dollhouse, however, creator Joss Whedon and his team of writers responded to the threat of cancellation by throwing out new plot twists and character developments at a break-neck pace, about half of which I’ve found thrilling and half of which have me asking a question I’m not certain that Whedon himself could answer: What is Dollhouse really about?
I’m sure the immediate response is to say that the show is about the search for identity, or more specifically that it’s an examination of how fragmented our identities have become in this media-saturated age. But that’s an argument I’ve never really bought. To briefly summarize: The show centers around a secretive, morally ambiguous organization (the Dollhouse of the title) that hires out “Dolls”—young men and women so attractive they look like they’ve stepped out of a commercial for facial cleanser—on assignments that range from assassinations to kinky sex. Before each assignment, the Dolls are imprinted with a new personality tailored to the client’s specifications, but they have no larger awareness that these memories are a lie. When they’re not on an assignment, the Dolls exist in a childlike state of blinkered innocence and spend their free time doing Kindergarten activities such as finger painting and crafts.
Whedon has used this setup as a springboard into some twisty ideas—if you download your memories into more than one body, are both of those people still you?—but I think it’s a stretch to claim there’s a ton of real-world relevance here. Many of Dollhouse’s episodes involve the characters receiving new personalities that are then discarded by episode’s end, which tells us nothing about who these people really are. And while the show eventually explores the Dolls’ capacity to learn and grow—Echo (Eliza Dushku) achieves self-awareness and remembers her past identities, while Sierra (Dichen Lachman) and Victor (Enver Gjokaj) fall in love during their time in their childlike states—all this really adds up to is the idea that we are more than the sum of our memories. The technology in Dollhouse is just too theoretical to act as a metaphor for anything else, except maybe as a commentary on how actors and actresses play different roles for an audience that can be fooled into developing feelings for someone they don’t know.
Just compare Dollhouse to Virtuality, another mind-bending sci-fi show centered on the theme of identity that was canceled prematurely (after just one episode!) by FOX. Virtuality revolves around the crew of a spaceship on a multiyear mission who are being filmed for a reality show that’s broadcast back on Earth, and who are also equipped with virtual-reality headsets that allow them to relax in their own private fantasy worlds in order to deal with their claustrophobia. In its single episode, Virtuality does a brilliant job of exploring how these three different layers of reality—the quotidian nature of life aboard the ship, the manufactured drama of the reality show, the daydreams made real—each contain aspects of who these people are, even though none of them represent the whole picture. Although we spend more time interacting with our co-workers than our friends or family, the mundane tasks we share with them usually only reveal the surface of our personalities. Likewise, while we might kid ourselves that our daydreams are the truest representation of who we are, there are plenty of people who imagine themselves as charismatic extroverts yet are stuck as wallflowers in real life. Virtuality’s look at the fragmentation of the self yields some fascinating character insights, but Dollhouse’s attempt at the same subject is mostly just a launching pad for a high-concept procedural.
Joss Whedon spent the first half of his television career telling stories about the pain of growing up (Buffy the Vampire Slayer focused on adolescence; Angel on early adulthood), but, intriguingly, almost all of his later work has focused on how the rich and powerful are able to subjugate the masses. Firefly and its cinematic continuation Serenity take place in a future in which mankind has colonized a handful of planets, all of which are controlled by a monolithic government known as the Alliance; the wealthier citizens live on worlds that look like high-tech utopias, while the poor eke out a hardscrabble existence on the undeveloped outer planets. The fifth and final season of Angel (in retrospect, a sort of dry run for the conspiracy aspects of Dollhouse) has the main characters taking over a demonic law firm and questioning whether they’ll be able to do good with their new connections or become compromised themselves; the series finale sees Angel and his friends realizing that working within the system to achieve progress is impossible and they must destroy the law firm from the inside out. Even Fray, his comic book series about a futuristic vampire slayer, was set in a world that Whedon described thusly: “The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and there are flying cars.”
I’m curious if this obsession was inspired by Whedon’s frustration at dealing with the Hollywood suits who control the purse strings or by current events (the mendacity and arrogance of the Bush administration, the Enron scandal, the financial meltdown of 2008), but either way, Dollhouse is the purest expression yet of this theme. The Dollhouse is secretly owned by the Rossum Corporation, which, in addition to procuring hookers for its rich and connected friends, is using its technology to achieve immortality (by downloading the memories of its founders into new bodies) and to quietly take over the world (they have a brainwashed U.S. senator among their collection of Dolls). Ultimately, this plotline has become the strongest element of the show, revealing a nightmarish and almost believable vision of the end of civilization in which the powerful are content to treat everyone else like slaves and fighting back is impossible. The technology in Dollhouse doesn’t exist, but it’s all too easy to imagine it being abused on a grand scale if it did.
But for all of Whedon’s noble intentions at speaking truth to power, there’s something a little simplistic in examining massive social problems by reducing them to a conspiracy involving a shadowy supervillain. In some ways, Whedon is too much of an optimist: He imagines that the Rossum Corporation needs to completely control a U.S. senator (whom they eventually set up to become president) in order to pass the legislation it wants. But in real life, special interests are able to get much the same effect by simply funding political campaigns. The truth isn’t just stranger than fiction, it’s usually more depressing too: The HBO series The Wire offers a view of society that’s less scary on a visceral level but far more damning in the end, a mind-bogglingly complex and thorough look at how bureaucracy crushes progress that makes the good vs. evil dynamic in Dollhouse seem relatively shallow.
Is it unfair to compare Dollhouse to The Wire, arguably the best television show ever made (and one that benefited from the different expectations HBO has)? Maybe. But these comparisons are necessary because it’s clear from interviews that Joss Whedon intended for Dollhouse to be something tougher, more relevant and more nuanced than the work he had done in the past. He didn’t quite succeed, and I’m not sure who’s to blame: Whedon for falling back on his old tricks, or FOX for not having faith in him and forcing him to regress creatively. Perhaps the answer to this question lies in the behind-the-scenes drama of the show, which has been almost as complicated and interesting as what made it onto the screen.
Dollhouse first began life at a 2008 lunch meeting between Whedon and his former Buffy alum Eliza Dushku. At that point in their careers, both of them were finding it difficult to transition from television to the movies: Whedon had spent the past few years working on screenplays for Wonder Woman and an original project called Goners that were never developed, while Dushku, dealing with Hollywood’s dearth of intelligently written female roles, was being offered little more than playing the main character’s girlfriend or the eye candy in slasher films. Dollhouse was meant to solve both of their problems, giving Dushku a chance to show off her acting range by playing a different role every week and allowing Whedon to make a subversive fantasy entertainment that questioned the very nature of fantasy entertainment.
More specifically, Dollhouse was meant to examine human sexuality and its place in a society in which everything has been commoditized. The Dollhouse staff claim that the Dolls are all volunteers who agreed to sign up in exchange for a generous payment (although it later turns out this isn’t always true), but there’s still the disturbing subtext that these people have sold away their ability to act or think for themselves. Do the sexual encounters that the Dollhouse arranges constitute rape? The Dolls may have agreed to join the organization, but they can’t really give their consent to any individual assignment. It’s made even more ambiguous by the clients themselves, who run the gamut from those who are interested in elaborate fetishes to those who want to feel some sort of intimacy, however artificial it might be. The original premise for the series even included a Doll named November whose specialty was long-term assignments with clients who wanted more than just a one-night stand (her character was eventually rewritten as a Doll assigned to spy on an F.B.I. agent).
Unfortunately, FOX eventually backtracked on their support for the show and decided they weren’t crazy about the heavy focus on commercial sex. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan, Whedon lamented, “It’s the classic American double standard: torture—great. Sex—oh, that’s so bad!” I can understand his frustration, but at the same time, it’s partly his fault for not going to Showtime, or at least FX, with this idea in the first place. If Whedon truly believed that a major network was going to air a primetime show about kinky sexuality and the nuances of sexual consent, told using a fictional business that combines human trafficking and prostitution, then the dude must have been hitting the crack pipe pretty hard. There was probably no way FOX would have ever aired the program he had in mind, and so Dollhouse was reconfigured before the first episode as a personality-of-the-week adventure show.
Since the show was telling episodic stories with very little character development to link them together, the success or failure of Dollhouse essentially hinged on Whedon’s ability to write a procedural. And the results were, to put it mildly, underwhelming: The first five episodes ranged in quality from watchable to mediocre to outright awful. Even the Whedon faithful began to despair that the show was a perverse mistake, and the party line from the cast and crew was to wait for the sixth episode, when, allegedly, things started to heat up and the master plot kicked in.
That episode, written and directed by Whedon, was indeed the game changer everyone was hoping for, and it transformed the show once more, this time into a serialized thriller that investigated the inner workings of the Dollhouse. The focus was now on the staff and its ethical dilemmas rather than the clients themselves, a massive change from what the show was once supposed to be. But gutted of its initial creative spark, Dollhouse slowly began to feel more and more derivative of Whedon’s past works, a fact which exposed his strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller.
First of all, let it be said that Whedon is a tremendously gifted writer, one who has shown, over the course of four different television series, a remarkable range of talents. He’s written a musical, a silent-horror episode, a surrealistic dream episode worthy of comparison to David Lynch, science-fiction westerns, screwball comedies, conspiracy thrillers and detective stories. His dialogue, though occasionally a bit overcooked, is able to turn on a dime from humor to pathos and back again. He’s a master of the serialized form, able to hook viewers into caring about his characters with one entertaining adventure after another, gradually setting us up for the emotional gut punch when tragedy befalls them.
But any writer’s style, no matter how impressive, will begin to show its cracks after overseeing so many television shows, and I’ve come to realize that Whedon spent his time on Dollhouse rebelling against, and ultimately succumbing to two shortcomings in his storytelling.
The first is a reluctance to fully embrace moral ambiguity in his work. Whedon has spent the last few years raving about the recent remake series of Battlestar Galactica, which he’s declared his favorite television show of all time. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Battlestar may have inspired Whedon to create Dollhouse, or at least that Battlestar showed him just how far a science-fiction show could push the envelope in terms of commenting on real-world issues like the compromises of politics, the fragile nature of social order, and the terror of living under life-or-death circumstances for years at a time. The shows even have similar plot elements: Just as Battlestar Galactica generated a great deal of suspense by introducing characters and then revealing them to be Cylons (robots who look human and who are responsible for a nuclear holocaust that wiped out most of civilization), so has Dollhouse shocked its audience by introducing characters and then revealing them as Dolls on assignments.
But more than copying Battlestar’s plot twists or its aesthetics, Dollhouse is interested in the precise tone that the show created: a sense of moral freefall, in which its characters are forced over and over again to make tough decisions in situations where all of their options are bad. Likewise, the Dollhouse is meant to be a creepy, morally ambiguous environment where the staff members are confronted with the ethical compromises of dealing with society’s power elite and giving them what they want—or else.
In one episode, the boss of the Los Angeles Dollhouse, Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), tells one of her employees, “The cold reality is that everyone here was chosen because their morals have been compromised in some way.” Sounds good, but the show keeps bringing up moral dilemmas and then allowing the characters to escape with their dignity and scruples intact. A prominent businessman demands that Sierra be released from the Dollhouse and made into his sex slave for life, but the staff members instead allow Sierra to murder the man and they clean up the aftermath without suffering any consequences. Adelle spends part of the second season sucking up to her superiors after she learns how much power they wield, but her toadying is later revealed as part of a larger endgame to take down the Rossum Corporation. Echo’s original personality, Caroline, is hinted at first to have been a selfish, manipulative woman, but subsequent flashbacks show her reasons for the more unethical things she’s done. Even Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), the Dollhouse’s programmer, is constantly described as an amoral genius, yet when push comes to shove he’s fiercely protective of the welfare of the Dolls under his care. On the other hand, when one of the main characters is eventually revealed as a traitor, he suddenly turns into a supervillain who’s been pulling the strings all along. So much for shades of gray.
In an interview with Salon.com just before the premiere of Dollhouse, Whedon said that he thinks of moral ambiguity as one of the defining characteristics of his shows. But just as people in real life don’t always know their own personalities, so too can artists misunderstand their own work. I don’t know if Whedon would see this as an insult, but I’ve always considered him to be a fervent moralist, someone who truly believes that human beings cannot be happy without acting according to their conscience (or without being sociopaths). This sense of morality doesn’t necessary have to be connected to religion—Whedon has never been shy about admitting that he’s an atheist—but it is rigidly defined, and he seems uncomfortable at putting his characters into no-win situations without giving them a way out involving self-sacrifice. This is true of almost all of his work, with the possible exceptions of a few storylines in Angel (which has always been the black sheep among his shows, since it’s the one that was most clearly influenced by his collaborators) and the film Serenity, which didn’t have enough time to set up the ruthlessness of its milieu without forcing the characters to get their hands dirty. I don’t know if Whedon has it in him to develop a character as conflicted as Battlestar’s Lt. Felix Gaeta (Alessandro Juliani), an idealist who does terrible things in the name of what he believes is right, and who is neither reduced to a villain nor offered any sort of redemption in the end.
However, it’s Whedon’s other shortcoming as a writer that has me worried about his future: a heavy reliance on the traditional Hollywood three-act structure and a tendency to resolve almost all conflicts with an action climax between the hero and villain. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that formula in abstract, and Whedon has shown that he’s able to rise above it on occasion (for example, with the Buffy episode “The Body,” in which Buffy copes with the death of her mother). But Dollhouse was supposed to be his chance to completely move beyond these clichés and replace the fisticuffs and shootouts with something more substantial. Again, compare Dollhouse to Battlestar: The second-season finale of the latter centered on a presidential election, while the third-season finale saw a former political leader on trial for crimes against humanity. These events demanded more than just a fight scene to resolve them, and they were more interesting because they forced the characters to confront their own beliefs and how far how they would be willing to compromise their ethics for what they believed was right.
As a result, it’s a little disappointing that a show about the existential horror of not being able to trust one’s memories keeps falling back on action scenes to wrap everything up, especially since its reduced budget during the second season meant that a lot of the shootouts looked like B-roll footage from Walker: Texas Ranger. In addition to the formulaic nature of the action scenes, there’s a certain “been there, done that” feeling to the episodes themselves. My favorite episode of Dollhouse from the second season was probably “The Attic,” a genuinely creepy and disorienting story in which Echo, Sierra and Victor are trapped in a dungeon-like facility and hooked up to a machine that’s powered by their nightmares. Yet look at the plot piece by piece: It’s a surreal dream episode in which the protagonists are chased by a mysterious killer who turns out to be an ally (like the Buffy episode “Restless”) and they must wake themselves up from their enslavement in a virtual reality that powers a machine (like the plot of The Matrix, Whedon’s favorite movie). At the end of the episode, Adelle reveals that she sent the Dolls to the Attic in order to gain more information about the Rossum Corporation (similar to a plotline from the final season of Angel), and Echo learns that a crucial piece of information can only be accessed by an alternate personality of hers (exactly like a plotline from the fourth season of Angel).
Other fans have pointed out allusions to The Road Warrior and X-Men’s “The Dark Phoenix Saga” in the final stretch of Dollhouse episodes. Maybe all of these references are just signs that Whedon’s heart wasn’t in it by the time FOX canceled the show and his enthusiasm was running on empty (or that my fellow Internet geeks and I have too much time on our hands). Really, that’s understandable—Whedon set out to do something new and found himself slowly boxed in by the demands of the network and a shrunken budget. And while I honestly enjoyed the FOX-approved version of Dollhouse and thought it had its moments of weird poetry and skin-crawling horror, I really wish I could have seen his original, R-rated vision instead, if only to measure how much Whedon has grown as an artist since he was a wunderkind who practically reshaped the television landscape with Buffy.
Regardless, the biggest question now that Dollhouse has been canceled is: Where does Whedon go from here? The current rumor is that he’s in discussions to develop a show for FX; he’s also been talking about creating content for the Internet, although it’s not clear if there will be a viable financial model for supporting such an endeavor anytime in the near future. Both possibilities would offer him more creative control than he’s had in the past, albeit less money. But artistic freedom should be much higher on his list of priorities than having a major-network budget. I’ve been watching Whedon’s work for over a decade now, and while it’s always been consistently entertaining, I have to admit that the thrill of seeing something new, of recognizing an original voice amid a glut of anonymously produced television, has been replaced with playing “spot the reference.” He needs to move out of his comfort zone and develop a television show that doesn’t rely on the formulas that he’s perfected and worn out. The man who created Dollhouse might, ironically, be in the midst of an identity crisis himself: Who is Joss Whedon, and who does he want to become next?
Jack Patrick Rodgers is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. His work has been published in Slate, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Geek Monthly and Popmatters. You can follow him on Twitter or contact him via email at RestlessJack@comcast.net.