When Joss Whedon’s latest series, Dollhouse, began back in February, it was kind of a mess. An INTERESTING mess, to be sure, but it felt like it was a series that was fundamentally missing something at its core, which led it to flail around a lot, trying a number of things that just didn’t work. Fans of the show and the man behind it have tried to blame all of this on the network airing it, Fox, unfairly believing that just because the network mishandled Firefly, it was going to mishandle Dollhouse as well, simply to mess with Whedon, apparently (regardless of the fact that entirely new people, much more friendly to TV auteur types like Whedon, were in charge), but even Whedon himself has admitted that at first, he was having trouble coming up with the kind of show he wanted to make. A lot of TV sci-fi fans tuned in, weren’t quite sure what was going on in this tremendously un-Whedon-y Whedon series, shrugged and tuned out.
So let me say to them something that might sound surprising: If we remove business matters from the equation, Dollhouse is the one series I believe emphatically deserves to come back, but I’m basing that as much on the show’s potential, something that seemed in short supply back when it started, as what it’s actually accomplished.
First, let’s deal with economics, since there are very few ways to paint that picture as rosy for Dollhouse. It performed relatively well when it was paired with the very similar Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, especially for a Friday night. Since it’s been paired with the marked-for-death Prison Break, though, it has slid and slid and slid until its first-run viewing numbers have skipped from awful past abysmal to atrocious.
The show does alright on online streaming services like Hulu.com and also sells well on iTunes. The DVD and BluRay sets are both selling fairly well in pre-orders on Amazon.com, and the DVR replay numbers are also solid. This is one of the few shows on the air that very nearly overtakes its first-run numbers with DVR numbers. Normally, networks don’t value DVR numbers as highly as first-run numbers (though this is changing), but Fox’s unique gambit to sell less ad time during Dollhouse but price it at a premium may mean that, as with Fringe, which has a similar ad revenue scheme, DVR viewers sit through the ads, which last only 60 or 90 seconds instead of nearly five minutes. Still, it’s hard to make an economic case for keeping this show around, even if you account for the fact that Whedon’s fanbase is a passionate one, willing to buy new DVD release after new DVD release for as long as Fox can keep coming up with new special features to slap on each release. Whedon’s shows are among the few in TV to enjoy extraordinarily long tails, to the point where Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff, Angel, have essentially become licenses for the company to print money.
But few of us become TV fans because we really love the intricacies of network scheduling and pulling apart ratings data (there are a few folks like this, and they seem to mostly hang out here). We’re fans because we engage with the material on some creative level, and creatively, Dollhouse is, if not soaring, at least gliding. As it entered the back half of its first season, Dollhouse showed the potential to become Whedon’s most mature and intriguing work, as well as the potential to become one of the best science fiction series of all time. Unlike most TV creators who take years off (Whedon hasn’t had a series on the air since 2003, and he’s spent the interim mostly seeing lots of movies fail to come together), Whedon seems to have been watching other TV shows and taking notes, figuring out what it was that they did well and then seemingly saying to himself that he, too, could do that, maybe even better that.
It behooves us to remember, of course, that the show isn’t perfect. For all of Whedon’s faith in series lead Eliza Dushku (who plays the doll Echo), the actress has only been up to what she’s been asked to do sporadically. Whedon has never had as strong an eye for casting as his closest TV look-alike, J.J. Abrams. For every Nathan Fillion in Firefly, there’s a Marc Blucas in Buffy—someone slightly out of their depth who has a look that fits the character more than the soul of that character. Whedon’s exceptionally good at figuring out how to write to these various actors’ strengths, though, and he’s very good at directing his stars when he gets the chance (witness how the occasionally moribund Sarah Michelle Gellar lights up the screen like a genuine movie star whenever Whedon directs an episode of Buffy).
The problem here, though, is that the part Dushku is playing may be essentially impossible for someone with an established persona—ass-kicking chick—to play. Hell, it would be hard for MOST people to play, but Dushku has to portray a number of different people but still keep a certain element of a core soul present in all of them. It’s a tricky balancing act and one neither she nor the show have quite figured out just yet. (It’s worth pointing out that Dichen Lachman (Sierra) and Enver Gjokaj (Victor), who also play dolls, seem to be doing a better job of managing this trick than Dushku, but neither also comes with the substantial baggage of having played characters recognizable to genre fans in the past.)
There are plenty of other things that don’t quite work in the show, but they’re all things that also make me think the show has more potential than most watching it are willing to let on. For example, the fact that nearly everyone in the main cast is involved, somehow, in perpetrating a form of slavery and is therefore morally monstrous is something the series seemed too interested in glossing over for too long. At the same time, by trying to win our sympathies for both the people running the Dollhouse and the people they are exploiting, Whedon is muddying the “this is good, and this is evil” lines that he played within so directly in his two most popular shows.
Whedon is a creator uniquely obsessed with shows about the role of community and the individual’s place within that community—really, the only TV creator AS fascinated by that idea is maybe David Milch, whose Deadwood and its wide sweep of humanity seems an obvious inspiration for this series. What he’s trying to do is no less than get you to look at this story from every perspective, to realize that the usual good vs. evil trappings that underpin much of genre TV are outdated in the wake of things like Battlestar Galactica. Dollhouse is, then, about TWO communities—the people doing the exploiting and those being exploited—and how they come into conflict with each other. It clearly sides with the powerless residents of its universe, but it also knows enough to know that those in power think what they’re doing has a good side, even if they admit most of the people involved are only chasing sex fantasies.
And, the thing is, it’s not easy to conclude that they’re wrong. Obviously, the overarching goals of the organization are monstrous, but they do weird, pro-bono cases, and there’s been numerous hints that if the technology fell into the wrong hands, the consequences could be disastrous (a major story arc centered around an NSA agent who had hoped to co-opt the technology for the use of the government). As Whedon’s shows have grown up, his view of the universe has as well. No longer is this a place where there are dark things, sure, but there will be heroes riding in to save the day. Here, when Echo finally frees all of the dolls, it’s just not going to work. The dolls are basically walking, talking infants, unable to care for themselves. This episode would have been the end of any other sci-fi series, but Dollhouse slots it eighth, and it gives us our closure before realizing the falsity of such promises.
I’m also not terribly sympathetic to the claim that this show abandons Whedon’s trademark pop-culture-infused patter in favor of dark dialogue. For starters, the patter was getting tired (even Whedon seemed to admit as much in press for Firefly, when he frequently said that one advantage of setting a show that far in the future was that he couldn’t fall back on the pop culture crutch). For another thing, while the show can be funny, it needs a grounding in the darkness that is its reality that constant joking would undercut. If my thesis is that Whedon has been watching a lot of great TV and figuring out how to infuse it with his sensibility, then I’d say the tone of the show suggests he’s been mainlining Battlestar Galactica DVD sets. The series has that same sense of grim determination, of apocalypse right around the corner, of people backed up against the wall and only cracking wise in instances of gallows humor. That so many of the fans are bemoaning the lack of snap-crackle-pop dialogue suggests that they’re unwilling to follow Whedon on his artistic evolution, and in that case, I say he doesn’t need ’em.
I’m severely tempted to OVERpraise Dollhouse (this is a “Save That Show!” article, after all, and such things inevitably end up skewing towards overpraise). So even as I’m thinking about the fact that centering so much of the show around personality-less blanks may not have been such a good idea and bemoaning the fact that the season finale was good but not as impressively, effortlessly terrific as the episode that preceded it, I find myself drifting back to thoughts of the stories this show COULD tell, of the ways it was teaching itself to expand its narrative (the ninth episode—the skewed format “A Spy in the House of Love”—was one of the best episodes of television I saw all season).
To a real degree, being a TV critic is about being a soothsayer, about glancing at the elements of a show that’s not QUITE clicking and deciding if it will gel with time or just fall apart into morass. Everybody has their hits (I totally called 30 Rock, everybody!) and misses (I believe I once said Brothers & Sisters was going to be the next thirtysomething), but the central problem is picking out which shows are going to click and which are going to utterly dissolve.
To a real degree, this relies on looking at the creative talent behind a show and also assessing what COULD happen under the best possible circumstances. And I have no qualms in saying that Dollhouse is thematically richer than anything Whedon has attempted so far and, indeed, has the makings of an all-time sci-fi classic. It gets at ideas of who we are as people and what it takes to create an identity better than just about any show I can think of. It’s obsessed with ideas about the artist’s relationship to his characters. The idea that we are nothing more than electrical impulses, than data, is so rich that I’d be surprised if Whedon COULDN’T get seven seasons out of it. It’s a show about whether we are our memories or whether they are us, sort of an action-adventure Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (a connection I’m forever thankful to Scott Tobias for making).
So, yeah, this is me imploring Fox to not get rid of this show. It’s not perfect, and its first season had a ton of cringe-worthy moments. But there’s a terrific show in there and a longtime TV creator trying to take the next big step in his career. Evolutions are always scary because they involve so much change and there’s no guarantee you’ll ever get to the next step. Whedon’s trying something vastly different and, potentially, vastly more interesting than anything he’s ever done before with this show, and he deserves another season to figure it all out.