Dollhouse: Harry Lennix, Fran Kranz, Eliza DushkuJoss Whedon has a loyal and richly deserved fan following. There aren’t really a lot of “household name” television writers (Aaron Sorkin? Joe Straczynski? Maybe Gene Roddenberry, back in the day?), but he’s one. His following, built up over years of memorable work on Buffy, Angel, and Firefly, guarantees that any new project he does will attract attention. And right now (unlike any other big-name writer who springs to mind) he has a new project on the air.

What a fan following doesn’t guarantee is renatings high enough to make a show a hit, as Fox’s ignominious treatment of Firefly demonstrated. And as Fox is also the network that’s broadcasting Whedon’s new show Dollhouse—and that decided to bury it in a Friday night timeslot, among other questionable decisions—the fate of this new series is no sure thing.

To be sure, the show is built around a concept that can’t easily be summed up in a ten-second spot. The idea is that a very secretive organization exists, the “Dollhouse,” that maintains a roster of peopleensam (“dolls”) who have been wiped of their own memories and personalities. Any of these people can be rendered “Active” by being programmed with a different set of memories and abilities, customized to meet the needs or desires of the organization’s super-rich clients. For the duration of an engagement, the doll literally becomes an expert hostage negotiatior, or dream date, or whatever the case may be… anyone or anything… but in the aftermath retains no memory of the engagement, supposedly resulting in perfect confidentiality. The dolls have all voluntarily contracted to let their bodies be used like this for five years, after which they will (allegedly) be restored and released. There’s a full staff (technical, medical, etc.) managing the Dollhouse’s central facility, including “Handlers” who serve as remote bodyguards for each Active doll. Meanwhile, off on the fringes, there’s an FBI agent who has been spending more than a year investigating elusive leads about the Dollhouse, seeking to expose it and bring it down. Oh, and as it happens the programming technique isn’t quite flawless… some dolls retain fragmentary memories, and at least one has escaped the Dollhouse under violent circumstances and gone rogue.

Got all that?  There’s obviously a large ensemble cast in play here (as in any Whedon show), but the central character is a doll called “Echo”, played by Eliza Dushku, formerly known as Faith on Buffy. (She’s presumably fifth in a sequence that began with “Alpha”; the full roster is up to “Sierra.”)

The concept is original, but then again it isn’t—it’s more a distinctive recombination of elements familiar from other genre shows. It evokes quite a lot other shows, in fact, and based on the two episodes aired so far has already been described as quite a few different mashups:  Quantum Leap run by Angel‘s Wolfram & Hart? Charlie’s Angels crossed with My Own Worst Enemy? Mission: Impossible staffed by the Stepford Wives?

One thing that does differentiate it, however, it’s that it’s unavoidably creepy. That’s not just the deliberate tone of the stories, which thus far focus on suspense with an edge of psychological horror… it’s the very concept itself, with its unavoidable subtexts (barely sub-, really) of prostitution and human trafficking. In fact, a lot of people are worried that the show appears to be glamorizing these things… which is counterintuitive given Whedon’s longstanding reputation as a feminist writer who crafts strong female characters, and also given the fact that the show was specifically built around a female star, Dushku, who was heavily involved in the development process.

I think that’s only a superficial reading of things, however. Reactions to the first couple of episodes have been mixed at best (and it’s true that those episodes had a few shortcomings in dramatic terms), but a lot of the criticism seems to represent a rush to judgment, or at least looks only at the surface level of the show.

I’m not entirely without complaints myself. For one thing, I’m not a huge fan of Dushku; her character was one of the few in the Buffyverse who never really appealed to me, and IMHO she’s a competent actress, but no more. (However, since it was Dushku who asked Whedon to develop the show in the first place, her central role is prety much a given.) Furthermore, there are lots of open questions about the concept beyond the ones that seem to be deliberate ambiguities for the sake of suspense. For instance, where and how does the Dollhouse get the second-hand memories it uses? Given this kind of technology, why would they choose this quixotic  business model rather than any of the more obvious (and legal) ways to make money from it? Given the clients’ apparently easy access to the Dollhouse, how has it successfully remained secret from the authorities, so much so that most of the FBI considers it an urban legend?

Nevertheless, I think the show deserves closer attention. Most of what makes it interesting is not on the surface. What’s going on here is obviously a slow build, and two episodes simply aren’t enough to judge by. In fact, it may be even slower than originally intended, and those two episodes may be less representative than they should have been… thanks to interference from the network. Whedon originally maintained that he’d have no problem working with Fox again, despite the history with Firefly, as all the decision-makers were new since 2002. However, the development history since then shows the network tinkering in ways remarkably reminiscent of what it did with his previous show. Fox bought the show sight unseen and committed for multiple episodes… yet after the premier (a pilot by any other name) had been written and shot, they decided they didn’t like it and asked for something else. It was originally going to be pushed back a week, but after rewriting and reshooting it wound up being scrapped altogether.

Whedon originally tried to spin all this fairly positively

[July 2008] There were also some slight issues with tone – I was in a dark, noir kind of place (where, as many of you know, I make my home), and didn’t bring the visceral pop the network had expected from the script. The network was cool about it, but not sure how to come out of the gate with the ep. … I understood their consternation, and saw the gap between my style and their expectations, and I suggested I shoot a new ep and make the one I’d shot the second.

…but eventually wound up fairly cynical about it…

[October 2008] Yes, it’s been hard and I’ve been depressing to be around for awhile. Basically, the Network and I had different ideas about what the tone of the show would be… Their desires were not surprising: up the stakes, make the episodes more stand-alone, stop talking about relationships and cut to the chase. Oh, and add a chase. That you can cut to. Nothing I hadn’t heard before on my other shows (apparently my learning curve has no bendy part) but frustrating as hell given our circumstances — a pilot shot, scripts written, everybody marching together/gainfully employed… and then a shutdown. …

Oh, we don’t see eye-to-eye on everything, but wanting the first episodes to be exciting and accessible is not exactly Satanic. Being Satan is, but that’s in their free time…

…and eventually got to the point where he told Rolling Stone that the experience may actually deter him from ever again doing television. It is at least certainly understandable that despite being the show’s creator, and a key writer and executive producer, he’s not the actual showrunner… that role (with all its dealing-with-the-network duties) has been handed over to the team of Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain, who worked with him before on Angel.

All this is really a damn shame, since based on the evidence of the original script, the first story Whedon wrote was far superior to the first episode that actually aired. (It also had considerably more of that deliciously Whedonesque snarky dialogue, which the network apparently doesn’t care for.) And the second episode, which was apparently a favorite of the network, was largely just a seen-it-before riff on “The Most Dangerous Game”; the backstory it delivered in a flashback-based framing sequence was considerably more interesting than the A-plot.

Put it all together—the creative interference, changes in broadcast order, bad time slot—and it’s all the stuff that happened to Firefly seven years ago, and resulted in that show’s undeservedly short run. It’s no surprise that the ratings on Dollhouse have been mediocre thus far. It’s worth noting that it did well for the time slot in the key 18-49 demographic, though (however many of them are home on Friday nights), and moreover that the premier episode hit number one among iTunes video downloads in the days that followed. (I don’t know, but would surmise, that it did well in Hulu viewings and 7-day DVR ratings, as well.)

Still, despite a stumbling start, the show appears to be worth sticking with. Jane Espenson (recently of BSG) was added to the writing staff, which is certainly a good sign. There’s a talented cast (I’m particularly interested in Harry Lennix, playing Echo’s “Handler” Boyd… and Alan Tudyk will be showing up soon as well.) And most importantly, despite the shuffling around of the first few episodes, Whedon has clearly thought through the show’s world and its mythos, and still has a long-term plan, which he promises will begin to emerge as soon as the back half of the 13-episode first season:

we always look at the first bunch as a series of pilots. What we want to make clear is there is a certain thing we do, and there is a certain thing that happens that is trouble, which is basically Echo. The most important thing about the dollhouse is that this girl is not a doll.

…over the second half of the season, we’re going to be seeing more about how the place works and the people who work it. …

The mandate from the network was very much, “Give me a standalone where the audience knows what the structure of the show is, and where it ends so the audience wants to come back next week” … I’d say we want to do both. We want people to feel like they can watch it when they want to, week to week, or they can watch a 13-hour movie.

When I presented the show to the network, I presented a five-year plan. … The changes that we made ultimately ended up taking us exactly where we wanted to go. When we get to the second half of the season, all of the episodes are, with one exception, are episodes we had already thought up. The season closers are what we intended to do.

I expect that those episodes will, in particular, delve into and justify many of the show’s seemingly “creepy” aspects. I think back to how shaky the earliest episodes of Buffy seemed, and I have confidence that Whedon knows what he’s doing, regardless of the obstacles that have been placed in his path. There’s backstory and subtext to explore here; it obviously starts right from square one, with the main character’s code name being “Echo” to evoke the mental state imposed on her, but goes way beyond that. The suits at Fox may just see an action show with “sexy” aspects, but it’s really about gender roles (not all the dolls are female). It’s about identity and agency and self-determination—how they can be taken away, and how they can be built up again. And it’s about power relations and institutional dynamics—for while there are (some) good people working in the Dollhouse, no one should make the mistake of assuming that they represent the “good guys.”

The exploration of these themes should be worth waiting for.

There’s a new episode on tonight. Watch it (or at least DVR it and check it out later!), and decide for yourself.

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2 Responses to “The toys in Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse”
  1. Andrew says:

    It should be interesting to have a different concept upon these kind of things, but I don’t know who would be the one to come with such a bold idea!

  2. There’s a reason one of the first groups Whedon tested the show out on after the “suits” was Equality Now’s leadership. Several reasons, I suspect.

    As for the network relationship…yeah. Some people need to find a different kind of operation to do shows for, but so far Fox isn’t desperate enough to give Whedon the maneuvering room he needs and deserves.

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