dollhouse_cast1Joss Whedon’s new TV series Dollhouse got off to an uneven start, as I wrote shortly after the premiere. The show’s quixotic concept seemed promising but underdeveloped, and the Fox network had reportedly interfered with the show creatively. The first few episodes seemed like a very slow build, focusing on the kind of “engagement of the week” stories the network wanted rather than more sophisticated, long-term storytelling. Whether the show would surmount those obstacles seemed uncertain.

But Whedon promised from the start that the back half of the 13-episode season would turn toward more provocative, less predictable storytelling, along the lines he and his writing team had originally envisioned… and he wasn’t wrong. Over the last few weeks, the show has delivered in spades, stepping up to a much higher level.

The sixth episode, “Man on the Street,” was a strong harbinger of the shift in direction, fleshing out the concept and the character ensemble, and answering some nagging questions. But the really dramatic turning point was the ninth episode, “Spy in the House of Love,” which aired on April 10. 

“Spy” was a jaw-droppingly good television episode, and one that unquestionably deserves to be called “Whedonesque” in the best sense of the term. The teaser before the credits sets up a mystery that runs through all of the segments that follow, each one of which flashes back slightly then moves forward to approach the story in a different style and from a different character’s perspective, filling in tantalizing details along the way.

The first act dramatically shifts the dynamic between two secondary yet important characters, former FBI agent Ballard and Dollhouse sleeper agent Mellie, in a scene that is both totally unexpected and, psychologically, one of the downright creepiest things I’ve seen on TV in ages. It also drops significant clues that contextualize the rest of the story and hint at developments to come.

The second act is a classic spy/action thriller, bringing the NSA into the plot while simultaneously poking some subtle tongue-in-cheek fun at the show Alias

The third act is a touching yet unsettling romantic vignette that casts a whole new light on Dollhouse boss Adelle Dewitt, and simultaneously plants in her mind the idea that she herself may not be quite who she thinks she is.

The fourth act is a detective story that ingeniously has Echo (the show’s putative star Eliza Dushku) interrogating the Dollhouse staff, illuminating both the relationships among the characters and the rationalizations they use to justify being part of the organization… and ultimately revealing a mole in a development that is genuinely surprising and yet, in hindsight, completely logical. (No spoilers from me!) Moreover, the revealed character’s motivations play out in a way that leaves it clear (although unstated) that there’s still someone else working against the organization from the inside, playing a longer game.

The coda reprises the opening scene in a way that’s all the more chilling now that the details are known, and ends with an unexpected shift in the roles of the remaining characters that will certainly have consequences in the episodes to come.

So:  each segment of the episode was dramatically satisfying in its own right; the episode as a whole was greater than the sum of its parts; and in itself it was clearly only a part of a larger story that’s still developing. By the criteria I was discussing just a few posts back—strong ensemble, complex mythology, philosophical depth, irreverent humor—this is very nearly as good as television gets. 

After a week off, the tenth episode, this past Friday, stepped back into more of a space-filler role… but the upcoming episodes promise to amp up the intensity once again as the season builds to a climax. 

If one hasn’t been watching the show so far, this week is probably not a good time to start: there’s too much backstory, almost all of it interesting and important. But the last five episodes (including the two I linked above) can still be viewed on Hulu, or one can order the entire season on DVD, available as of July 28.

The network shenanigans (including the Friday night timeslot) doubtless haven’t helped the show’s ratings. We don’t know at this point whether Dollhouse will be picked up for a second season. (Heck, at last report Fox isn’t even planning to air the 13th episode produced, a coda to the 12th-episode climax, for arcane contractual reasons.) The renewal decision is due to come down in late May, after the final episodes have aired but before the DVDs hit the market. In the meantime, all viewers can do is advance-order the box set, and hope such a show of support might incline Fox to do better by Whedon and his fans this time than they did with the painful cancellation of Firefly a few years back.

As the Chicago Tribune puts it, the show “has ripened into a poignant and twisted meditation on identity, memory and exploitation.” I have no idea what direction Whedon and company might take this show and its concept given a full-length season to work with, but I’d love to find out.

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8 Responses to “What’s the opposite of jumping the shark?”
  1. Antoni Lee says:

    The first season if Dullhouse was the one that I loved the most, even when some say that it was not so good.

  2. Andrew says:

    Now that should be quite useful!

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  4. Shae says:

    I wonder why Fox finds it necessary to interfere with the creative work of a show. I mean had Firefly been aired the way Joss had originally intended it, it would have lasted longer than the one short season it got. If the original pilot episode of Dollhouse had been anything like “Man on the Street” it would have been in a far better place to get the momentum it needed to build a fan base that would guarantee a second season. Also the lack of fans gathered from the first few episodes should have proven to Fox that their way was not the better way.

    Also, what I’m curious about is why they placed it on Friday nights, that to me, lately has seemed to be the death of shows on those time slots. It almost implies to me that they didn’t really want the show to make it in the first place, thus they interfered with the creativity and placed the show in a death-inducing time slot. Which I find surprising after the success of Buffy and Angel. You would think the networks would want another winner like those, but I guess, whatever they were thinking is going to be left up to speculation by us fans.

  5. I love it when someone finds my stuff worth sharing, BTW. So sincere thanks to whomever linked this piece on TV.com, due largely to which it has become (as of today) my second-most-read post ever. (I just wish more of those readers would stop to post a comment, though!…)

  6. Yeah, that was one heckuva reveal, wasn’t it? (I’d actually been spoiled, unfortunately, because I’d read Whedon’s original pilot script online. I don’t regret it, though, since it would’ve made a far better episode than the first one actually aired.)

  7. Ado says:

    *hear’s = here’s (what a noob :o)

  8. Ado says:

    Hi, I must say hat I totally agree with your thoughts on Dollhouse.

    I’m a huge Whedon fan, which is why I stuck with this after the (lets be honest) poor first episode. For me it turned around at the end of episode 3.

    (Trying not to spoil this for people who haven’t seen now) When a certain male character was revealed as a doll in the final scene my jaw dropped and I shouted “OMG” at great volume. It was the first moment of the series I could tell that real thought about the over-arcing plot, and not just the cool concept and technology, had been really well thought out. TBH, I had heard that that actor was to play a doll when the project was announced, but that was retracted and his new role was published in all the lead-up press. That only added to the surprise and gave me a real grin for the next day or two.

    Anyway, hear’s hoping it gets a second season and makes it over the pond (I’m in the UK BTW) so all my mates can watch it too.

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