Thursday, February 24, 2011

Dollhouse: A Retrospective

...why the show was destined for cancellation from season one...

The History

The real story of Dollhouse begins with Firefly. Way back in 2002, Firefly, a new scifi-western series was picked up by Fox. Created by Joss Whedon, the show had a fantastically talented and well chosen ensemble cast, smart, fast, writing, and a really unique visual style. The show had everything, and its enduring fans stand in testament to that. However, the show performed poorly on the network. Why? Because Fox fucked it over. That's right. I'm going there.

Due to some executive decisions in Fox's secret underground bunker, episodes were played out of their written order, presumably because they felt that the introductory episode didn't pack enough of a punch to score big with the young male demographic. This meant that we were not slowly and carefully introduced to the characters as we had been in the first real episode, but rather thrown straight into the action with episode 2 - The Train Job. The end result? The series didn't even get to air its entire first season. Three of the original episodes were never aired on Fox. It was criminal.

Joss Whedon was warned to never work with Fox again. Look at what they had done to his flagship show, arguably more popular than Buffy, despite the fact that Firefly only had a single, botched season on network TV. But the past would be past, he would surely learn his lesson and work with a network that would respect him, treat him right.

What's that? A new Whedon show? Sweet! On Fox?! Goddammit.

The Premise

[Note: I've kept the article 99% spoiler free, but one or two might have slipped through. Use discretion.]

The show is called Dollhouse. Simple Enough. It's a near-future, The Matrix meets The Pretender kind of character-driven drama. In a secret facility, the dollhouse, agents routinely have their minds imprinted with another person's psyche. The actives, as they're called, can literally become someone else. In mind, at least, their bodies stay the same. The dollhouse then rents these copies out to the rich in need of specialists, assassins, or sexy sex times (they do this last one a lot).

The show does have an overarching narrative, though its episodic nature too often gets in the way of that story. Starring Eliza Dushku, who also worked on Whedon's Buffy and Angel, and a very talented supporting cast, the show ran for two seasons before cancellation (though I would argue that it went for exactly two seasons too long).

But enough about this stuffy nonsense, let's talk about why the show was terrible!

Why the show was terrible!

Dollhouse is yet another example of a series with unlimited and unexplored potential. You've got a premise that perfectly allows your cast (hopefully made up of wide ranging character actors) to play a new and different character each week. These imprinted personae would be varied, outlandish, insightful looks at the multiple facets of each active's personality. The plot would take them to exciting places, get them into danger, allow for romances to be made and broken. It's the perfect premise for an episodic show, though it has been done before **cough, The Pretender, cough**. However, it also had one of the best new television writers behind it, potentially allowing the show to transcend its episodic nature and become something enduring and profound.

However, Dollhouse fails on every, single, level.

In the first few episodes of the series, we're introduced to the concept of the dollhouse, the characters (in particular, Echo, Dushku's character, an active), and the nature of the dollhouse's business. We're also shown a tantalizing hint at new possibilities: What kind of implications would the dollhouse have, if it were real? What happens when something goes wrong? Are these people slaves, or volunteers? But we aren't given answers. Week after week we follow Echo as she does one task after the next, becoming a new imprint at the beginning of the episode, doing a thing, and returning home to be wiped, ready for next week. This is the reason why, in my first time watching the show, I quit after only three episodes. It wasn't worth it for me. It didn't help that the show also aired on the heels of Battlestar Galactica which, though it wasn't perfect, was able to strike a good compromise between episodic troubles and the series-wide human/cylon conflict. Too many times watching Dollhouse I would cry out in anguish, "I don't care that Echo is going to date some rich guy! What about the stuff happening over there?!"

Now, don't get me wrong. Episodic shows can work. Though they are falling out of favor with modern audiences, there are many examples of classic series that do "one episode, one plot" very well. Look at the classic and next generation Star Trek series, or Quantum Leap, or Stargate, or THE PRETENDER. These are all comparable scifi shows that do this formula really well.

As the series progressed through its two short, but yet too-long, seasons, it did begin to focus more on the big picture. Undoubtedly, part of this evolution was Joss Whedon's realization that, with the ratings as poor as they were, he wasn't going to be able to realize his five-year plan for Dollhouse's plot to roll out slowly. Throughout the second season, we're given so many revelations and shocks and double-crosses and sleeper agents that, by the end, it becomes comical. Important characters are killed with no lead up or fanfare, usually to create jump scares or forced emotional moments. Character motivations change wildly, from Agent "I hate the Dollhouse. Oh, now I love the Dollhouse" Ballard to Adelle "am I good, evil, or just drunk" DeWitt. Sometimes, it just doesn't make sense. 

Are you ready for the #1 worst part of the show? The single element that killed any and all potential this show might have had? Even though I haven't been doing a countdown, I present, Dollhouse's worst problem:

#1. Eliza Dushku
Yes, this is the only emotion she can convey.

She kills this show. Her vacant, doe-eyed expression that never changes, despite playing literally dozens of characters over the course of the series. Her flat, emotionless dialogue delivery, in which she never--NEVER--even attempts a different accent than her own. To be fair, she's got exactly two emotional levels: innocent, and yelling. Anything in between? Nope. And this really is what kills me most about the show. The lead character in a series like this needs to be someone charismatic, someone who can take on wildly different speech patterns and mannerisms each week, while still remaining sympathetic and likable. Everyone else in the show can do it but her. She's a black hole of acting talent, sucking all life and energy out of a scene.

The show is at its best when its lead protagonist isn't present. That, in a sentence, is everything that's wrong with Dollhouse.

I'm not even being hyperbolic. In fact, if you want a counter-example, watch an episode that features Victor and Sierra (two fellow actives) and you'll instantly notice the difference. These two actors, Enver Gjokaj and Dichen Lachman, are absolutely brilliant. These two powerful and versatile character actors can light up any scene like an anti-Dushku beacon of hope and talent. Seeing Victor seamlessly portray Topher (the dollhouse's computer expert) is so far above anything that Echo could portray that it's not even funny.

Enver Gjokaj and Dichen Lachman

In Conclusion

Dollhouse is just an awful waste. So much potential, wasted. So much acting talent, shoved to the periphery. It's sad, really. I'd like to blame the problems on Fox, but I just can't. The show failed miserably, and, if anything, Fox was lenient in giving the show a second season, despite ratings for the first season being lower than those of Firefly, the second season rating lower still.

I wish, more than anything, that the show could have been rebooted in its second season into The Victor and Sierra Show. Seeing those two actors, along with many other notable supporting actors, get canned because the rest of the series tanked around them; it just wasn't fair.

Fool me once, shame on Fox. Fool me twice, and the blame's on you, Whedon.  

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