Sunday, March 01, 2009

Thoughts on Dollhouse

Here's a comic from HijiNKS Ensue about Dollhouse.

So I've watched the first three episodes of Dollhouse - the new Joss Whedon show that looks like an Alias rip-off. It is not a great show, and not even a good show. It is an ok show, which means if it is on, I probably wouldn't change the channel. However, I also wouldn't seek it out if it WAS on at the time.

Since I don't have a television, though, it doesn't matter. I usually give a show a couple of episodes before rendering judgment. Firefly didn't hook me until somewhere in the middle of Disc 2 of the DVD set. Buffy didn't get good for me until the back half of Season 2. I've only watched three and a half seasons of Angel and that hasn't hooked me yet. Very few shows, like Arrested Development, hook me from the get-go. Heck, Lost didn't even hook me until the first John Locke episode in Season 1 - what was that? About four or five shows in? The American version of The Office didn't get good until well into the second season.

What makes Whedon's work interesting is that he makes the subtext the text and flaunts genre conventions. This lulls the audience into a state of relaxation, after which the work suddenly adheres to genre conventions, which is both shocking and amusing.

For example, instead of making a subtle parallel between vampirism and alcoholism (i.e. the characters are addicted to something horrible and damaging to themselves and others), the parallel is explicit. The vampires meet in a twelve-step program, and say phrases like, "My name is Vladmir, and I am a bloodaholic." The subtext is the text, and everyone laughs because a vampire support group is funny and absurd. The audience is laughing and relaxes because this is a spoof of genre conventions. But then a vampire falls off the wagon and kills people - and doesn't kill a minor, faceless character, but instead kills a character that the audience has a significant emotional investment. Suddenly, by adhering to genre conventions, there is excitement and delight.

A great example of what makes Whedon's work so interesting is Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog which does this exact thing. It plays with genre conventions until the audience cares about the villain and hates the hero, then it suddenly adheres to genre conventions, reminding the audience that, hey, they've been rooting for the bad guy, and he's, like, a BAD GUY.

Dollhouse doesn't have that going for it right now, because it is hard to classify in terms of genre. We don't know if it is a sci-fi story or a spy story or something else entirely. There isn't a way for it to cozy up to us, and let us think we know what it is really about, only to have it kick the chair out from under us later.

Plus, there is the challenge of making a character interesting when the only distinguishing thing about the character is her utter and complete blankness.

The third episode in the series is the closest so far that the show has come to finding its voice - the Dollhouse characters are no different from the manufactured pop sensations that are forced down the throat of popular culture. The show is a metaphor for the entertainment industry as a whole, specifically focusing on how women are treated.

This is the closest the show has come to asking an interesting question. I am not sure the high-concept of the show is sustainable for many episodes and story ideas, though, unless something radically changes soon. Hopefully, something will.

Having said all that, I have watched the show enough to get a sense of the formula. Hence, I have two plot ideas for shows.

1) A Paris Hilton-type media figure wants to enter the Dollhouse because she thinks it will be the cool trendy thing to do.

2) An aging multi-millionaire approaches the Dollhouse and requests that one of the dolls bear him an heir.

If you are interested in watching the first three episodes, here they are:

Episode 1 (not very good)

Episode 2 (gets a little better)

Episode 3 (gets a little better than episode 2)


Cyber D said...

I'm really sorry to hear that. I had a spare evening and started to watch the first episode on Unfortunately I wasn't feeling well so I decied to go to bed early. But what I saw goes along with what you were saying. It's too bad because I like JW. I'm big fan of Buffy and Firefly. I think Angel's pretty good too. And I'm a huge fan of Eliza Dushku's body. . . . of work.

M. Robert Turnage said...

Eliza Dushku is really talented. In episode 3, she sings and actually does a decent job. I understand part of the show is to feature her acting ability. My secret wish is that she is a ventriloquist in a future episode. Or better yet, she gets imprinted with the personality of Buffy the Vampire Slayer because one of her clients is obsessed with that show.

It is tough to get into the show because there is nothing for the audience to grab on to. There isn't a familiar genre for the audience to relate to, and there can't be a deep investment in the character because the character gets wiped away at the end of the episode.

There is that moment in 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' where Jim Carrey begs for a moment not to be erased because it is so important to him. And the memory is, of course, erased. It is sad because we're so invested in his character and his relationship.

Dollhouse doesn't have moments like that. It would be great if they had an entire episode of Echo getting her mind wiped - to get the audience to really feel for the character and then kill the character off at the end of the episode. That single episode would give emotional resonance to all of the other episodes, because she gets mind wiped at least once an episode, sometimes more than that.

I'm reserving final judgment until I've seen more. It may be slow going now, but maybe it is just warming up for the take off.

NoRegrets said...

Hey, is that the woman who was in that series where she wore a lot of leather and rode a bike? Cancelled last year or the year before??

And what is Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog? I guess I should google.

heather said...

nor, dr horrible's sing along blog is only the greatest thing to hit the internet since google! seriously, it's freakin fantastic!

mrt, i've been watching dollhouse on hulu too. so far i'm still on the fence. unfortunately it looks like the powers that be at fox did joss a disservice by showing what was intended to be the pilot as the second episode and having him rush out something else entirely for the pilot. apparently from what i've read the oh so wonderfully intelligent and supportive, *yeah, right* guys at fox felt that the original pilot didn't explain enough. so what? it's joss whedon, he's known for taking a half a season or more to get around to telling us what the show's about and even then, you're probably only getting part of the story. i plan to finish out the season and reserve judgement till then.
*don't you just wanna smack topher? the guy is seriously lacking in anything resembling humanity*

Blue McGinnis said...

Actually, Heather, the original pilot was scrapped altogether and not shown as the second episode. The original incarnation had Paul and Echo meet straight away (and fight) as well as the Victor reveal. It was very Noir as well but Fox wanted something less-dark. Having re-shot a new pilot and unable to make the original pilot work as a different episode, Joss scrapped it completely.

From what I know about the show, it starts getting a lot better at episode six. The reason is because this is where Fox stopped demanding which episodes were aired, etc, and it's the first Joss written episode since the pilot. It's where the mythology of the show starts taking a bigger role and there's less standalone episodes. It's also the first meeting between Paul and Echo.

Saying that, next week's episode "Gray Hour" looks set to be the best one so far. Even though the episodes haven't been amazing so far, at least they've been improving each week.

heather said...

seems i may need to check my sources. i have however, been hearing the same thing about things getting much better with episode six.
hope it's not just a pot of gold we're chasing.

M. Robert Turnage said...

Heather - My pet theory is that Topher is an imprint. The real genius behind the brain program has set up Topher as a cut-out. No one can be that insufferable in real life.

heather said...

oh what a cool theory! imagine the places joss could go with that. :)

M. Robert Turnage said...

I think there are some interesting things that could happen - like maybe the whole organization decides to "reboot" and re-imprint all of the people back to their original settings. And then you get to find out who is an imprint and who isn't. I think there are some fun ideas for episodes and there is potential there, I just haven't seen much of that potential actualized.

I am sticking with it, though, which is saying something. I tend to bail on series fairly quickly (I couldn't make it through six episodes of Alias. I gave up on Veronica Mars after about four episodes. etc.)

Nate said...

I thought with the last 5 seconds of ep2, it was gonna turn interesting. Like she'd be able to start accessing all her past experiences, escape the doll house, and program herself as needed.

Ep3 did the interesting social commentary, but left the coolest part of ep2 behind.

So now I have to drop it.

M. Robert Turnage said...

Last moment of episode 3 is similar to episode 2. Whathername - Audra - seems to recognize Echo, but Echo gives her a "cool it, not here" look.