Friday, February 13, 2009

Dollhouse: 'Ghost' (1x01)

After nearly five years without a Joss Whedon TV show on the air, he finally returned tonight with the first episode of Dollhouse. As with most Whedon series, it’s a problematic pilot, one with some great moments, but also a lot of flaws. The greatest flaw is the premise itself as presented now, one that seems destined to run up against a wall of irreconcilable elements unless some major changes happen.

Let me start with the flaw, then delve into what I liked about the show. The basic flaw is that I just didn’t care about the standalone plot. I had no stake in the characters involved, and the entire situation was clich├ęd with nothing to distinguish it from movies we’ve seen countless times before. I was reminded of Man on Fire, which turned a similar situation into an over the top hallucinogenic haze of insanity. The reason it had to do that was because we’ve seen this story many times before. And, because the show has to split its time between the various ongoing subplots, the time at the Dollhouse and the standalone of the week, all of the standalone stories will probably draw from archetypal elements we’re already familiar with.

Typically, our interest in the situation would stem from seeing how our main character engages with that story. But, in this case, the actual identity of our main character is the central question of the series. So, to see a “Miss Penn” succeed at her job every week just doesn’t seem like something that will be particularly interesting, particularly because she’s always going to mess up the mission in some way than manage to pull it off in the end.

Why did they program her to have asthma here? That question is addressed by Topher the programmer when he claims that having the human flaws gives them a drive to acheieve their mission that they wouldn’t have if they were “perfect.” He says that they’re not the “greatest hits” versions of people, but wouldn’t have the “greatest hits” model be precisely the reason you’d use this service? They’re offering the service of someone who’s beyond human, so why not play that up? In the case of this episode, wouldn’t it be more interesting to create the ultimate infiltrator agent, and have Echo get at them that way, rather than going through the typical channels.

The problem is that the show is built on a premise that should be all about exploring the sleaziest, dirtiest side of humanity. Each week should be a wallow in an activity so criminal and heinous that the people involved don’t want anyone to know about it. But, the network standards, and our rooting interest in the show hinge on putting the characters in essentially “heroic” situations.

But, I think the most interesting aspect of the show was the juxtaposition of these childlike, sheltered characters with the immoral behavior of their “parents” who run the dollhouse. The actives are commodities, they are designed to be used, and the most interesting standalone missions would be ones that put the characters in situations that stretch the boundaries of societal acceptability. As we’ve seen from the Elliot Spitzer scandal and countless others, people in power are willing to risk all they have for thrills, sexual and otherwise. So, a lot of the missions should involve Echo being built out as someone’s idealized girl, the one who will do things that no one else will. But, I don’t think we’re going to see a show that sends our hero on a variety of prostitution missions, so that’s not likely to happen.

But, there’s other ways that we can have her transgress societal rules. My mind flashes back to Salo, a film that I disliked, but raises essentially the same questions we’re addressing here, what would you do if you could use people with no consequences? I don’t think the guys from Salo had hostage negotiator anywhere near the top of their list.

But, I shouldn’t judge the show on what I want it to be, let me address more what is actually there. As I said before, I didn’t care much for the standalone story at all, and my fear is that this show will be one where you’re forced to sit through a half hour of fat to get to what’s really interesting about the story every week. It’s definitely reminiscent of Angel season one, where the show went through a variety of different scenarios trying to find its voice. Joss just isn’t great at writing standalone stories like this, and I’m not particularly interested in watching them. The only really cool moment in that section of the story was when Sierra burst in all business at the end to retrieve Echo and the girl.

That said, there was a lot that was great about this episode. I love the atmosphere in the Dollhouse, the slightly stilted way that everyone speaks, and the dreamlike way they move around. I also loved the final shot of them all going to sleep in their little cocoons, juxtaposed with a more hopeful ‘Caroline’ in the past. That video brought back memories of a similar juxtaposition in Cowboy Bebop’s classic “Sleep Like a Child,” which juxtaposed Faye’s videotape message to her school friends with her in the present day trying to sleep in the hollowed out ruin of the home where she grew up.

I liked Amy Acker’s character, and the uncertain way that all the higher ups treated the actives. There’s a lot of questions of identity and morality involved, and I’m sure they’ll be explored in more depth down the line. I want to see more of the actives’ world, and understand better how they interact with each other and view themselves. Is it an idyllic existence for them? Would they want to leave if they could? Those are the questions lingering now.

I also liked the setup of a couple of subplots, with Helo’s (he’s still Helo to me…) search for the Dollhouse, and the mysterious Alpha. But, I feel a conflict between what feels like the core of the story, breaking down the Dollhouse and trying to find an identity outside of it, and the long term future of the show which hinges on the Dollhouse existing. It feels like The Prisoner if Number 6 never tried to escape and instead just went along doing his thing every week. It was that need to escape that drove him, and that’s what needs to build in Echo. The case of the week is quite literally irrelevant to her character, as it’s erased every week. I’m sure there will be some lingering consequences occasionally, but it feels like those stories by definition will cease to matter after they happen.

So, I’m uncertain about the show’s future after seeing this first episode. I just didn’t care at all about this standalone story, and it’ll take a really good one to make me care about them in the future. I think most of the interesting stories that stem from this premise lie in places that will be difficult to fully explore. But, I’m hopeful that all the random pieces will knit together as time passes and we’ll see more of the world and get to the more long term character development that is Joss’s forte. Joss knows what he’s doing, and I’m sure once this show gets through its first few episodes of growing pains, it’ll be something great.

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