Saturday, February 28, 2009

Dollhouse: 'Stage Fright' (1x03)

The good news is each week of Dollhouse has gotten a little better, but none of the episodes have been total winners yet. As with much of the series, this episode has a lot of interesting ideas and thematic content, but the ideas just sort of sit there and don’t really integrate into the narrative in any way. The show has an intellectual interest, but most of the time it doesn’t have the emotional impact or Joss’s best work, or even his middling work.

The basic idea here is to juxtapose the gilded cage of pop star Rayna with Echo’s similar situation. Both have what some people would consider a utopian existence, free of worry and choice, with someone worrying about and caring for their every need. Normal people want to live that kind of life, but for the people living extraordinary lives, sometimes the thing they want most is normality. The confrontation between Rayna and “Jordan” in her dressing room hits the similarities home, perhaps a bit too hard on the nose.

The problem is what does this parallel really say? I suppose on one level it’s a way to explore the way that women are treated as commodities, defined by their relationships to others. That’s how Echo is used, an object to project fantasies on, and Rayna is the same thing. But, just saying that doesn’t make an interesting story, and it’s hard for the show to condemn that attitude when most of the female characters in the episode are shown in the minimal amount of clothes whenever possible.

I have no problem with that, these are good looking people, but I feel like the line between implicating the audience in the same attitude that the characters in the show have and just using sex to sell the show has been crossed. I think part of the problem is that we’re left with no place to view the show from. We’re made to look at Echo in various states of undress, and are still meant to condemn the fact that she’s being used by her handlers. It’s hard to have it both ways. I don’t think there’s anything inherently misogynist about showing women without many clothes. Look at a film like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which keeps its sexuality fun and empowered. But, here, there’s such a mess of viewpoints, it’s hard to know what to think, and my takeaway is simply that sex is being used to sell the show even as it’s being condemned from within the narrative. The show’s trying to have it both ways, and not quite pulling it off.

Anyway, I will say that at least this week’s mission made sense to use a doll on. I don’t understand why they led off with the hostage negotiator story, since these past couple of episodes have done a much better job of saying why someone would use a doll on a mission instead of a regular professional. I’m not saying this should have been episode one, but even more than last week, it pointed to a kind of viable type of future storyline, and was a bit more creative with the premise than we’d see previously.

I also really liked Echo’s interactions with Sierra. More than Dushku, she could easily swerve between personalities, selling us on the meek “number one fan,” then switching back to impersonal doll mode. That said, I’m not sure why she didn’t activate her backup personality when she got kidnapped, surely that would be the kind of emergency she’d have been programmed to get out of.

Also interesting was the revelation that the Russian guy is actually a doll, messing with Ballard, presumably on behalf of his Dollhouse superiors. This raises the interesting idea that the dolls could be used as the ultimate sleeper agents. Think of an Infernal Affairs type situation, where a doll is planted in a criminal organization and doesn’t even know they’re being used as a surveillance op for the police.

Back at the dollhouse, Boyd and Claire get a bit closer. I’ve got a bad feeling about Amy Acker’s future since I believe she’s been cast in a new pilot and is still credited as “guest starring” even though she seems to be a main character. But, for her time on the show, she’s a nice human presence in the dollhouse. Things aren’t totally working on that side of the storyline yet, but I want to see more, and at this point in the show, that’s what’s needed.

While I did enjoy the episode, I think the climax evidenced one of my major problems with the show, and that’s the fact that it feels a bit dated in its production value. I feel like I saw that same above the stage climax in a Buffy season one episode, and TV has come a long ways since then. In a world where you can have shows that are shot as well as The Sopranos, or produced on the scale of Rome, this competent, but unexceptional direction just doesn’t do it. Shooting a show as well as The Sopranos doesn’t require money, it requires great directors. Perhaps they have to shoot this show faster than The Sopranos worked, but still, the lack of production value and technical skill shows.

But, I’m still liking it. This was my favorite episode yet, and we’ll see where things go. Episode six is supposed to be the big “game changer,” so if they can stay this good until then, I’m excited to see how big the quality jump is.


Mercer Finn said...

I'm going through season one of Veronica Mars at the mo, the show Joss Whedon hailed as the first true successor to Buffy. Although it's not as well written, Mars easily trumps Buffy in terms of style. While Whedon voices the commitment to go beyond 'TV with faces' camera-work, his shows (even Firefly) rarely deliver. In this respect, what you say about Dollhouse is disappointing.

Still, I'm glad you're finding the show to be improving. Joss Whedon has not let us down yet...

crossoverman said...

I'll be interested in what you write about the series through episode six at least - and decide then whether I want to give the show another chance.

Patrick said...

Veronica Mars definitely looks better than most Whedon stuff, though I found it really hard to engage with the characters after a while, particularly Veronica herself who was just so hard edged, it was difficult to relate to her. She's like the Rorshach of teen detectives.

But, I definitely agree that it's hypocritical for Whedon to talk about the radio with faces thing. Doing The Body or Hush is great, but really good shows are able to make the visuals work every week, not just on special occasions. There's definitely a hierarchy of TV directors, you see the same names come up on a lot of HBO shows or Mad Men. Why can't he get some of those guys to direct Dollhouse episodes?

But, there's potential there. The weight of expectations on episode six is becoming tremendous, since Joss has promised it to be the episode were everything gets good for real, but we'll see. I think the show is entertaining enough on a weekly level, though it definitely hurts from the extra eight minutes of running time. All the episodes start strong, but sort of burn out by the end.