Sunday, February 22, 2009

Dollhouse: 'The Target' (1x02)

The second episode of Dollhouse is a major improvement over the first, addressing a lot of the issues I had with that episode, and providing some welcome arc elements, but also still suffering from the basic problem that the premise still doesn’t make much sense, and dealing with the premise leads to a lot of people behaving in ways that feel contrived and don’t make much sense in a real world emotional context.

The good thing about the episode was that it worked well as a mix of standalone and arc stuff. The scenes in the woods were generally exciting, and I particularly liked the evolution of Echo’s imprint as time passed, and the encounters with the earlier versions of herself. I do think a major opportunity was passed up by having that canteen she drank from laced with some unspecified poison instead of LSD or something like that which could have provided the perfect excuse to send her on a journey through her own memories, and do some more creative filmmaking.

Whedon’s shows have never been known for their filmmaking merits. Outside of his last period Buffy showcase episodes, like “The Body” or “Restless,” the shows were directed in generic TV style. The writing and performances were strong enough to overcome that, but here on Dollhouse, the show often feels distinctly like a generic Fox series, and the woods setting here felt like something that would be on a syndicated fantasy series circa 1998. There are striking images from time to time, particularly the overhead shot of the dolls going to sleep, but in general, the show isn’t doing that much groundbreaking visually.

The twists in the woods story did genuinely surprise me at times. The revelation that the park ranger was after them was great because the scene was set up as a way to show us how prepared the Dollhouse team was. It didn’t feel arbitrary that he would appear because the purpose of the scene was to show that Boyd was prepared for any contingency.

The other thing that did impress me about the episode was how much background we got, along with the development of the season’s “big bad,” the rogue doll Alpha. The scene where Boyd is bonded to Echo was particularly interesting, probably the best scene of the episode.

But, there’s still a lot of issues. Topher, the programmer guy, feels like a character that Whedon has beat to death in previous stories. He’s like a recast for maximum genericness version of Warren. Buffy was a show that was ostensibly much goofier than this one, but even in one episode, “I Was Made to Love You,” we had a much better understanding of the emotional stakes that drove Warren to invent April. The feelings were right on the surface, and even though it treated in a goofier way, the whole sexbot concept felt sleazier and more interesting there.

Warren was understandable as a very real person, the kind of guy who was never able to connect with women and because of his robot building genius, was able to make the perfect woman for himself. It’s a wacky story, and not exactly realistic, but it’s emotionally understandable. Here, everyone is in this weird business secret agent mode, and there’s not much recognizable humanity on display.

And, the problem is, the show’s concept basically demands a constant diet of illicit sex and violence to make sense, but is there any point to a show about a woman who’s constantly raped, then brainwashed to forget about it? That ostensibly makes a statement about women’s role in society, and the perception of female value, but what is that statement. The single Warren robot story said a lot more about that, and did so in a way that was absolutely heartbreaking in a way I find hard to believe this show will reach.

Joss has always been at his best when he uses the action side of a story as a device to turn individual emotions in to a larger than life struggle. I never watched Buffy for the narrative, I wanted to see how the characters were affected by what happened. That’s why even a bad Buffy episode can be really enjoyable, because it’s nice to spend time with those characters.

And, the problem with Dollhouse is that Joss has created a show that explicitly makes impossible the thing he excels at, extended character development. Now, it is hinted that Echo will remember her past selves, and struggle to rediscover her true self. That’s possibly interesting. I don’t really care about the mystery of who Echo is, but I think there could be a great story in Echo trying to invent a new self after living for so long with the comfort of imprinting.

But, even if that happens, we’re still left with a bunch of characters at the Dollhouse who don’t have any clear motivations for what they’re doing. Boyd seems like a nice enough guy, so why would he get involved with this operation? Is it just for the money, or do they have something on him too?

Ultimately, I think the biggest issue is the tone. This episode had a lot of good things about it, but there’s still the fact that the premise makes no sense, and no one acknowledges that absurdity in the way they did on Buffy. There’s some jokes with Ballard, but because we’re emotionally aligned with Ballard, and we know that the Dollhouse exists, those guys come off as the delusional ones.

This was certainly an improvement, but the show’s still got a way to go. We’ll see what happens next week, at least it looks like it will be a more fun than portentous episode.


Mercer Finn said...

I live in the UK, so it will be a while before I get to see Dollhouse. From your comments, it does look like a 'mixed reviews' case. Bummer.

I would say that in interviews, Joss Whedon has addressed the point you make here -- that the network wanted to tone down the implications of the premise (prostitution, rape), and that he fought that decision. He says Dollhouse will definitely go to those places. We'll have to wait and see.

And like you say, Joss Whedon shows take time to build up momentum. Buffy wasn't perfect until season 5. Angel never was. Firefly was more consistent from the start, but barely hinted at the depths that the feature Serenity went to. So I remain stubbornly hopeful.

Patrick said...

It's definitely a mixed reviews case now, I'm hoping the show will get better, but it's got a lot of work to do.

This is definitely a case where fans will blame all the problems of the show on network meddling, and all the good parts on what Joss brought to it. I think there's a tendency to put our idols on a platform, witness the way people blame all the bad stuff in Twin Peaks season 2 on the fact that David Lynch had reduced involvement, while all the good stuff was still his. Or, in the comic 52, how people would automatically assume that the good scenes were written by Grant Morrison, while the bad stuff was written by the others.

And, in this case, it's network meddling that's the culprit for all the problems. It's definitely got a root in truth, but at a certain point, I find it exhausting to watch a really great filmmaker like Joss have to tailor his art to audience and network expectations. I wish he would have pitched the show to HBO, and gotten himself in a situation where he could have the freedom to do whatever he wanted. The Sopranos and The Wire may have their flaws, but there's no question that these are the shows that their creators wanted to make in a raw, uncompromised form.

I think Joss falls somewhere between the "fuck you" iconoclasm of Davids Chase and Simon and the by the network notes approach of a lot of network show runners. He wants to do great art, but I think he's also more concerned about being popular and accepted than someone like Chase or Simon. He may be wildly popular in a sector of the audience, but he's not a mainstream name, and I think he still wants that mainstream acclaim that eludes him.

Dollhouse is an attempt to appeal to the sort of audience that loves procedurals and standalone action shows without compromising the thematic complexity of previous Whedon shows, but I feel like in trying to fit in all those elements, he's lost the heart that made his other shows work. Angel was a structural mess, a show that didn't really have a premise, but it succeeded thanks to the ongoing character arcs. And, I can't really imagine any of these Dollhouse characters getting to that level of affection.

We'll see, I know Whedon can do great work, but I fear that in his attempt to appease either literal network notes or the demands of his hoped for mainstream audience, he's going to make a show that doesn't really appeal to anyone.