Sunday, February 08, 2009

Dollhouse: The Ten Minute Preview

I’ll cover more general stuff about the New York Comicon later today, but I first wanted to write up the Joss Whedon panel, and in particular, the ten minute opening act of the Dollhouse pilot that was screened.

It’s been a long time since Joss had a show on TV. I didn’t watch Buffy until after the series had ended, but I did catch up to Angel in the last season, and I remember how awesome it was to be able to see new Joss every week. That feeling will be back this Friday, a night that will feature one of the best blocks of TV of all time, with Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles segueing in to either a rejuvenated Friday Night Lights or Dollhouse, then on to Battlestar Galactica. That’s a lot of TV for one night.

I think expectations are very high for Dollhouse. The longer someone’s away, the more you forget about their flaws. Buffy and Angel, great as they became, all had very shaky and uneven first seasons. Watching on a weekly basis, I doubt I would have made it through the first year of Buffy, but seen as part one of a much larger narrative, it’s easier to accept the flaws and move along. But, with Dollhouse, we don’t know what it will become, and people will be judging it against the heights and depth of Buffy or Angel right from the beginning.

That said, it does start very strong. The series begins with a slightly stilted scene that shows us a brief glimpse of the pre Dollhouse Echo, then plunges us right into the world of her missions. I really like the energy and immediacy of the pilot. Eliza Dushku, as Faith, had an energy and reckless abandon that no other character in the Buffyverse did. She was all action, not introspection, and that quality comes across in the first few minutes, where we condense an action packed weekend into one scene that shows us the kind of life she leads.

From there, we delve into the Dollhouse itself and see the process of wiping her memory. The scenes do have some flaws. There’s some obviously expositiony dialogue, the kind of “As you know” style of characters telling each other things they should all know already. There’s also a few forced Whedonisms, like when Echo talks about the flaw of the clean slate metaphor, the fact that no slates actually are clean. And, a reference to a carriage turning into a pumpkin that bothers me since I feel like it’s an overused cliché.

That said, the thing that jumped out to me about the series was the ambience and aura surrounding everything. The premise is full of interesting philosophical questions, and I think that the first ten minutes bring these to the fore in an interesting way. There’s a line where one guy says that they wipe their minds, and the ‘dolls’ can live a worry free life, everyone’s dream. Is it better to just forget the bad parts of your life and exist in a happy haze? Probably not for everyone, but for some people, most definitely.

A lot of my favorite works of fiction combine heavy philosophical questions with over the top pop action. The Invisibles or The Matrix: Reloaded both walk that line, the former more skillfully than the latter. I’m more interested in characters and ideas than imposed narratives, and if this show can manage to work the way these first ten minutes do and downplay traditional narrative in favor of compressed hyperpop moments that raise questions to think about, it could be amazing. I’m guessing that the main show will have a more normalized feel, and according to promo material, at least the first seven episodes are standalone stories. But, with Whedon, I’m sure they have building consequences and purpose beyond simply the need to fill an hour.

When I say narrative doesn’t interest me, I mean that I don’t want to see a story of the week that raises some questions and then answers them. I hate procedural shows and most mysteries because they’re all about a constant character interacting with elements that change over the course of the episode and then disappear. To some extent, that sort of storytelling is intrinsic to this series. The character that Eliza plays will always disappear at the end of an episode, and she won’t remember what happened. How is it possible to make us care about her then, outside of an abstract interest in her as a philosophical object? That’s the trick of the show, and I’m sure a lot of her arc will involve her gradually rediscovering her own humanity, and having to deal with the consequences of that.

Speaking after the clip, Joss and Tahmoh Penikett did a bunch of joking around, and fielded the usual “I love your work…oh my god I’m so nervous…you’re awesome, ok, um, I’m a screenwriter, what should I do to make good scripts?” type questions, but along the way Joss talked quite a bit about the inherently contradictory nature of the material, how it can simultaneously be perceived as a feminist critique of a culture that objectifies women, and an objectification of women. Certainly, the promotional material plays off of this, using a naked Eliza in the context of what looks almost like in universe advertising for the Dollhouse itself, but also sells the show as a similar experience to what the Dollhouse itself offers, an hour with this beautiful woman who can be anything you want.

The concept is full of contradictions like that, and you could easily read the real Dollhouse as Joss himself, putting people through their paces in roles created by him to play out what are to some extent his own fantasies. I’ve talked a lot before about the similarities between Chris Claremont and Whedon, and this premise feels right out of that dirty recess of Claremont’s mind that keeps going back to mind control and submissive/dominant role playing type scenarios. Whedon is a bit more upfront about his feminist intentions, and exploring the contradictions, but he’s in that same place as Claremont, simultaneously creating strong female characters and then putting them in situations where they’re made utterly powerless.

I also think that there’s nothing wrong with exploring those things in fiction, or real life if it’s between consenting adults. Our identities are all constructs, created to fit the mold of what’s acceptable in society, and what happens when our desires conflict with society? In the case of Dollhouse, it seems that the rich and powerful will be able to play out their fantasies through these people, and in that sense, the clients are just as interesting, if not more so, than the dolls themselves. In reality, you’d probably wind up with a bunch of old, ugly, rich men hiring these people, but in TV, it seems that you’ve got more eccentric, wealthy young men doing the hiring.

So, I’m a lot more excited for the show than I was before seeing it. The first ten minutes were far superior to any Whedon pilot to date. It almost feels like an entire episode is compressed into that first act, and I think by that first commercial, the major ideas and narrative drive is laid out, so we can then segue into something like the second episode when we presumably see more of the characters and they go on another mission. The show is already begging for analytical treatment, and even more than Whedon’s other works, it’s got a complex philosophical question at its center. He said that his other shows were about conveying messages and he was clearly behind those messages, but here, he’s a lot more uncertain about the central mission, and the show doesn’t exist as a polemic to convince you of anything.

Other highlights from the Q&A included him and Tahmoh riffing on some Battlestar stuff, a promise of more Doctor Horrible in the future and the advice that if you want to make a movie or write for TV, don’t wait for someone to hire you, just make it. Very sage words. He also mentioned that the retooling process happened partially because he didn't know the show yet. But, elements of the original pilot are sprinkled throughout other episodes, and that by the end of the season, they sync back up with the original plans, and that the season apparently ends on a really high note. It sounded to some extent like the first few episodes are a network concession, and that the real core of the show comes out at the end of the season, when the storytelling becomes more serialized. He also said that, much like with Buffy, the end of the season brings things to a solid resting place, so if the show doesn't continue, it doesn't sound like we'll be stuck with an awful cliffhanger. Well, I’m eager to see the rest of the Dollhouse pilot on Friday, look for a full review then. If the ten minutes raised this many questions, I’m sure the full episode will raise even more.


Mercer Finn said...

The great thing about following Whedon's career (in tv, comics and film) is that he gets better as time goes on. Buffy and Angel's first seasons were slow, but by the end they were on point at all times. Firefly was strong throughout its 15 episodes. I think Dollhouse will be even better.

I'm a little bit worried about your report that Whedon is 'more uncertain about the central mission' of the show. I quite like stories that make statements. Very little television does. It's what makes Buffy, Angel and Firefly/Serenity unique. I guess we have to wait and see how Dollhouse plays out. I suspect Whedon will feel out, and eventually make a central statement with his show. It's the way he operates.

Patrick said...

It'd be hard for Dollhouse to top Buffy for me, though hopefully the first season will far eclipse Buffy's first.

The uncertainty about the central mission has two components. He was saying how going into Buffy and Firefly, he knew exactly what he wanted, and, with Firefly, it was a question of trying to get the network to go along with that. In this case, he didn't totally know what the show was when they started, but found it as things went on.

But, the other level he was talking about was the fact that this show has a more conflicted moral stance. In Buffy, we're clearly supportive of the hero and the feminist message is up front and clear most of the time. Here, there's not the same moral clarity, the show walks the line between exploitation and condemnation, a disconnect between the morality of the characters and the moral message we should take away. It's a more ambiguous, darker universe. I think there's definitely a statement being made, but whether people see that statement or just see the surface is a question.