Saturday, May 16, 2009

Dollhouse: Season One

Tonight, we got the announcement that Dollhouse has somewhat surprisingly been renewed for a second season. I was thinking it could go either way, so I wasn’t shocked, but still, for a show that was expected to be cancelled from the moment it was announced, it’s nice to see. More Joss Whedon on TV is always good. And the renewal seems as good an excuse as any to talk a bit about the show, and my mixed feelings about the first season.

Watching the first few episodes, there was the knowledge that even Joss wasn’t totally happy with what the show was doing, and the promise that things would click down the line and really come together. The show definitely improved as it went on, but I also think it remained victim to the same basic issues that were there in the first few episodes, and there in the very premise of the series itself. Most genre shows have a basic conceit that we accept as part of the premise, and if you don’t buy into it, you’re not going to enjoy the show. Watching Buffy, you accept that vampires exist and this girl slays them. People who say things like how can this 100 pound girl beat up men twice her size miss the point of the show.

But, I think nitpicking is more apt in Dollhouse because the show hinges so heavily on the conceit for all its content. In Buffy, the show was never about the vampires, it was about a group of people. And, most shows are that way. The conceit of any series exists as a way to look at life in a different way. Buffy and Six Feet Under are very similar shows in terms of characters arcs and emotional content, despite the seemingly radical differences in premise. But, Dollhouse is very much about its premise, nobody has an ‘ordinary’ life, everyone is connected the Dollhouse in some way, and that makes it hard to relate to any of them.

That’s probably because the show isn’t about ‘growing up’ or ‘family’ or ‘getting older,’ which is what the vast majority of shows boil down to. It’s a show about the Dollhouse, and though the dollhouse has a lot of different metaphorical applications, I find a great deal of distance between the subtext of the show and the text. The show is fascinating on an intellectual level, and I’ve read some great analyses of it, but great art, and particularly great TV, functions on a combination of intellectual and emotional stimulation.

It’s the connection to the characters that makes TV great. I don’t think the vast majority of TV matches the production values or artistic precision of film, but I think in the past ten years, the best of movies can’t even come close to what the best of TV has done. On Buffy, the production values were frequently questionable, but because the characters were so well drawn, I didn’t care. Here, without the emotional connection, all the weaknesses of the show are magnified.

And, I think the season finale is a great example of that. While it’s probably the best episode of the run, it also felt a lot like the weakest Buffy season closing battle, the fight against Adam in “Primeval.” Like with Adam, there’s a lot of nattering on about becoming a god and stuff like that, but ultimately all of that is just thematic layering. It doesn’t have any ties to our emotion. The emotion of the finale should have come from Echo’s confrontation with her ‘true self’ Caroline, but because we don’t really know Caroline, or care about Echo in a deep way, the moment doesn’t quite work. We’ve seen glimpses of Caroline, but not enough to really be concerned about her survival.

Now, you may say that this scene was fantastic because of the way it looked at the self. Are we our mind, or are we our body? Where does the soul reside? Can you put a soul on a hard drive? Those are the questions that arise, and it does work really well as an illustration of that dichotomy, but it doesn’t hit on an emotional level. Even after twelve questionable episodes, the first season of Buffy closed on a more satisfying note with her death and resurrection to battle The Master.

I love thematic and philosophical questions as much as anyone, but I don’t think they alone make a work interesting. Evangelion raises a ton of philosophical questions, but it ties them into character psychology and uses the emotion as a way to illustrate its philosophical considerations. The same is true of The Invisibles, which is as thematically dense a work as out there, but it’s matched up with the over the top pop imagery, and very real emotional content that makes you feel things, not just think about them.

Ultimately, I think the show’s problem is that it totally abandons what Whedon does best, building characters. With no really relatable characters to draw on, the weaknesses in his work become more apparent, chief among them the fact that his shows just aren’t that great on a filmmaking level. Don’t get me wrong, Whedon himself has directed some of the most well constructed TV episodes of all time, chief among them Buffy’s “The Body,” “Restless” and “Once More With Feeling.” These are episodes that just light up the screen and take full advantage of what cinema can do.

But, much as I love them, the fact that an episode like “The Body” stands out so much is an indicator that the show just isn’t that well made on a week by week basis. It’s shouldn’t be so special to have an episode that uses filmmaking techniques to enhance the presentation, that’s what every episode should do. Of course, when Buffy started airing, TV was very different from what it is now. Then, you didn’t get good filmmaking on TV. But, things have changed a lot since then. Shows like The Sopranos and Mad Men are absolutely gorgeous, and shot in a way that’s just great filmmaking. On a lower budget, Friday Night Lights and Battlestar Galactica both have a very strong visual sense and consistently produce beautiful images.

Dollhouse feels like a syndicated action series from the 90s a lot of the time. It’s hard to say exactly what it is, but it just doesn’t work visually in the way those shows do. It feels like a show with not that much of a budget, and in the finale, that was definitely apparent, particularly when the climax consists of people running around a power plant and not really doing anything.

That’s not to say there’s no memorable filmmaking. I loved the Blue Velvet homage with Alpha and Whiskey dancing around the man they were cutting up, it looked great, and felt very cinematic, but not many images jump out like that.

That may not sound too positive, but I did enjoy the show. I think it worked on some levels, and with Joss writing it, the sky is the limit. But, I do think they need to rework the premise a bit, and find a way to create more relatable characters, or to push the ones they do in more extreme directions and explore what being that kind of environment does to a person. Why would DeWitt or Boyd commit their whole lives to this organization? That’s a question that’s never really been answered, and could be a great source of drama and character growth.

But, I do think on a key level, the series is flawed because the premise is too specific. It’s about what it’s about, and doesn’t have the room for emotional relatability that the best show premises do. Now, yes, Dollhouse is about our image conscious society, and how Hollywood creates roles and how our self image is created, but all that is meaningless without an emotional link. And so far, that link isn’t quite there. Perhaps it’ll happen in season two though, I’m glad we’ll get to find out.


RAB said...

To say that Joss wasn't totally happy with the first few episodes misplaces the emphasis, I think. What happened there seems to be the equivalent of...well, let's imagine Fox being offered a new series called The Prisoner and network bosses saying "Okay, but before we actually get to the Village, can we have a few episodes of this guy just being a secret agent first, so the audience can understand his backstory and what's taken from him when he's captured?"

And it can be argued they were the case of Dollhouse at least, though not in the hypothetical Prisoner example. A viewer can readily understand "apparently this guy used to be a secret agent or something" because we've seen so many spy and secret agent stories, but "actives" and "dollhouses" and "engagements" don't have that kind of implicit built-in recognition. So maybe it did need that extra fleshing out, and Whedon didn't cope with the requests well, since it stopped the forward momentum he originally had in mind. But I think the network request caused a problem for a whole different reason: I'd argue that the show was never supposed to be about what everyone assumed it was about.

We all figured this was a show about Echo, or Caroline. Like this was a more exotic Alias or Dark Angel or La Femme Nikita or even Buffy -- strong lead woman character who kicks ass. But it isn't, is it? This is a show about the staff of the Dollhouse, and how they face their moral compromises and hollow rationalizations when the whole thing starts to fall apart around them. Echo herself is a ploy, a trick to hang the show on and set the plot in motion, but I submit this was never meant to be her story at all. She's not "the Buffy character." Nor is she the Patrick McGoohan character. And when Fox wanted more of her (a non-character!) Joss was stuck trying to invent stories he'd never meant to tell.

Patrick said...

I think in terms of story focus, that's definitely true. I saw a clip online before the show started that had Ballard and Echo meeting, a scene that never actually happened on the series. Presumably, it was from the original pilot. So, I think those initial episodes were definitely tacked on.

But, everything Joss has said about the genesis of the show is that it was designed as a vehicle for Eliza to show off the many things she was capable of doing. So, I think Echo as the center was always intended. Now, you could argue that Echo was always meant to be the vehicle for the story, but the staff were the core characters, that's hard to say, but the staff has certainly taken on a more central role as time has gone on, and I think that's a smart choice for the long term health of the show.

But, I still don't feel like I really know who those people are. In the interest of preserving mystery, or something like that, we've never gotten to understand why any of the staff would join up with the Dollhouse. And, I'd also love to see more of the staff outside of their work. The episode with DeWitt hiring Victor was great, it's one of the few looks under the hood of the character. Hopefully season two will find a way to grow and explore those characters in a more dynamic way.