Saturday, October 03, 2009

Dollhouse: 'Instinct' (2x02)

I was pretty forgiving of the weaknesses of the early episodes of Dollhouse, I made it through the Beyonce episode or the cult episode, trying to appreciate what worked, and sticking with it mainly because of the promise of something better. The behind the scenes narrative of the series was that the first five episodes were compromised by the needs of Fox, and starting with episode six, Joss would take control and the show would take off. The show did get better, but in some ways, that actually made it worse since it became clear that this is what the show was, and what it was was a not particularly good show.

I know it’s easy to blame Fox for creative interference on the show, and ascribe any bad choices to Fox and all the good stuff to Joss, but I think that’s a bit reductive, particularly after viewing the original pilot on the Blu-Ray set. I thought the actual first episode of the series was pretty weak, but it was probably better than the jumbled mess that was the original pilot. That episode was a mix of colossal amounts of exposition and a narrative that moved so quickly, it compressed the entire first season into one episode. If I was a network exec, I would never have picked up the show, that pilot felt like the first draft of a script, not something that should have been submitted to a studio, let alone go before the cameras. That’s not to say the aired pilot was much better, but at least it had something of a structure.

But, the narrative surrounding the show at the end of last year was that it was getting better, a sentiment that culminated with the release of “Epitaph One,” the allegedly brilliant unaired postapocalyptic episode. I’d agree that the episode was better than most of what happened on the actual show, but that’s not hard to do. The episode played as a mix of postapocalyptic clich├ęs, while riffing on some interesting conceptual stuff surrounding the show’s premise. It would have been a good capper to the series, but like almost the entire series, it suffers from the fact that it’s conceptually interesting, but does nothing to engage on an emotional level.

The great problem with the show, one inherent in its premise, is that it’s all ideas, no heart. There’s no memorable characters on the series, and the only personality who really jumps out is the annoying enthusiasm of Topher. I have no problem with a show primarily about ideas. The idea is the building block of every Grant Morrison story, but he typically manages to wed those ideas to real emotion. Or, he’ll just throw out so many ideas, that it creates a mad pop swirl of craziness. It felt like that’s what “Epitaph One” was going for, that Final Crisis style overload of concepts and action, but it was too leisurely paced to become pure concept speed, and didn’t have the emotional engagement to anchor a deeper connection with the narrative.

The second season premiere had some really solid moments, notably the scene where Saunders tried to seduce Topher in a weird parent/child entanglement. But, the main story with Echo was pretty generic, and the backstory with Paul was pointlessly convoluted. I thought he agreed to become Echo’s handler at the end of last season, but here we see him hiring her out to forward his FBI investigation, except he’s not actually with the FBI, he’s just doing this for some reason. Then, he becomes her handler, despite the fact that he spent the whole first season trying to bring down the dollhouse. So, he becomes basically the same character as Boyd, Echo’s handler who has some moral qualms about the Dollhouse, but works for them anyway. And, Alexis Denisof becomes the new Ballard, off in his own subplot, trying to take down the Dollhouse.

Last night’s episode was perhaps a series low, simply because at this point, it’s become clear that this is what the show is. Watching something like Babylon 5 or Buffy’s first season, I put up with weak episodes because it had the reputation of greatness and I knew the show would get better. Since this show’s still airing, it’s hard to say where it will go, but there’s only so much leeway I can give a series. The show has been on a while now, and they should be able to figure out what they want to do. And, if this is it, the show is just not particularly good. There’s virtually none of what makes Joss’s previous work so special here, and there’s little connection to any of sort of relatable emotional reality. It’s just interesting ideas thrown out there with no story or characters to support them.

I’m probably going to stick out to the end of the show, since it looks like that’s in sight. But, I think this show’s going to go down as a footnote in Joss’s career, and not a cancelled too soon, or flawed masterpiece, but if anything, a show that had too long a leash and should probably be put out of its misery.

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