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.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

How to Watch TV

Over the past ten years or so there’s been a seismic change in the way we consume serialized comic books and TV. Thanks to the rise of trade paperback collections and season DVDs, a lot of viewers are forgoing the initial release and choosing to ‘binge’ on a series after it’s been going for a long time. This can cause issues when a series doesn’t have the support to carry it along during its initial run, but it also leads to a dynamically different experience of the work in question. Some of my favorite TV shows were watched on DVD, and the switch from DVD to weekly release can be pretty jarring.

Side note, it really annoys me when people continually say things like “I don’t understand how they could cancel Arrested Development,” when of course they didn’t watch the show until several years after it aired. Maybe that’s why it was cancelled, since no one actually watched it when it was on. The same is true for Freaks and Geeks, Firefly and countless other shows. These are all great shows, but the reason they were cancelled is because people didn’t watch them.

Anyway, I watched all of How I Met Your Mother’s first four seasons over the past couple of months, and caught up to the point that I could watch the last few episodes live as they aired. When I started the show, there seemed to be a vast world of episodes out there for me, almost four full seasons to go through. I’d read online commentary where people complained about certain episodes, and I was like, chill, it was a decent episode, largely because when you watch a couple episodes at a time, the weaker ones are quickly forgotten and it’s the good moments that linger.

It’s a totally different experience watching a show on a weekly basis. With Battlestar Galactica, I watched the first two seasons in one go, and it wasn’t until I neared the end of season two that I realized there was a good long run of clunkers in there. Because I was just watching the episodes, the individual quality didn’t stand out as much. You see things more in big picture terms. When I watch the show on a week by week basis, each episode was a much bigger deal, and had to not only succeed on its own terms, but also move the overall narrative forward in some kind of meaningful way.

Watching How I Met Your Mother in short succession, I think I got more into the show than I would have watching it week by week. When I watch an episode now, what stands out is how slight the 22 minutes feel. I watch it, but it’s not quite enough time to draw me into the world. I still enjoy the show, but I don’t feel that same connection to it that I did watching a whole bunch in a row.

I think the shows that benefit most from viewing in rapid succession are weaker shows because they become more of a habit. I watched three seasons of Rescue Me in a row on DVD, but quit watching after watching the season four premiere live. Not having the next episode directly available made me realize, I just don’t really care about this show, and I have no particular reason to watch the next one.

I think that in many ways great shows benefit from having a week between episodes. Watching The Sopranos on DVD, it’s almost too much, you don’t realize the full impact of what the show’s doing because you’re racing to get to the next thing. Watching it weekly, you can savor each episode, and really examine what’s going on. The show is rich enough to support that kind of reading. I watched seasons five and six live, and was still really connected to the show, always anxiously awaiting the next episode. But, at the same time, I found the first part of season six much more satisfying on a DVD rewatch. ‘Kaisha,’ the season finale was incredibly frustrating when faced with the prospect of a year without a new episode. On a rewatch, I could appreciate the episode for what it was, and I now see it as a series standout.

Ultimately, I think you get the most out of a TV series when it becomes a hugely important piece of your life. When The Sopranos or Six Feet Under or final season Angel or The Wire were on, a new episode was always a high point of the week, and would leave me eagerly awaiting the next one. But, a lesser show isn’t going to have that kind of commitment and is more just sort of there when watched on a weekly basis.

What is the conclusion? I think watching episodes in rapid succession dulls out the extremes of a series. Your perception is of the whole rather than of the specific pieces, whereas watching a show on a weekly basis, you fixate more on individual elements. And, I think there’s a component of speculation that you don’t get when watching a show all in one go. I pondered and read countless Battlestar theories watching it air live, and someone watching on DVD won’t have the experience.

That said, ultimately a great show is a great show. And, when you watch seven seasons of Buffy is a few months, that can become your life in a way that watching the show weekly never could. I loved watching Buffy all in one go, but at the same time, I would have loved to have seen it live, and I’ll never have that chance.