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.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Mad Men: 'Seven Twenty Three' (3x07)

I’m watching a bunch of shows in the new TV season, almost all of them half hour comedies for whatever reason. There’s some good stuff, I’m liking Bored to Death and Community, but nothing else on TV currently comes even close to what Mad Men is doing with its third season, easily the show’s best to date. The show is going deeper and deeper every episode, imbuing everyday events with deep existential meanings, in a long term exploration of the nature of self and identity.

The central metaphor of this week’s episode is the eclipse, a cosmic event that you can’t look straight at without damaging your eyes. What does the eclipse represent? Perhaps it’s the truth about self that all these characters so meticulously avoid. Don chooses not to look into the eclipse, preferring instead to converse in the dark with Sally’s teacher, Miss Farrell.

The scene with the eclipse itself was a great example of the kind of casual surrealism the show frequently engages in. Don and Miss Farrell are at once alone in the dark, and in a crowd in the day. Don is wearing the same exact clothes as all the other dads, and with their faces obscured by the camera obscura boxes, they become indistinguishable mannequins in front of indistinguishable children. As Don speaks the other dads, his chance for an affair with Miss Farrell based on happenstance, on just happening to run into her at the track become more real. This has been in development since her very first appearance, as an incarnation of the Earth Mother, dancing around the may pole, a symbol of masculine fertility reborn in the spring.

She is an exact incarnation of Don’s “type,” strong, smart beautiful brunettes who have their own jobs and lives, Don’s equals, not his dependents. One of my favorite things from the Bobbi Barrett arc in season two was the realization that she was using Don as her own beautiful boy toy, and that Don had acquired something of a reputation as a manwhore. Farrell views him through this lens, she doesn’t do the dance that society would demand of their relationship, she goes right up to him and says that all the father are drunks and philanderers. The question then is, why would she call him earlier, and flirt with him now? Does she know that and still want him for her own reasons?

In the episode, we see Don’s fear of attachment and commitment. The contract ties him down to Sterling Cooper for three years, but Cooper makes it clear that it’s ‘Don Draper’ signing the contact, not necessarily Dick Whitman. Don could still walk off and abandon the company, but to do so would mean abandoning his identity as well. He flirted with doing that last year, but realized that he could only run so far before being pulled back.

The hinted at relationship with Farrell is a way to potentially avoid the shackles of commitment at home, but at the same time, it locks him deeper into the Don Draper persona. He’s done this before, he falls into cycles of behavior, and one could argue that’s all that identity is. What ultimately makes us who we are? It’s the things we can’t stop doing. The pieces of ourselves that are far from the core are easy to change, but there are base things, deep down, that are impossible to alter, and Don is beginning to realize that it may not be so easy to alter his personality as he thought.

That’s where the incident with the hitchhikers comes in. Tripping on whatever drug they gave him, he sees a fractured reflection of the kind of identity he could have once had. These kids likely came out of the same world that Dick Whitman did, and his father’s joking is a stark contrast to the kids’ view of Don as an old man. Don views Sterling as one of the old guard, but that’s how these kids see him, a square with a house and family and all the things tying him down that they don’t have. They can run away and hitchhike and leave without any consequence, but Don is tied down by his car and his possessions. Just having those things makes him a target for someone with nothing.

So, the question of the episode becomes what can you leave behind in pursuit of a new identity? That’s paralleled with Peggy, who is growing increasingly frustrated with her lack of continued mobility at Sterling Cooper. We previously saw her talking about how she was in a really good place right now while smoking pot with Kinsey. Since then, she’s been scheming to move up as best she can within the company. She does seem much more competent than most of the employees there, but she may also be pushing her luck by expecting the pace of her rise from secretary to copy writer to continue.

But, that ascension has become part of her identity. She defines herself as a career girl, and has rejected both the love of her family and the world they came from, as well as the immediate hope for a husband or family in favor of her work. That’s what defines her, so stagnation at the office, to just put her nose down and work feels like giving up on making herself better.

Because her sense of self worth is so wrapped up in her job, Duck’s pass at her becomes a total validation. Not only is he interested in her as an employee, he also desires her on a personal level. There’s also clearly a revenge element involved, with her using Duck both as a way to get back at Don, and as a vicarious way to act out her desire for Don, who functions as both a father figure and someone she wants to be an equal. She was Don’s secretary, she knows he sleeps around, and I’d assume that on some level, she is attracted to him, perhaps best evidenced from her comment to him when he had the baby gifts, that he has everything.

So, it’s a messy situation, but ultimately I think she’s still looking out for her career. She knows this gives her leverage over Duck, and as long as she holds out on committing to him, she can get a better and better contract. Will sleeping her way to the top work out in the end? I’m not sure, but I think it’s a clear example of her sublimating her hope for deep personal commitments into her attempt to get ahead at her job.

Elsewhere, Betty continues her flirtation with Henry Francis. I’d argue that is Betty’s attempt to prove that she is both still desirable to men, and has her own identity and skills, qualities that would seem to be of diminishing importance after having her third child. Involvement with the Junior League ties her down to the life in Ossining that even she admits she didn’t initially find appealing. The quest to save scenic land feels so unimportant on some level, but it provides the excuse Betty needs to flirt with Francis, and prove her power over men. It’s the same thing she did to the horseback riding guy last season.

Because she has so little control over Don, it gives her pleasure to control other men. His speech to her about not wanting to be tied down by a contract, because the contract strips you of all power, also refers to her marriage to Don. The men who can’t have her give her affection and raw desire that she doesn’t get from Don anymore, and sticking a Victorian fainting couch in the middle of her living room is a way to show that there’s still a part of her that exists beyond the confines of the wife/mother role.

So, it was a wealth of material to delve into this week. As you might notice by the things I choose to write about, the actual goings on at the ad agency aren’t typically of as much interest to me as the personal stuff. I don’t think the show’s ever had a bad episode, but I found this week’s much more affecting than the much buzzed upon lawnmower blowup last week.

I think the show at its best explores the construction of identity within a society where the notion of what is and isn’t socially acceptable is undergoing a vast shift. We’re being reminded more and more of the impending Vietnam conflict, which promises to destroy the lives of the young and underprivileged, but is a potential goldmine for people like Pete and the old order military-industrial complex. It’s a relevant message for the 60s, but is perhaps even more so now. Wars are now sold by people like Don, framed with slogans and pitches designed to make them palatable to the masses. And, we remain haunted by the image of a mythical American dream, a time when people were happier and everything was easy, one which was created by men like Don. We change this mythologized man, and use it as an excuse to commit atrocities in the present.

As I said, the show has been absolutely on its game this season. I don’t have that total need to see the next episode that I had when something like The Sopranos or The Wire was on, but perhaps that’s because each episode here is so satisfying, a full meal unto itself that I like having a week to think about and process. I want to see what happens next, but I’m more interested in enjoying the moment.