Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Post In Which I Review "Ghost", and Dollhouse

Dollhouse has the worst theme. Ever. Well, possibly not ever. The theme for 7th Heaven wasn't exactly winner material. But it is pretty damn bad. Out of my Whedon themes, it comes in dead last, so far down that it hasn't even managed to cross the line yet (my theme list, in case you're interested, goes Buffy, Firefly, and then Angel; there used to be more of a gap between Firefly and Angel, but Dollhouse has made the Angel theme all the more endearing to me). This really has little to do with the actual show, but it is a weakness.

Overall, I thought that the first episode Dollhouse was good. "Ghost" suffers from many of the same problems that plague other pilots in that it did not feel as though it had completely gelled yet. It also didn't feel like classic Whedon writing, but there was enough signature lines and enough of the Whedon humor that I was unbothered. After all, Firefly has a whole different vernacular and verbal style than Buffy the Vampire Slayer; and although I like BtVS' verbosity better for day to day quotage and it can consistently give me a writing high (it also highly influenced my own vocab, sadly enough), Firefly's distinctive style was seamless in terms of what it was representing in-show. And with lines like:

"Stroke of midnight."
"Midnight?"
"End of the ball."
"Dude, it- it's like, 5."

And:

"Something fell on me."
"I bet it was something great."

And:

"Make sure the ladies at my table have everything they need, huh? The champagne never stops flowing - the good stuff. (pause) The first few bottles, the good stuff. After that, the house is fine."

And:

"Find out who's connected to the Dollhouse, the Borodin family won't be touched, and you'll never see me again."
"I haven't seen you yet."

I'm not worried about the writing having its very own style that fits with Whedon's overall idiosyncratic personality.

Likewise, I'm not worried that the characters we have been introduced to did not, as a whole, have glaringly obvious and distinctive personalities and reasons as of yet. This is a new show, and part of its purpose is an examination of identity. I'm not surprised that we don't know Topher or Boyd or Adelle or Paul as well as we knew Buffy and Willow and Xander and Mal and Inara and Kaylee yet. What we have been shown is intriguing.

That being said, there are some weak points to the show, and unfortunately, one of them is Eliza Dushku. There was too much Faith in her opening characterization, when she looked bedraggled and was being consigned into Dollhouse service. There was too much Faith in her first motorcycle-riding, fun-dancing, sexy-rope-using persona. There was too little oomph in some of her other scenes. Part of my problem stems from the fact that I've never been all that impressed with Eliza Dushku's acting, and although I've been told many times that she could create chemistry with a log I've never been one to see it. I have to hope she gets slightly better at speaking zombie post-wipe Echo lines, because right now it is slightly painful for me. There were also some poor plot points. I had to wonder, during Sierra's initial wipe, why Topher or Adelle (or anyone, for that matter) would house that particular room in that particular location, where the ensuing light show would be (and was) more than visible to anyone down below. And if they had decided that location was the best for that room for X,Y or Z reasons, why no one would think it important to lock the door. Echo wandering in (along with the cringe-worthy "She hurts") was something that induced heavy eye-rolling. Another blinking red light moment for me was during Eleanor Penn's 'treatment'. There was no real reason given for why Topher decided to not wipe her, unless I missed it completely.

And yet, the list of things right with this show far outweighs those two points right now - and given that the show focuses on Eliza, that is saying something. Every other actor is phenomenal. Fran Kranz makes Topher human, unlike Adam Busch's evil Warren and Tom Lenk's amoral Andrew (he is too unlike Jayne at the moment for those two amoralities to be adequately compared). Kranz's reactions to Echo and Boyd, his thoughtful articulations of what Dollhouse is and what a person is made up of, is incredibly engaging. He is amoral, and I suspect he is crafted to be seen as amoral; but even with that knowledge, Whedon has taken the trick he employed most effectively in Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog and made Topher someone the audience can connect with even as they are (potentially) disturbed by that bit of enjoyment and understanding. Harry Lennix as Boyd is another perfect fit. One of the complaints I've read about the show is that if Echo is almost wholly without her own personality, the audience is left unable to connect to her. Lennix's Boyd provides the easy answer; we are connected to Echo's story because Boyd is connected to and concerned about Echo. Even if we cannot fully recognize who Echo is due to Echo herself not being privy to that information, we can connect to Boyd's empathy for her, and his own attachment to her. Olivia Williams is yet another bit of inspired casting. I want to know what makes her tick, why she believes Dollhouse is a force of good.

The parts of the show itself that are good are fantastic; the entire premise of the Actives on engagement creates a strange sense of vertigo; Eleanor Penn (the persona we spend the most time with in "Ghost", the persona whose narrative is responsible for the title of the very episode) is not, conventionally, real. The experiences she draws upon to form her opinions and her own idea of who she is and how she has come to be are not, technically, her own. The years that she has spent studying psychology and forensic science, profiling from former instructors at Quantico, being licensed for seven years, handling 12 negotiations, the very things she offers up as reasons to trust her never truly happened to this one person. And yet, for her, they have and they did. That disconnect between what we normally experience as reality and Eleanor Penn's vision of reality is what creates friction between this woman who is innocently unaware of the underlying tension and the man who paid for an Active from Dollhouse. When this scene goes down:
ELEANOR PENN: You have to trust that I've done this many, many times.

GABRIEL: I have to trust that, right. Yesterday you weren't a nurse or a clown in the circus.

ELEANOR PENN: What?

GABRIEL: You're the best. The best one they could send. Why is that? What makes you so good at this?

ELEANOR PENN: I don't have any hobbies.

GABRIEL: No, no, no. You have to do better than that. You have to make me believe. Believe like you believe.
the tension inherent in the scenario where one person knows about a game being played the other is completely in the dark about creates a dynamic scene. Because Gabriel is describing the world of Dollhouse, and Eleanor isn't an Active. She doesn't know what Adelle and Topher have done to make her the best, because for her, she wasn't made. She just is. And so when Gabriel demands that she has to make him believe, like she believes, she is automatically at a loss. Because she doesn't just believe it; she has memory of living it. She knows it. And that is part of what makes the very set up of the show tragic, what we witness first hand in Eleanor Penn. She (and every other Persona) is at an immediate disadvantage, partially because she is the paid for in any of these situations, but also because she is lacking the fundamental knowledge necessary to properly interact with the people in question. And yet, she (and every other Persona) cannot have that fundamental knowledge if the house of cards is to remain standing.

What stems from that is the question of the authentic experience. One of the people who made up Eleanor Penn was sexually abused by the man Eleanor comes into contact with while trying to ensure the safe release of Gabriel's daughter. Her reactions are of someone who was truly abused; but she - at least in this way - had not been. That history never existed. Unfortunately for Eleanor, she never spoke a truer word than when she told the man that he couldn't hurt her, that you can't fight a ghost. Because that is essentially what Eleanor is, someone who lived on the world for a while, but never in it. Someone who could remember people who had never met her, or abused her. In the end, Eleanor gets the girl back, but she still doesn't win. And neither does Echo. They are both erased, used by a larger organization that cares very little about them and their authentic lives.

The show also managed to explain the functionality of the premise well. The expositiony dialogue was less jarring and boring because it was tangled up in the philosophical thoughts of Topher. When Boyd questions making Echo nearsighted, Topher manages to explain why the personas are never going to truly be Superman, and yet also manages to heighten the intrigue into his very own character. In a truly captivating bit, Topher explains the process of creating an identity as
"You see someone running incredibly fast, the first thing you gotta ask is are they running to something or are they running away from something. The answer is always both. These personality imprints, they come from scans of real people. I can create amalgams of the personalities, pieces from her or there; but it's not a greatest hits. It's a whole person. Achievement is balanced by fault, by a lack. Can't have one without the other. Everyone who excels at something is overcompensating. Running from something. Hiding from something."
Since Topher himself excels at something, and since he seems to have universalized his own experience, the question immediately becomes what is Topher running from? And yet, now we know more about the Actives themselves. The thing that separates Joss Whedon's sci-fi/fantasy writing from so many others is that the exposition is oftentimes just as much about the immediate story and the characters as it is about granting those of us in the viewing audience access to the necessary road maps. It very rarely actually feels as though Whedon is pointing to a Yellow Brick Road and telling us where he wants us to go and what he wants us to know. It is just a natural evolution of the 'verse itself.

7 comments:

mzbitca said...

I agree with a lot of your assessment.
Someone made the arguement that in the long run it may help Dushku that, even when she's playing other characters, she's always slightly similar. This can help a connection grow with the audience.

I also thought there was good dialogue but if you were expecting certain things it will take some getting used to. I'm just excited about all the tough lines Joss has to walk. In interviews it sounds like he does not necessarily think prostitution is bad, but he also wants to get across that these actives are being used in some way.

I do have to say that I have always loved the Angel theme with the Cello though, I thought it was the best theme song!

petpluto said...

"Someone made the arguement that in the long run it may help Dushku that, even when she's playing other characters, she's always slightly similar. This can help a connection grow with the audience."

I suppose; I hope so, anyway. I actually think it will help the show when there aren't the ads featuring Summer with Eliza, because when I saw those I was immediately taken with Summer playing Echo - and how she would do it. Not entirely fair to Eliza, but there it was.

"I do have to say that I have always loved the Angel theme with the Cello though"

Oh, I love the theme! My theme list goes kind of from the theme I can't possibly live without, to the theme I only just love.

"In interviews it sounds like he does not necessarily think prostitution is bad, but he also wants to get across that these actives are being used in some way."

I agree; I also think part of what he is doing is suggesting that what is bad about The Dollhouse as an organization isn't that these people will be used for sex at some point, but that they are being used - period. His interview on NPR's All Things Considered suggested that he didn't really get exactly why people were hung up on the "People are going to have sex with these people who can't truly consent" when the whole premise is fairly horrific in that they have no control, period. And that maybe we should all be just as disgusted with that as we are with the idea of the sex.

Rebekah said...

I also enjoyed your assessment. I'm looking forward to next week and I'll definitely give Joss all 13 episodes to develop things.
Just commenting on your notes about the second weakness; my thought was that since they'd made her into "the best" negotiator, she was justusing her skills at that point, negotiating her way out of treatment for the moment, probably promising to return the next day or it or something. I kind of liked that, because it opened up the possibility of her using the skills they gave her "against" them in other ways in the future as well. Maybe unaware that it created issues for them, but maybe even aware later if she does actually break free of their control somehow.

petpluto said...

"my thought was that since they'd made her into "the best" negotiator, she was justusing her skills at that point, negotiating her way out of treatment for the moment, probably promising to return the next day or it or something."

Interesting thought; it definitely makes some kind of sense.

John said...

Truthfully, I found this episode to have a lot more wrong with it than the points you mentioned.

For example, I have to disagree with your statement that "The show also managed to explain the functionality of the premise well." The expository dialogue felt like it was thrown in to appease the network, and it didn't really make sense for characters who have been doing this business day-in, day-out to be explaining it to one another on such a basic level.

The balcony scene between Eleanor and Gabriel stuck out as particularly strange to me, mostly because Gabriel happened to do the one thing he was explicitly told not to do (by very rich, powerful, dangerous people who don't appreciate their rules being broken) at a time when "breaking the fourth wall" could cause Eleanor to be compromised and pulled off the project, leaving him worse off than he was before. Furthermore, why was that the ONE place and time where Echo wasn't being audibly or visually monitored? If they'd had her wired (as they said they had) they would have known that Echo had been compromised and would have pulled her off the project immediately.

I'm not ready to give up on the show yet, but it certainly impressed me less than Buffy, Angel or Firefly. Hopefully Joss has something more than this strange, awkward amalgamation of Dark City and Dark Angel up his sleeve.

petpluto said...

"The expository dialogue felt like it was thrown in to appease the network, and it didn't really make sense for characters who have been doing this business day-in, day-out to be explaining it to one another on such a basic level."

I think while it would have helped for Boyd to have been just starting his job when we meet him. There's a reason for having a new character or characters be introduced into a situation in a sci-fi deal, because it makes exposition dialogue less clunky and offers an immediate audience substitute. And for that reason, I like WttH and The Harvest more than most people for the various layers of people who are "new"; Buffy being new to the school and the town and Xander and Willow being new to the world of vampires allowed for many moments of exposition without the characters sounding stupid.

That being said, it was mentioned by Adelle that Boyd hadn't been there as long as the other Handlers, and because of that I was willing to forgive that exposition dialogue was tied to him, as the exposition dialogue was. If this was the first time Echo had some physical malady and Boyd was growing more comfortable with Topher on top of that, I could see the "she's nearsighted" conversation going the way that it did. I don't see them explaining the intricacies of how the process worked to every newbie that walked through the door.

"The balcony scene between Eleanor and Gabriel stuck out as particularly strange to me, mostly because Gabriel happened to do the one thing he was explicitly told not to do (by very rich, powerful, dangerous people who don't appreciate their rules being broken) at a time when "breaking the fourth wall" could cause Eleanor to be compromised and pulled off the project, leaving him worse off than he was before."

I thought that was basic human nature; I can't imagine that Gabriel has needed many kidnappings to be handled, and so I could see him - after hiring The Dollhouse - starting to rethink whether or not having someone who really didn't have all the expertise they think they do could be a bad thing, and in panicking about that demanding answers that couldn't be given.

"Furthermore, why was that the ONE place and time where Echo wasn't being audibly or visually monitored? If they'd had her wired (as they said they had) they would have known that Echo had been compromised and would have pulled her off the project immediately."

She was being monitored. During the later scene when Topher is defending his work, he says that they had been a "weird spike" of activity the night before but that the current freak out Eleanor was experiencing had everything to do with Eleanor and nothing to do with the process. Why he neglected to pull her off is questionable, but it could be as simple as he is egotistical and didn't think he work was compromised.

"I'm not ready to give up on the show yet, but it certainly impressed me less than Buffy, Angel or Firefly."

I think that this was a stronger pilot than The Train Job (not Serenity), and that in actuality the strongest pilot in the Whedon cannon was probably Angel's because much of the backstory about the 'verse was already available. I don't think this was the strongest pilot out there, but I think that it has some cool ideas and some great potential - and that's really all I can ask from a pilot, as well as being entertaining. This entertained me. I think once we get over the hump of heavily Fox-influenced episodes, it will get even better.

Perverse Adult said...

"I agree; I also think part of what he is doing is suggesting that what is bad about The Dollhouse as an organization isn't that these people will be used for sex at some point, but that they are being used - period. His interview on NPR's All Things Considered suggested that he didn't really get exactly why people were hung up on the "People are going to have sex with these people who can't truly consent" when the whole premise is fairly horrific in that they have no control, period. And that maybe we should all be just as disgusted with that as we are with the idea of the sex."

...I like this argument a lot, actually. There's a broad spectrum of sex work, from women who have a degree of control over their bodies and labor (like Inara on Firefly) to street prostitutes engaged in survival sex. I've always been suspect of how sex work, when it's exploitative, generates a level of moral outrage other and similarly heinous forms of exploitation do not. I feel like it says more about the "special" place reserved for sex in our culture(s), and that the moral outrage usually has more to do with reinforcing heteronormative and patriarchal power structures than addressing the harm done to exploited women.

...when exploitation happens in other industries, we support movements for labor rights and workers' ownership of their labor... we don't argue that their work be criminalized.