Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ode to Dollhouse

Written yesterday, revised today:
And, so it goes. Dollhouse has been given the boot. I can't really blame Fox for canceling Dollhouse (unlike when they cancelled Firefly), but I do wish it had lasted. And not simply because I discovered a major crush on Fran Kranz.

I'm not surprised because Dollhouse had some consistency issues; I'm saddened because the good episodes were up there with some of the more ingenious inventions of Whedon's other work.

When Pushing Daisies was cancelled, I quoted Whedon:
"Two roads diverge in a wood, and I took the road less traveled by and they CANCELLED MY FRIKKIN' SHOW. I totally shoulda took the road that had all those people on it. Damn."
I don't think Dollhouse was cancelled because it was on the road less travelled by. At least, I don't think that is the only reason. Sure, part of the reason is that it couldn't be practically explained in a soundbite. There was no "cheerleader kills vampires" or "nine people stare out into space and see nine different things". But part of it was that the show took a few stumbles early on (and then again later on), and sometimes the philosophical offerings of an episode were far more interesting than the episode itself. And I speak as someone who only truly "flames on the sides of my face" hated Instinct. Part of that was probably due to it having to forge a new path in the television wilderness. It couldn't simply recreate the system that works so well for the 19 bazillion Law and Order and CSI type shows on television. And creating something new involves working out how to make it work. And working that out means failure.

I think Dollhouse was cancelled because... well, it was a weird show that was about people you wouldn't want to eat lunch with let alone spend your friday nights with, and about the philosophical ponderings of what makes a person their specific person and the value each person holds. It was a show that asked us to look at how we see people, how we see ourselves, and whether or not it was ooky to rent the body but create another person to be housed within that body.

And the show suffered from a lack of cohesion; I started this by saying it wasn't the less travelled road that killed Dollhouse, but I'm reversing that here. Because pretty much every traditional weakness is determined by the very premise. It couldn't have the necessary cohesion because it didn't have a set of fixed characters who evolved slowly. It had a set of fixed characters who evolved slowly, a couple of characters who existed in drugged out child-like states and so had difficulty evolving at all (and whose very evolution was a radical and revolutionary act), and the new and temporary characters those drugged children embodied from week to week. All of that is the show; it isn't a problem of the show. And because it was the show, it was often used to the show's benefit. But because that was the show, someone popping in on an episode like Briar Rose would be completely thrown if their next episode was Belle Chose.

That isn't to say the show didn't have some real weaknesses separate from the premise. I have previously complained about structural theme of the show versus the nature of the stand alone episodes. There was also the "why?" question in relation to action. Like, "Why did Ballard rent out Echo to sleep with and marry that guy in the season 2 premiere?" or "Why didn't Adelle think to restrain the potential serial killer/leave a guard with Uncle?" or "Why don't they just shut this damn House down if every week there is a Major Issue?"

Some other questions emerged as well, like, "What is the refund policy for a Doll that stabs you in the midst of a non-stabbing engagement?"

And yet, I really, really, really liked Dollhouse. Some of it stemmed from those moments when everything hit on all cylinders, when Topher and Saunders discussed the conundrum of being a built person housed within someone else's body - and knowing it. Or the whole Nice Guy thing that went down in Belonging. Some of it stemmed from the pantsless scene in Echoes. Some of it stemmed from the fact that I really, really, really missed Whedon. Like, really. I know, I know. He's written some comic books. I've read them. I love hearing his voice in my head when I read them (not his actual, somewhat lispy voice, but his writerly "here are my words" voice). But I missed that visceral feeling that my show was on, that it was Whedony, that I would see the actors I liked doing the type of stuff I also am made to like by virtue of its Whedonosity.

I liked Dollhouse because although the balance in form had never truly been reached, the balance between the larger thematic message - the so-called "plot", if you will - and the evolution of the people - the "characters" - was spot on. I'm a character-driven gal. I hate it when the world moves the characters along; I much rather the characters to move the parts of the world, and each other. Dollhouse was character driven; the characters changed each other. And yet, the show never let you forget that these characters existed because their world was f'd up, because there were forces beyond their control that influenced and, for some, created them. That the forces contained within those gates would eventually come crashing down to earth and destroy almost everyone else.

After Fox burns off the rest of the episodes in December, I'll miss this show. I'll miss what it could have been, yes. I'll miss the crazy idea I had that Rossum was really just standing in for Blue Sun and that I'd finally see the world corporations ruled as Whedon seemed to be setting up in the early days of Firefly. But I'll also miss what it is. I'll miss the not-quite moral characters, and the slow, tentative grasps toward some sort of family unit. I'll miss Adelle, and Boyd. I'll miss Victor and Sierra. I'll miss Dr. Saunders. I'll miss Topher.

And I'll hope that at some point, Whedon will return to television. On CHUD, Devin Faraci is challenging Whedon to change the world - and I hope he will. I've already proven that I'll follow Joss Whedon from project to project, be it computer, television, film, or radio. But, and this stems from my years of watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon on my television screen feels like home. And I like that feeling. So he can create all the internet and on demand media he wants. I'll be there to gobble it up; but I look forward to another show in the future that starts down the path less travelled. Hopefully, some day, there will be others traveling that road too.

1 comment:

MediaMaven said...

I attribute the cancellation to a number of things:

1) Yes, not a “soundbite show”. I tried to explain it to my mother, and she was majorly creeped out. “Why would you watch that?”

2) The bad pilot, and the bad 2-5 episodes. Sure, there are plenty of shows that get over their bad first season (right now that would be “Parks & Rec.”), but this really hurt them because of Joss’ track record and the fact that it’s a confusing show. The early episodes were very much a turnoff, even for people who love Joss and for people like me who really wanted to like the show. It’s hard to convince people that “no, it’s really going to get better, I swear” when the road seems so long.

3)I enjoyed the philosophical underpinnings, but I tend to like that stuff. (One of the many reasons I love House so much.) For a lot of people, that’s a turnoff.
Yes, the lack of cohesion and the confusing characters was a problem. Many characters, like Sierra, had multiple names and backstories, and it was hard to keep them straight, especially as they didn’t appear in every episode. The show practically begged for multiple viewings and demanded an unusually high engagement level, which is great again if you like that stuff, but if you don’t have the time nor the inkling to follow everything super-closely, it gets very confusing. Add to that the premise of the show and the questions that inevitably arise about how the Dollhouse works, and again the crappy introduction, and it’s hard for the show to build up a sizeable audience.

But, the show was definitely heading into great territory, and this season has largely been fantastic (with the exception of the Echo as baby-momma episode). I think, had it been given more time, it really would have developed a greater following, especially with DVD sales and DVR recordings factored in. Of course, I always wish these shows had more time.

Oh, well. I say we do a special weekend marathon one day.