Posted by: UberWench on Jan 14, 2010
For those of you who have followed this space for any amount of time, it will come as no surprise that many of us here at GC are Joss Whedon fans. I'm no exception. I am, quite possibly, genetically predisposed to love anything Joss Whedon writes.
Last spring I was looking forward to Dollhouse, even though the premise (a group of programmable people sent out on assignments with different personalities and memories each week - most of the assignments naturally being sexual/romantic in nature) sounded strangely misogynistic and dark. Joss Whedon gets a lot of leeway with me, because he's Joss. I set my DVR with hope in my heart.
It was not love at first sight, let me tell you. That series opener was so narratively jumbled that I had a hard time watching the whole episode. I had a hard time watching it to the end, and I can lose an hour on YouTube watching videos of cats eating broccoli.
So why was this first episode of the new show helmed by my favorite television writer less compelling than, say, gonads and strife? I'll tell you.
The real challenge with Dollhouse (and it's a doozy) was finding a relatable character.
Echo (played by Eliza Dushku) is the natural choice, since her original personality, Caroline, was forced to sign a five year contract with the Dollhouse, and victimhood is an easy path to character sympathy. But we don't know much about Caroline, and Echo is not a person in the strictest sense, at least in the beginning. She has no real memories that carry from episode to episode, and the personality quirks that define her change as well. The major story arc of the first season is Echo emerging as a person, a sort of composite of her imprints with a single organizing intelligence/identity. But for most of the first season, she's not really anybody.
A couple of other dolls we meet in early episodes, Sierra and Victor (Dichen Lachman and Enver Gjokaj), ended up being more interesting than Echo, which I can only assume was unintentional. Both of these actors have a more versatile instrument than Eliza Dushku. Even as dolls, they managed to be more subtle and intriguing from the get-go than our dear heroine, who admittedly had a much larger narrative burden to carry. Still, subtlety is not Ms. Dushku's particular strength, so her various personalities could only be effectively broadcast by props. (Look! Eliza Dushku in glasses! Eliza Dushku in long white socks and high-heeled Mary Janes! Eliza Dushku with a cane, because in this episode she's blind!) I wanted to know more about Sierra's history than I did about Echo's, and I can't have been the only one.
Not that I disagree with the casting, because Eliza Dushku is an absolutely perfect Echo (by which I mean the composite personality that eventually emerges). She really, really shines in the role in later episodes, and you believe that Echo is a person on her own. A very complicated and surprisingly sane person, with what amounts to super powers and a heroic agenda. Dushku sells the role, and Echo rocks.
It's just that she (Echo) didn't really emerge until near the end of the first season, by which time everyone who wasn't already a rabid Joss fan had given up on the show. The ratings dropped sharply after the sub-par pilot (which, to my untrained eyes, has the big, greasy fingerprints of network meddling all over it). I was so surprised when it got renewed that I couldn't help speculating whether Mr. Whedon had some incriminating photos of network execs stashed away somewhere.
Like most dolls, Echo mostly goes on romance assignments, for which she is imprinted with a personality and memories designed to make her completely compatible with the client - the scifi equivalent of a blow-up doll. As unpleasant as that was, even worse were the justifications of the support personnel, noting that they give their clients the ‘real thing' in that dolls are programmed to genuinely fall in love with the clients. They seem to discover the greatest love of their lives, only to have their memories wiped clean and become someone else for the next client.
That is how you are introduced to Topher Brink, the genius who designs each personality the dolls are given, depending on the requirements of the assignment. Topher is a geek boy, arrogant in his brilliance and as emotionally stunted as any man-child you are likely to encounter in fiction - a man so excited by what he can do that he never stops to ask whether he should do it. He's played with pitch-perfect, twitchy accuracy by Fran Kranz, who is the epitome of geeky adorableness.
I should have LOVED him, but didn't.
It took surprisingly long for me to warm to him, actually, even though he is by far my favorite character in the second season. More on that in a bit.
Also in that first episode, we're introduced to Paul Ballard, the FBI agent investigating the Dollhouse, an entity that most people do not believe exists. Tahmoh Penikett (whom some will recognize as Helo from BSG) does a fine job with what he's given, but even his character was a bit too shrill and angry to be entirely sympathetic at the start. It's hard to sympathize with his search for proof the Dollhouse exists, when the viewer already knows a lot more about the Dollhouse than he does. There's just not much curiosity-based tension in that set-up.
So we, the audience, were left trying to relate to the Dollhouse employees - people who are essentially human traffickers. That's a tough nut to crack, people.
There was Adelle DeWitt, the brittle ice queen who runs the Los Angeles Dollhouse (played with restrained, tea-sipping intensity by the incomparable Olivia Williams*). DeWitt places great importance on the well-being of her operatives, perhaps to assuage her guilt over the whole turning-people-into-toys thing. For what it's worth, some of the dolls signed contracts for a few years of service, during which their memories are stored away while their bodies are sent out on assignments bearing completely different identities. So, some of them were open-eyed volunteers.
Some, however, were not. Like Alpha (played by the always wonderful and usually doomed character actor Alan Tudyk), who was a serial murderer before being wiped and sent to the dollhouse. (Oh, look! We can add ‘experimenting on prisoners' to the list of crimes committed by the Dollhouse, and its parent company, The Rossum Corporation.) But - oh noes! - his violent tendencies weren't wiped away with his memories. Sometime before the opening episode, he went berserk in the Dollhouse, killing many of the defenseless dolls (Echo is notably spared) and Dollhouse employees, and wounding several others before escaping.
Alpha is the bogeyman who provided the first season with whatever enduring jeopardy it managed, and Tudyk plays him to the hilt. Alpha was a killer to start with, but the Dollhouse made him into something much more menacing. He's a chimera of brilliance, violence and insanity. In a way, he's a precursor to Echo, because he has cobbled together an identity out of all his past imprints. He's a person - a deeply damaged and sick person, but he's not a 'doll' anymore.
The whole first season is really about Echo becoming a person in much the same way as Alpha (and with his decidedly self-serving assistance). That was an intriguing story, it's true, but it's one that developed over the first season. The season opener only had the vaguest hints of it, and no really solid character in whose corner you wanted to be.
The only really relatable character in the first few episodes was Boyd Langdon (played by Harry Lennix), the new man at the Dollhouse, brought in to be Echo's handler. He was compassionate and pragmatic, and went to great lengths to protect Echo when her assignments went wrong. In short, a real hero. (Harry Lennix can be my daddy anytime.**)
As C. A. Bridges of Bashing in Minds had assured it me it would, the show quickly became much more intriguing and complex than anyone unfamiliar with Whedon's work would have expected. Even though it improved steadily, the core narrative remained a little muddled until about the fifth or sixth episode, which had documentary style man-on-the-street interviews, with people taking about the Dollhouse as an urban legend. That would have been a better introduction to the show, rather than wasting three or four episodes trying to get us invested in Echo's barely-detectable story arc. (That goes against popular reasoning, which is to get viewers attached to characters first, but I think a clearer statement of concept would have helped in the beginning.)
I stuck with it, because I had faith in Mr. Whedon, and it paid off. Sort of.***
In the end, Dollhouse has become one of the most subtle and masterful explorations of character and humanity that has ever aired on American television. And that's just too bad, because nobody's watching anymore. It mostly lost its audience early, and never really won it back.
The second season has seen Topher Brink grow a conscience, act on it, and suffer the consequences. It has explored how the attachment between Victor and Sierra persisted despite their lack of conscious memory of each other, creating a truly haunting picture of the transcendence of love. Because I didn't give up, I got to see DeWitt's core morality of solid steel show through all those layers of scheming and somewhat distasteful practicality. I can't even begin to tell you what has become of Langdon and Ballard - at least not without ruining some of the best head-exploding twists ever written for television.
This show has become, to put it in ‘net vernacular, awesome like woah. Whedon gives minor characters layered back stories and motivations, even some of the ostensible villains are slathered in shades of grey. Dollhouse only had one completely irredeemable recurring villain (other than shadowy Rossum suits) in the man who deliberately enslaved Sierra when he failed to seduce her. As I am totally comfortable with the idea of rapists being bad people, that is fine by me. Actually, a few of the less prominent but still evil-to-the-bone characters have been those who abuse or objectify women, which to my mind gives the show a bit of balance, since the premise of Dollhouse is really pretty loathsome, on the face of it.
Whedon has done the near impossible in taking a fairly misogynistic premise and making it into a ballad of contemporary girl power. I cannot explain exactly how this happened without massive spoilers, but he did it and Dollhouse has become a thing of beauty. I'm gobsmacked (and amazed, more than ever, that he managed to get this on television, and keep it on as long as he did).
So, if you missed Dollhouse, or were put off by the first few episodes, check it out on video, or stream it online. It's worth it as a study in thwarted expectations, character development and atypical storytelling. Characters in this show do not always behave as you'd expect them to, but their behavior always makes sense in terms of who they are. It's a masterful study of identity, free will and human struggle worthy of the giants of the genre. I know I've spent a lot of time griping about the first episodes, but it is only because I blame them for the failure of a really cool, unusual show.
In answer to this article's titular question (used as part of the dolls' call-and-response programming with their handlers), I can only respond as the handlers do, "For a little while."
When I woke up, I fell in love. Just in time for it to be canceled. *sigh* It may have started shaky, but it has come around to the point that the next time Whedon has a new show - no matter how off-putting the premise - I'll be right there to lap it up. Again.
Damn you, Joss Whedon! *whimper* I love you.
written by Znavit, January 14, 2010
written by Shinkonokokoro, January 15, 2010