Noise to Signal

Login disabled.

Put Away The Dollhouse: Part Three

It’s a world populated by the unaware and written by the disapproving. What other niggles are there about Dollhouse - and why should we be sad about its cancellation?

Spoilers continue in the final part of Put Away The Dollhouse, Or: I Love You In Spite Of Who You’re Not.

(Wondering how we got here? Catch up with Part One and Part Two.)

Whose Show Is It Anyway?

There’s a key conflict in the network’s requests around Dollhouse: sex the show up, but don’t mention prostitution and brothels. Show us the arse, but don’t talk about it being paid for.

Eliza Dusku’s a producer, too - it was her deal with Fox that made this all happen - and altogether it’s an interesting meshing of sensibilities. The novelty hooker-wear seems a long way from Whedon’s feminist credentials (more on those in a moment), while the endless dialogue about Echo’s attractiveness is just awful. Apparently, Echo has the kind of looks that make people say ‘Hmm, pretty girl’ out loud when they catch a glimpse of her picture. Week after week another self-conscious reference to her All Consuming Hotness is popped into some character’s mouth.

It’s inelegant, for one thing. Disingenuous. And it’s unnecessary - we’ll decide who we find attractive, thanks. One reference is character comment, umpteen is the show trying to convince, or at least remind, you. The joke is that, with age, Dushku’s looks have moved beyond such simple summaries. More and more she’s moving towards character actress (in the best possible sense), in the same way that Jude Law has become more interesting as an actor since maturity augmented his original pretty-boy looks.

Then there’s November/Mellie, the doll next door. Miracle Laurie’s casting was apparently influenced by Whedon’s desire to get more average-sized women on-screen. But her performance is by turns whiny and forgettable, she lacks the qualities that really draw you to an actor, the things that made Jewel Staite, Alyson Hannigan and Amber Benson so remarkable. It makes you wonder if she wasn’t cast - excuse me - for her body.

Still, for his part in the show’s fragmented personality (see, it really is The Alpha Show underneath) Whedon’s got great big brass balls. He sells a channel a mainstream show - all big fun and simple format - and then he brings the substance. Acres and acres of it.

But, so far, Dollhouse’s timing has been a little off. Nowhere is this more smack-on-the-forehead clear than in the revelation that Sierra the Active has been raped...and just how that one-episode story gets resolved.

Joss himself has expressed concern about having to conclude the tale by having a big man hit the bad man - ‘male violence as cure for female exploitation and abuse’ being a long way from the Whedon mission statement. But even with the tricksy ‘send programmed woman to kill rapist later’ conclusion - mind-rape as cure for body-rape? - with the show so young it was way too soon for this. Too soon to deliver a satisfying resolution, at least. Too soon to do it right within the constraints of the set-up, to play out something so nuanced among heroines with zero self-awareness.

The whole thing is executed in such primitive, economic terms. Kill rapist, stop badness. Sierra is simply not a character yet, so the weight of her pain is on the viewer, the observer (both within the show and outside). The guilt is on us, which strangely minimises her pain. It's interesting, sure, but really not right - not when there’s so little come-back. It’s academic more than it is visceral. And when rape’s the subject, that seems awfully cold.

I Don’t Like Caroline

The woman that Echo used to be, Caroline, is eventually revealed to be exactly the kind of person nobody wants to watch. She’s a tediously right-on activist, plagued with a blah-blah troubled past. Who the hell has any interest in watching this girl emerge from her Active cocoon?

She gets a pre-wipe line in episode one: “I was trying to take my place in the world like she always said.” The show is begging you to be interested in where she came from, dropping in a conspicuous, on-the-nose back-reference right from the start. But, as ever, it’s a mystery for us to watch solved - the Dollhouse already know who she was. It’s narrative by omission, and - once again - only the audience gets to play detective. (Well, apart from the Derek Dull the detective. But...yawn.)

The thing that was meant to make Echo special was her ability to recall things, to beat the memory wipe, but it seems that’s happening with everyone. November and Sierra are exhibiting similar traits, and both seem to have far more interesting backstories. So if it’s not ‘who she is’ that makes her the centre of our focus - and how could it be? - and it’s not ‘what she’s going through’ that sets her apart...why, exactly, is this The Echo Show?

Active disengaged. Sorry.
Active disengaged. Sorry.

Something’s Gotta Give

Dollhouse, I’d argue, went from mediocre to pretty decent, but never excelled in its first season. Not even with the epilogue episode. It was sold to the execs as one thing, the star/producer was given a differing take…and Whdeon himself pitched too fast to know quite what it was. An idea without a format.

‘Feeling your way’ with a show is something you need to do on paper, not with a schedule, a cast and a crew. He can’t work the way Doug Liman does, all scrambled ideas and reshoots. No wonder the networks are wary, no wonder Wonder Woman couldn’t quite get traction. He’s a bloody genius, but to get to that genius is fucking expensive - it’s forever umpteen filmed episodes away.

His current method of working doesn’t find an audience at the start; and when he finds his creative stride it’s too late to get them back. He sold an idea then wrote a show - shoulda written the idea then sold the resulting show.

But it was getting better.

The latter half of the first season showed massive improvements in using the concept. Though, along with the unavoidable character issues that came from having a too-empty lead, it also saw the show become more and more insular.

An episode about the Actives’ needs, culminating in an escape. DeWitt revealed to be sleeping with one of the Actives and Topher having a birthday celebration with Sierra (compare and contrast these two with the rape, please, because the idea that the dealer’s weren’t toking the merchandise was arguably one of the things that kept the show’s concept on an even keel). A two-part finale with a villain of their own creation, and a coda reliant on the Dollhouse being ground zero for the mental apocalypse. Less and less is the outside world relevant.

The peculiar truth seems to be that Dollhouse works best when it locks the doors and stays indoors. When it gives up on interacting with the wider world and starts inbreeding.

The metaphors for the show and its small, self-contained audience just seem to write themselves - and I speak as very much one of them. Dollhouse seems to function best when it behaves like an adult version of The Troika Show. The science-gone-mad, gain-over-ethics and creating-our-own-problems tropes all relate very closely to what went on in the geek's basement in Buffy's sixth season. If Warren, Jonathan and Andrew grew up a bit and had more funding, Dollhouse would be the result. Only it'd be funnier.

Of course you have to tell stories that focus around your core characters. When the concept they revolve around is a sin, those sins should be retuned. But upon whom? In the absence of relatable lead characters, it's hard to know how to perpetuate the series while continuing to assault its main concept. However intellectually enriching this investigation becomes, it's also liable to become claustrophobic.

The key to the show’s success in the latter half of season one was the ‘What does this all mean?’ investigation of the core idea. The implications for ‘eternal life’, the questions about identity, the morality of willing submission, the sexual politics - these are Dollhouse’s most interesting topics. And at the show's best, the handling is fascinating.

Thing is, that's not how this 'sci-fi Charlie’s Angels’ was set up. So now we’re stuck with the characters, situations and logistics of one show trying to become another. With a for-profit organisation, with a team already disgusted with itself, with twist reveals that didn't really add up and now must be relentlessly played out. It's a lot of baggage.

The mind’s been wiped and replaced, but is the body suited to the mission?

The Dollhouse has been set up as a business, and Dollhouse has been set up as a show that makes much play of that business. To drag out the old Buffy comparison again, this is like finding out that slaying vampires isn’t working dramatically, and that the show should instead be focussing on, like, what it means to a society when you can be reborn as a vampire. All viewed from vamp central.

Imagine trying to rewrite Buffy and turn it into True Blood. Good shows both, but one doesn’t easily become the other.

The proof of evil, the existence of Hellmouths, the realities of magic. If Buffy dwelled on these, rather than using them as a way into character journeys, the show would be in trouble. Nobody needs to stand around for five minutes debating the relative merits of the vampire/magic drug rush - we watch it play out as Riley is fed from, as Willow crumbles under magic addiction. But Dollhouse seems to need everyone to constantly be talking about ‘the implications’...maybe because, in the first season certainly, there's a painted-into-a-corner problem with attempting to describe those implications with character journeys.

But then, it was hard to know what change would have worked best: a show that makes a bigger virtue of it’s all-seeing, overview perspective? Or one that finally finds a way to be about the small, identifiable, self-aware cog in the big machine. But, sadly, it certainly wasn’t managing to be both. Alpha proved it: cramming multiple identities into one body is only even going to be maddening.

Can a change be performed? Maybe - Joss's willingness, and ability, to reinvent is one of his great strengths. Would the core audience take to it? Almost certainly: we'd follow this creative mastermind into any apocalypse, and if the show's better we're not going to churlishly reject it for not being 'the same'. Would the wider audience come back even if it works...?

The numbers for season two, and its subsequent cancellation, say not.

I'm looking forward to seeing the second season. I ain't no hater: I came to dissect Joss, not to bury him. I hope the show's hugely improved. I hope I bloody adore it. I hope it finds ways to overturn the faults of the first run and become utterly glorious. Because, even knowing it's all over, I'd rather have 13 great - and 13 average - episodes of an ambitious and bold cancelled show than 200 of some weak-minded Aaron Spelling dreck.

But for now another super-smart show - troubled, yes, but often massively interesting - drops its backside into the big chair and gets wiped. And for all the issues, that's never going to be anything other than a huge shame.

About this entry


“The woman that Echo used to be, Caroline, is eventually revealed to be exactly the kind of person nobody wants to watch. She’s a tediously right-on activist, plagued with a blah-blah troubled past. Who the hell has any interest in watching this girl emerge from her Active cocoon?”

Exactly. And that is the main problem with Caroline, not all this rubbish you hear about Eliza’s acting, it’s the writing, the characterisation.

‘Cause that’s what the world needs, another terrorist who thinks their political beliefs trump a democratic nation’s laws.

No wonder people couldn’t find a character to root for.

If a Muslim active turns up, I think we can all guess what his back-story will be.

November 27, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

reply / #

Bravo! I, too, am a huge fan of everything Whedon, but you did, by far, the best job at explaining the disappointment that Dollhouse was. I have often read that he thought about Buffy for a decade before he made it… I think that Dollhouse would have benefited from a couple of years of incubation plus an entire 21 episode script for season one before it was made. Not only did it never hit its stride… it never made me cheer for any character in it… That is what I truly missed. Buffy, Angel, Firefly’s Captain… Heroes that made me invest. The Dollhouse would have and should have been a series of books or maybe comics.

Thank you so much for writing what I had been thinking for some time.

Awesome blog. Keep up the great work.


By Scott C
November 27, 2009 @ 3:00 pm

reply / #

I really wanted to love this show. I love everything Joss has done up to this point. I tried to love it, but I just ended up liking it. It didn’t ‘feel’ like Joss. There were flashes, but not enough. I will not give up though. I will still watch anything he does. He is brilliant.

By susan
November 28, 2009 @ 1:01 am

reply / #

It’s an interesting article but I do tire of some of the Dollhouse bashing going on, some people saying it wasn’t as good as other Whedon shows and other negative comments about the show. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, of course. But I felt it was just as good as any other Whedon show, it had great writing, wonderful acting and characters. I wasn’t so fond of the first episode on first viewing but it’s a show that gets better and better as it goes, and I became hooked fast. I can’t wait to see more and I enjoy watching back to the previous episodes. These days, it’s hard for me to find that in a show.

By Stephen R. Fletcher
November 28, 2009 @ 1:35 am

reply / #

Dollhouse is so dull. The characters are so one dimensional. The plots are so flat. The situations are so predictable. The storylines don’t have layers. Everyone is so tedious. The world is so pedantic.

It isn’t like Buffy.
It isn’t like Angel.
It isn’t like Firefly.


The problem with this jump on the bandwagon, bashing article; and it _is_ a bashing article, despite its pretentions to be a balanced, dispassionate, scholarly analysis of the supposed shortcomings of Dollhouse, is that its premise is rooted in a totally unbalanced perspective.

The 12 bare episodes of Dollhouse are being compared against the 12+ seasons of Buffy/Angel/Ripper verse plus movie, comics, novels, conventions, tie-ins, college courses, endless discussion and dissection on the Internet and other media elsewhere in the still evolving world of Buffy.

By this comparison, Dollhouse is found wanting. I’m Shocked. Shocked I say.

A much more reasonable comparison would be to contrast season 1 of Buffy to season 1 of Dollhouse.

For Buffy, in this world, and with _only_ this world to draw from. Willow is forever the nerdy computer geek. Xander, endlessly the hapless everyboy. Giles, frozen in time as the stuffy British librarian. Angel, the eternal hunky heartthrob with the romantically dangerous past. Buffy is still mostly only a wisecracking, wannabe cheerleader.

For all the transformative events of Prophesy Girl, Willow encountering true evil, Xander becoming the hero. Angel failing to save Buffy. Rupert stepping up to face the Master, Jenny joining the gang, Buffy’s brush with mortality, no one will have any chance to explore what these changes mean. They are simply a fascinating coda to the end of Buffy’s single season, much like Epitaph One for Dollhouse.

What does it all mean? We don’t know yet.

Of course, remarkable characters like Tara, Oz, Anya, Spike and Dru, Fred, Kendra, Faith, Glory, Richard Willkins III, Holtz, Janna Kalderash, Lindsey and Lilah, Illyria, Krevlornswath of the Deathwok Clan, Doyle, and Wesley Wyndham-Price we have never and will never meet at all, because Buffy has but one season to draw on.

The truth is, the remarkable stories of the Buffyverse still lay mostly in the future at the end of season one. Season one was an interesting beginning, but who could have imagined the stories that lay just over the event horizon of Joss Whedon’s inspired deviousness in storytelling.

To be fair, Firefly is a different critter. Joss himself has admitted that Firefly was a magical experience where the actors seemed to somehow inhabit their characters lives and world from the first minute. But to demand this as the minimum from day one for every Joss series is unrealistic.

Season one of Buffy laid down a foundation from which the rest of the series could build its rich mythology on, but a promise was all we had at the end of Season one.

Likewise, what we know of Dollhouse is the foundation upon which future stories can be laid. The layers need to be built sequentially over time. We don’t know what everything we have seen in Dollhouse means yet. To pretend otherwise, is to truly dismiss a great part of Joss Whedon’s ability as a storyteller.

By Robyn
November 28, 2009 @ 8:21 am

reply / #

The problem with this jump on the bandwagon, bashing article; and it _is_ a bashing article, despite its pretentions to be a balanced, dispassionate, scholarly analysis of the supposed shortcomings of Dollhouse

Ah, I see now. Andrew is an enemy agent. While posing as an amateur media commentator, he is actually a pawn of the Cabal Of Zarlug, whose dread machinations are devoted to undermining Joss Whedon’s media career. Run for it, Ellard- they’re on to you!

In all seriousness, a persecution complex isn’t an attractive trait in any fan community. The credibility of your explanantion for why you disgree with the essay is sapped by inventing your own special name for people who hold alterative views.

By Julian Hazeldine
November 28, 2009 @ 11:04 am

reply / #

TO Julian Hazeldine.

Too true, and plenty of the characters listed by the Whedonite as enriching the show never moved beyond flat stereotypes anyway - Andrew for example.

The strength of the show was in its four leads, and once the show lost supporting characters like Cordelia and Angel, it failed utterly to replace them. Angel on the other hand did very well.

And don’t forget the sneers, we’re just ‘too dumb’ to get him.

November 28, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

reply / #

I disagree that season one of Dollhouse is equivalent in quality to season one of Buffy. Even if you think the characters on BTVS were one-dimensional in their first season (and I disagree there too, with the exception of Angel, who didn’t hit his stride for me until he left Sunnydale) — at least they got witty, clever dialogue to keep me interested. Dollhouse has maybe one good line per episode at most; Buffy was packed full of them. No, we didn’t know everything about the characters yet, but they were developed enough to make me want to know more. They made me believe in their future. If they hadn’t, I would never have stuck around for season two (particularly since I hate vampire stories in general and had no emotional attachment to Joss Whedon’s work when I first watched the show). That has not been the case with Firefly. The characters I was actually interested in — mainly just Topher and Boyd — didn’t show any particular growth, and the Actives’ development seemed boring and forced in an attempt to give the show depth. I can’t even work up any emotion towards the Victor/Sierra situation, and they’re my favorite Actives! I will continue watching because I do have an attachment to Whedon’s work now, and I would like to think there’s still hope that he can turn it around. But what’s been shown on the screen hasn’t really given me any solid reason to believe that. Believe me, I tried to defend Dollhouse for a long time, but so far all I’ve gotten for it are a bunch of promises that have yet to be delivered on.

By Alison
November 28, 2009 @ 5:10 pm

reply / #

Oops. “That has not been the case with Firefly” should say, “That has not been the case with Dollhouse.” I don’t know why I had Firefly in my head. Maybe as an example of a Whedon show that not only found its footing but flourished creatively during its first and only season. Now there’s a series that deserved a second season, even if it was still going to get cancelled for low ratings.

By Alison
November 28, 2009 @ 5:43 pm

reply / #

> Dollhouse is so dull.

Didn’t say that.

> The characters are so one dimensional.

Didn’t say that.

> The plots are so flat.

Didn’t say that.

> The situations are so predictable.

Didn’t say that.

> The storylines don’t have layers.

Didn’t say that.

> The world is so pedantic.

Didn’t say that.

Still, thanks for reading so closely. ;-)

Andrew's picture

By Andrew
November 28, 2009 @ 8:49 pm

reply / #

Sorry, you just caught the confluence of the many, many negative Dollhouse reviews I have read recently and the fact that I finally had time to respond to one of them. So, you caught the brunt of all of my exasperation with all of the different criticisms I have read. It was unfair to lay all of that at your feet.

I do think the overall reaction to Dollhouse versus Buffyverse is colored by the texture of 254 episodes of Television/Movie/Books/Comics/Games/other tie-ins versus 12 episodes where the first half (at least to my ear) sound like they were rewritten by unhappy, souless network executives (unhappy, souless network executives, isn’t that redundant?)

I have not enjoyed Dollhouse as much as Buffy. But when I recently went back and rewatched most of the first season of Buffy (Thanks for nuttin’ Hulu) I felt that there was a whole set of levels that the show was not operating at yet, and I don’t think it was completely because they were creating each episode for approximately twelve cents apiece.

It seemed that each episode largely focused on one character to let the audience know the basic parameters:

Intros Welcome to the Hellmouth/Harvest
Buffy The Witch/Never Kill a Boy…
Xander Teacher’s Pet/The Pack
Willow I Robot, You Jane
Cordy Out of Mind, Out of Sight
Giles The Puppet Show
Angel Angel

Prophecy Girl has always stood out in my my mind as the point where the characters stopped being one dimensional stereotypes and began exploring outside the box of people’s expectations. There had been hints before (Cordy in Out of Mind: Being popular isn’t fun, it’s my work) but this was the first episode totally built around demolishing the character preconceptions people had built up.

But, until you take time to build up the preconceptions, you can’t push them back to the audience and make the audience realize, hey audience, you were caught in the same sleepwalk that the show’s characters were trapped in. This is not all that they can be.

Joss and his merry band of pirates then could use the basic openings of season one to build variations into the complex multi-hued themes of later years.

I think that the same type of growth could have occured in Dollhouse, but sadly we are very unlikely to ever find out.

Anyway thanks for the article, better thoughful criticism than indifference.

By Robyn
December 02, 2009 @ 7:42 pm

reply / #

> Prophecy Girl has always stood out in my my mind as the point where the characters stopped being one dimensional stereotypes

I rewatched the opening Buffy two-parter to see if you had a point - and I really don’t think you do, sorry!

When Buffy arrives, she’s absolutely not the cheerleader stereotype. She was in the movie, but the TV series starts with a girl looking to escape her destiny. She arrives and her first hopes are to get back to some version of what she was. But she can’t do it. Not on a Slayer level - the attacks on the school and her new friends prevent that - but also not on a human one.

She TRIES to be Cordelia’s new buddy, being cool enough to fit the type, but in the end her sympathies are elsewhere. She feels awful for Willow when Cordelia lays into her, and she and her friends are who she ends up gravitating to. Naturally.

That’s a mile away from the cheerleader type.

Likewise, Giles isn’t just stuffy and British. Watch his face when he slams down the Vampyr book - he’s like an excited child. Hiding it, but actually excited that he’s out in the field after so long among the books. And he concedes even early on, accepting that his methods aren’t the entire thing.

Again, that ain’t the stereotype. The ability to bend, the child-like enthusiasm, the self-awareness (he makes his first joke about his on Britishness in this story). Don’t give me lack of depth.

Xander’s not just a dork - he skateboards, he’s not much for the book learning. He’s working class, and barely mentions comics or sci-fi in the entire season. And his nobility and inner-reserve comes out very early on - compare and contrast to the Troika in later series. He ain’t played directly into the type at all.

The show plays with tropes, and subverts them, but that pilot is absolutely masterful. It runs a clear and relevant story at a strong pace, pulls genuinely neat surprises (it totally earns it’s Doctor Who cliffhanger solution, and Jesse’s fate was so nifty that RTD nicked it for the Torchwood opener - lead character is revealed not to be one), and it manages to make you feel like you’ve known these people all your life.

And while some of that is familiarity for the high school types, far from all of it is down to that. The jokes are great, the pacing’s spot-on. Sure, it’s a bit cheap, and certainly it doesn’t hit the emotions that Angel and Prophecy Girl would reach (and then the later series would hugely surpass), but it’s an exceptional opener.

It’s actually the full season in microcosm - friend revealed as vampire half-way, climax based on the Master rising. It knows what it is and what it’s doing. Dollhouse didn’t. Certainly not for most of that first 13.

So while I’d agree that Angel and Cordy didn’t hit their real substance until season two of Angel, the core players were substantial from the off.

> I think that the same type of growth could have occured in Dollhouse

I agree, and since series two’s getting a better reaction it’s relatively probable. (And every fix made between the seasons only goes to prove how valid much of the criticism has been.) But I do think there are problems at the core of Dollhouse’s format that mean it can only change and improve so much.

I think you’re being massively unfair to suggest that everyone’s comparing to the entire Buffyverse. This article does nothing of the sort, and I certainly didn’t. Nobody expects Hush, The Body and Becoming 1 & 2 out of the gate. But you know whether you care about the characters. You know if you’re enjoying the experience. You know if the promise is enough to keep you watching.

The characters and tone of Firefly do so much to ride over the early bumps. You forgive slow or flat stories because everything else is strong. Likewise you forgive the more flat Buffy eps at the start (The Pack!) because, damn, I’m enjoying my time in this world.

Dollhouse didn’t do so well in that regard.

It’s got nothing to do with audiences not wanting to be challenged - I was disappointed to see some Whedonesque readers suggest that of me rather than engage with the issues raised. An engaged audience loves to be challenged. Gimme some of that moral grey! But Dollhouse’s first season did too many things wrong, while, yes, being interesting.

My take is that the reasons in the article above have a lot to do with that. If you think it’s something else, great, let’s have it. But “I blame the viewer” is a sucky argument, not when even those of us who would crawl over broken glass for Whedon can’t totally get behind it.

(Still, I thank you - and pretty well everyone who posted on all three parts - for engaging with the debate in the spirit that was intended. This really, really wan’t about piling on the hate. I and many like me didn’t take to the show, is all, and it’s worth trying to understand the reasons why.)

Andrew's picture

By Andrew
December 02, 2009 @ 10:36 pm

reply / #

On a theoretical level, I agree with a fair amount of what you’ve said in these posts. There’s so much about the characterization that shouldn’t, theoretically work, that I can easily see why so many other viewers have the uninterested reaction to the characters that they do. But somehow I do care what happens to these people, including the Actives. Dollhouse is the first show in a decade that’s had me actually sitting in front of a TV real-time, enduring actual commercials, in order to find out what happens next. It’s severely flawed, but somehow it still works for me.

By Jim Henry
December 04, 2009 @ 8:03 pm

reply / #