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.
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?
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.