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In the end, we’re all just puppets

Dollhouse

So Joss Whedon’s new TV show, Dollhouse, began airing on Fox this Friday, and if viewing figures for the series premiere, Ghost (written and directed by Whedon), are anything to go by, it may very well end up being yanked before completing its initial 13-episode run. Which would be a shame, because, while the episode suffered from some pretty significant problems, what I saw did leave me with some hope that the Joss Whedon in charge of this project is the one who produced the first five seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer rather than the one who oversaw its final two seasons on television and subsequently the dreadful comic book-bound Season 8.

Basically, the premise is that a shadowy organisation rents out young men and women whose minds have been erased to those who can afford to pay for them - whether so they can engage in a bit of hanky-panky, negotiate a hostage release, or even use them for something downright illegal. Basically, these “Dolls” or “Actives” are blank slates who can be imprinted with any persona, and following successful completion of their assignment, their minds are erased once more until their next mission. One of these Actives is Echo (Eliza Dushku, who played the recurring role of Faith in Buffy and its spin-off, Angel), who, following a cock-up which occurs during one such assignment, begins to develop a degree of self-awareness. A maverick FBI agent, meanwhile, seemingly the only person to believe that this “Dollhouse” actually exists, is hell-bent on infiltrating it and apprehending the perpetrators.

Dollhouse

There’s a heck of a lot of potential in this concept, given that the programme essentially serves as a showcase for Eliza Dushku’s range as an actress. Put simply, each episode stands to present us with a completely different scenario and Dushku with a completely different character to play. In this opening episode, we see three basic personae: the go-getter party girl glimpsed in the pre-credits teaser (who arguably has the most in common with Faith), the more or less blank slate that is Echo herself when not programmed with any personality, and the slick, efficient hostage negotiator whose identity she adopts for the kidnapping narrative that forms the main thrust of the episode, in which the young daughter of a rich Mexican businessman is abducted by a gang of unsavoury sorts, one of whom is a child rapist. The latter of these assumed identities is not all that convincing, as Dushku’s style of acting doesn’t really go with the primly-dressed, spectacle-wearing agent she ends up playing here. Then again, maybe it’s my fault for not being able to get her Buffy days out of my head.

The rest of the cast, unfortunately, are neither here nor there. They exist, but nothing about them really makes them stand out - shades of the Initiative from Buffy’s fourth season, I fear, where the various cadets and commandos did nothing to distinguish themselves. Compare this first episode of Dollhouse to the first episode of Buffy, where Willow, Giles, Xander et al immediately conveyed their personalities through their characterisation and dialogue, not to mention the performances of the actors. The same was also true of Angel, which, in its first season, had a minimal cast comprised of three diametrically opposed characters - Angel, Cordelia and Doyle (the latter being replaced part-way through by Wesley). There’s precious little of that here: broadly speaking, you could replace Dollhouse’s supporting cast with that of any police procedural and no-one would be any the wiser. Case in point: I can’t actually remember the name of the male lead (the aforementioned FBI agent), whom I suspect is being set up to be the yin to Echo’s yang. I wonder to what extent this has to do with the almost complete absence of Whedon’s traditional “peppy” dialogue: by and large, the characters here talk like normal people. On the one hand, it’s actually somewhat refreshing to see Whedon varying his style a bit; on the other, what we’re left with is fairly generic and forgettable. There are a few good lines here and there (for instance, our FBI agent, after accosting an informant in the process of making use of the facilities, tells him “Remember to wash your hands… and your shoes”; another good one is “We said no strings,” “We also said no ropes, and look how long that lasted”), but again they’re largely interchangeable with any number of other shows of the ilk. I got more than a few hints of Alias (which featured Jennifer Garner trotting about under a variety of assumed identities, working for a shadowy organisation which hadn’t told her the whole truth about what she was doing… albeit without the memory loss aspect), which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but does show that Dollhouse needs to do something more to distinguish itself.

Dollhouse

Ultimately, I suppose what excites me about this project is where it could ultimately end up going if the network gives it the opportunity. At its most basic level, we have a fast-paced and varied show featuring a charismatic actress assuming a vast array of different personae. On a deeper level, however, we have what essentially boils down to a story about people trafficking and the suppression of free will. We’re told, initially, that the Actives are essentially volunteers who knowingly submitted themselves to having their minds wiped and being turned into what are ultimately prostitutes (both literally and, on occasion, figuratively). However, one has to wonder to what extent any of these people actually knew what they were getting into when they signed up. (It’s a bit like in The Matrix, where Neo is offered the choice of the red and the blue pill. I’ve always wondered if he would really have chosen the red pill had he known what he was letting himself in for beforehand.) The way the B-plot featuring the FBI agent is developing also leads me to suspect that we are in fact headed for a revelation that at least some of the Actives have in fact been abducted and mind-wiped against their wills.

This is quite a potent cocktail of thematic concerns, and the extent to which they are allowed to be played out will, I suspect, be determined by whether or not Fox opts to pull the plug on the show, as they did with Firefly. On the one hand, the Network seems to have really got behind the show and is marketing the hell out of it, as well as using it as a pilot scheme for its new “Remote-Free TV” concept, where shows air with half the usual number of commercials, resulting in an extended running time. According to Eliza Dushku, Whedon already has a five-year arc planned for the characters and storyline. Whether he’ll get to follow it through is, currently, in the lap of the network gods.

Oh, and just in case all that text was beginning to bore you, here is a Dollhouse promo pic of Eliza Dushku with her bum out.

Eliza Dushku
 
Posted: Sunday, February 15, 2009 at 11:34 AM | Comments: 9
Categories: Books | Cinema | Reviews | TV

 
Comments

1.

A five year arc, eh? If that's the case, seasons six and seven are going to suck royally.

How did you watch this, incidentally? I thought it was only broadcast in America. Or am I mistaken?

(BTW, I'm now piling my way through Spooks Code 9. It's quite slow going because I tend to turn it off whenever it gets too stupid. Which is really rather often.)

Posted by: Baron Scarpia, February 15, 2009 1:30 PM

2.

“How did you watch this, incidentally? I thought it was only broadcast in America. Or am I mistaken?”

I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. Let’s just say I have my sources…

Posted by: Michael Mackenzie, February 15, 2009 1:40 PM

3.

BitTorrent ?

Posted by: FoxMulder, February 15, 2009 7:19 PM

4.

“BitTorrent ?”

I’m sure I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.

Posted by: Michael Mackenzie, February 15, 2009 7:20 PM

5.

I'm hearing it did all right in terms of ratings and the timeslot, but I'll be darned if I have the exact ratings at hand (or can be bothered to spend 5 seconds Googling it. :)

Dushku also mentions that Fox are very much behind this show, but that all evaporates once the higher-ups start sending down notes. And this is Fox, after all. Their film department is the most hated and genre-film unfriendly in Hollywood. How different can the TV one be?

Anyway, as I've said before, I certainly wouldn't mind another 5 season Whedon show. Oh, and a lot of the flaws in this episode can most likely be blamed on the fact that Whedon had to (or "wanted to" - there may just be sarcasm in his overly-friendly compliances below) reshoot the pilot in a bit of a rush... which now is a modified episode 2, incidentally.

- - -

R.D.A.: I try. But I am genuinely concerned.

Joss: Well, the idea to do a new first episode wasn't the network's. It was mine. I understood their consternation, and saw the gap between my style and their expectations, and I suggested I shoot a new ep and make the one I'd shot the second. It isn't going to be buried, like the pilot of Firefly. It's simply coming after another, slightly cleaner ep. And because unlike Firefly, it isn't a two hour epic which introduces everyone to each other, the onus isn't on the new ep to explain a million things.

The fact is, Fox ordered the series before we shot a frame and then, after the strike, I had literally two months to write and prep the whole thing. Which means simply that the network has to figure out what they might want to tweak AFTER it was shot, unlike a pilot. Buffy didn't make the fall schedule, Angel got shut down when they saw the second ep outline... it's birth pangs. The network truly gets the premise (this is a whole new crew, as you know), loves the cast, is excited about the show - but they're also specific about how they want to bring people to the show and I not only respect that, I kinda have to slap my forehead that I didn't tailor my tone and structure to the network's needs, since that's something I pride myself on.

R.D.A.: You're not just being the good soldier?

Joss: No, this is a very cold look at what's going on, and it's not an Us vs Them. The truth is, I'm in love with this world, and I don't care how people get into it. I have a million things to say about (and through) all of these characters, and I don't mind which ones I say first. I think I just turned in a pretty cool pilot script.

R.D.A.: So what does this mean for production?

Joss: We've pushed an extra few days so I can prep this bitch within an inch of its life, i.e., read it once more.

R.D.A.: And the first first episode?

Joss: I'll reshoot a few scenes, but it'll basically air as is. When I was given seven episodes, I referred to them as "the Seven Pilots", because you always have to lay out the premise one way or another in those early eps.

Posted by: Erik, February 15, 2009 8:32 PM

6.

According to Wikipedia, the first episode bagged around 4.7 million viewers. I’ll be honest and say that I’m not really up on what constitutes good ratings for that particular network and time slot, but I suspect it would be considered fairly unremarkable in this country for a heavily hyped show on a major channel - and we have a significantly smaller population than the US (albeit also with less choice in terms of viewing material). The first episode of JJ Abrams’ Fringe, in comparison (and Fox’s other Remote-Free TV guinea pig), got 9.2 million for its first episode. Then again, I’m guessing it, to some extent, rid on the coat-tails of the kudos of Lost (I’m guessing they marketed it heavily as being from the creator of that show).

Posted by: Michael Mackenzie, February 16, 2009 12:29 AM

7.

What's the point of even waiting for this to come on TV in the UK? No doubt we would get to see it crushed into compression blocks thanks to the utterly anorexic bit rates, and I'm sure we'd see a good few cuts and chops made for the hell of it as well. Downloading is the best way to watch this stuff.

Posted by: Anonymous Audiovisual Enthusiast, February 16, 2009 1:20 AM

8.

Hey Michael,

Got to see the first two episodes of DOLLHOUSE. I completely agree with your assessment of this season opener in regards the incredulous pitch of Eliza Dushku as 'The Negotiator'. However, like you point out the series certainly has potential and a hugely promising central premise.

Hopefully, I get the opportunity to see episodes 3 and onwards at a later date.

It may be heresy to admit but I only watched three or four episodes of BUFFY (some excellent, others dross)and already feel DOLLHOUSE is more my cuppa tea.

Posted by: Count Fosco, April 7, 2009 11:02 PM

9.

Buffy was at its most rewarding if you started at the beginning and went through it in order. For all that it often followed a stand-alone “monster of the week” format, its greatest strength lay in the development of the regular characters and the ways in which they gradually changed over the years, in terms of their personalities and relationships with one another. As such, there was a definite cumulative effect, to the extent that I suspect simply dipping in and out of the odd episode here and there would tend to have an “Am I missing something?” effect. The downside is that it was a show that required a great deal of commitment - dipping in and out was never really an option. (The Season 4 episode Hush tends to be one of the ones that non-fans tend to respond most favourably too, since in addition to being a terrific Buffy episode it’s also a superb piece of standalone television, something that I can’t say for many of my other favourite episodes.)

There’s a lot about Buffy that I like, but there are also elements that infuriate me, and I hope to expand on that with my full review of the show, whenever I end up getting round to that.

Posted by: Michael Mackenzie, April 7, 2009 11:27 PM

Comments on this entry and all entries up to and including June 30th 2009 have been closed. The discussion continues on the new Land of Whimsy blog:

https://www.landofwhimsy.com

 

 
 
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