Dollhouse – Evolution of Joss Whedon’s Tried and True?

Dollhouse Dollhouse came back this week for its second season, much to the pleasure of Whedonites, Browncoats, and sleeper Actives everywhere. For those of you out of the know, Dollhouse is Joss Whedon’s (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame) newest television creation. After a dismally rated first season, Dollhouse was shockingly renewed. It turns out that it is the lowest rated debut season in television history to warrant a second.

After months of not watching Dollhouse, my fiancée and I finally sat down to watch the DVD-only episode “Epitaph One” to prepare ourselves for Season 2. We were both effectively blown away. “Epitaph One” was produced on a shoe-string budget, meaning that they had next to nothing to pay for it, but were contractually obligated to have 13 episodes on DVD, even though only 12 were aired on Fox as Season 1. Odd, I know. But they pulled it off.

It turns out that “Epitaph One” was the best thing about Season 1. It proved that Joss and his cronies would definitely churn out quality television for little expense, as well as prove that he’s able to make Season 2 different from the abysmally rated first season.

And different did he make it. “Epitaph One” is dark, gritty, and a little unnerving, given the slick, polished look that permeated Season 1. While there are flashbacks in “Epitaph One” that have the too-smooth feel of the Dollhouse itself, most of it has a new yet not unwelcome feel to it.

I expect to see more of a transition into the grit as the series moves forward, though that darkness and grit does not really carry into Season 2 (yet). The wonderful part about it is that anyone who has seen “Epitaph One”—and let’s face it: if you are watching the second season, you’re enough of a Whedonite to have picked up the DVDs—knows that the impending apocalypse colors every word of dialogue, every step a character takes, and every action seems predestined. Yet the tension is palpable because none of that is apparent in the current narrative. Oh, dramatic irony, you’re my favorite!

But this isn’t a review of “Epitaph One” or even the Season 2 premiere, “Vows.” There are plenty online already for people who are looking. No, this is about something I’ve noticed about Joss Whedon’s library as a whole: it’s quirky. It’s funny. It’s easily accessible, but hard to walk away from. Firefly: so a cowboy, a prostitute, and a mercenary walk into a bar—’nuff said. Buffy was a homecoming queen (candidate) killing vampires and demons; Dr. Horrible was a web-based musical about super-villains and frozen yogurt. Dollhouse is…a metaphor for free will, unchecked technological progress, and the evils of human trafficking.

From nowhere, an eerie rendition of the Sesame Street song “One of These Things is Not Like the Others” plays all around you.

Something’s wrong here. Instead of having an entire cast of wise-cracking do-gooders (or fringe do-gooders in Firefly’s case), Dollhouse has a single Whedonesquely quirky character (Topher, bless his heart) amid a sea of traditionally rational (or traditionally irrational, if you prefer Ballard) characters. Few lines spill out of people’s mouths that equal Wash’s “Some people juggle geese!” and if they did, they would be out of place. Topher has his fun, witty verbage spewed in every episode (and even he’s getting bogged down by morality and ethics in “Vows”), and it more than spices up the tone of the series. There are no musical dance numbers, no technopagans, nor are there praying mantises seeking marriage or cattle being rustled through space.

Dollhouse is a very different animal from what Joss Whedon typically creates, and I think that is part, if not most, of the series’ charm. Straying from the genre conventions he generally toys with, Dollhouse encompasses more speculative fiction than science-fiction/fantasy. The series is, for lack of a better way of putting it, more consistently serious than anything Whedon has attempted so far.

While his other shows have always had the flair for the dramatically quirky, they also DOLLHOUSE: Eliza Dushku as Echo. DOLLHOUSE focuses on a secret organization that employs "Actives" -- a group of operatives who have their memories and personalities wiped clean so they can be imprinted with new ones, allowing them to take on various missions for hire. The Actives don't just act like new people, they become new people, yet they are never aware they are pawns in someone else's game on DOLLHOUSE premiering Friday, Feb. 13 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2008 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Miranda Penn Turin/FOXpossess many lauded episodes full of emotional acuteness like Buffy’s “The Body” and Firefly’s “Out of Gas.” Dollhouse has equally poignant episodes such as “Man on the Street” and “Omega,” but they are almost lost in the doldrums that come from the entire series being so heavy and full of real-life issues. But that’s the strength of Dollhouse. Not only does it show that Whedon is able to create something decidedly not the typical “him,” it shows that even when creating an atypical Whedonverse, the trademark personality and resonance still exists.

“Epitaph One” proves that Dollhouse is different from Whedon’s other series by simply existing. While there are gritty episodes of Firefly and Buffy, they’re still couched in the light-heartedness that qualifies a show as Whedon. Dollhouse starts off elegant, slick, and polished, and ends (if we take “Epitaph One” as the end of the spectrum) rough and dirty while still holding fast to the personality that made it great. Dollhouse does not need to be light-hearted most of the time to exude personality. It’s the culmination of years of experience in creation, and it shows. Think of Buffy and Firefly like transfer students in high school. They have to be funny and outgoing just to fit in, but once they’re in, they feel like they’ve been a part of your life for years. Dollhouse is like what would happen to those same students as they move into college or graduate school, having already been through the experience once and learned what works and what does not.

So for me, I’m glad Dollhouse was renewed. And while the ratings for the premier were really no better than last season, the dramatically reduced budget should make keeping it on the air at least slightly profitable. There are plenty of Joss Whedon shows out there to pick from now, and whether I’m in the mood for delightfully quirky fluff or currently relevant social commentary, there’s something for me. Very few creators have that kind of range, and even fewer have the ability to pull off that range effectively.

So is Dollhouse typical Joss Whedon? Yeah, I think so. It’s the evolution of a successful formula. I look forward to see what comes next, both in Dollhouse and other projects (Cabin in the Woods, anyone?). Like the establishment from which it takes its title, the series has something for everyone who is willing to invest. Thankfully, though, all we’re asked to part with is time instead of six to nine digit checks.

Comments

  1. jane

    Finally, some Dollhousey goodness! Thank you, Beej.

    I loved how Echo ends up dancing with Apollo. Very nice! But then she ends up spurning his advances and kicking his ass. Anyone who knows Greek mythology knows this does not bode well for Echo. She's been cast as a modern-day Cassandra. She has a view to the future, and she wants to change it, and of course she is doomed. The Trojan Horse (imprinting technology) will breach the city walls, and no one will hear her until it's too late. And because *we* have seen the future, and can do nothing about it, *we* get cast as Cassandras too. It's a way for us to identify with the lead. Very nice, Joss.

    And the whole "bride of Frankenstein" bit was delightful. Echo's hair was swept back and had some subtle highlights to it. Echo with Apollo, and Claire with Topher. The two storylines seemed to mirror/twin each other. Echo in her virginal white, and getting laid; Claire in her slutty black, and not getting anything. Echo is polyphrenic, understanding that she's had multiple selves. Claire is uniphrenic, having a single sense of self. When Echo is in the Dollhouse, she's in her doll state. Claire is not in a doll state. Echo wants to find out her "true" self, she wants reunion with Caroline. Claire does not want to know who she "was", she is scared of losing herself, even though she knows that she's a "fake". Claire resides in Whiskey, who used to be Number One, but Echo is now Number One; they've traded places in a way.

    I loved the twist that Echo was playing an agent playing a bride, and that Paul was actually the client of the dollhouse rather than Apollo. Double twist! And now we know that Echo still remembers her composite event. Topher's technology is flawed, it doesn't do a complete wipe. There are parts of the brain that retain echoes of experience, beyond memory. So sweet.

    They've really jumped in to making E1 pay off. Claire and Boyd are already flirting! Paul becoming Echo's handler (like I originally thought at the beginning of the episode.) I think I like they're diving right in to the mythology, rather than trying to tease us with it for too long. I liked hearing Topher's, "I know what I know." They are going to deliver the goods, in spades.

    Wow, the loathing that Topher and Claire have for themselves. I love the look of shock on Claire's face when Echo says, "No one is their best in this place." Wow. And Topher's revulsion as he reveals that he *didn't* program Claire to hate him, but that that was her own choice. Wow.

    Topher sleeps in the computer room? Is that like the center of the labyrinth?

    Echo sits peacefully between two V shaped structures (shout out to V and Elizabeth Mitchell?) and Paul comes to sit down. Echo has "ascended" – a near-death experience that results in an experience of "communion". She remembers everything, she says. (Claire does not remember.) "We are lost, but we are not gone," says Echo, and at this stage in the game our hearing should sharpen; the Dollhouse is an *Island*. Two planes converge – and the false vows at the beginning of the episode are replaced by true vows as the end, and those vows are made over the Chair.

    Exquisite.

  2. Ysharros

    The worst thing about that series (which I accidentally caught from ep1) is the hired-out dolls framework. I understand that they need it (especially for TV narrative formats) and I understand that you can't have a dollhouse if you don't show what the dolls do… and I even understand that you can't *just* develop the main plot arc or you end up with too little plot to cover your season; but still, it's the one thing that I find contrived and forced and largely intended for the younger male audience who wants to see Ms Dushku in pseudo-bondage gear.

    Who me, run-on sentences? At least I use them mindfully! 😉

    Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised by the series even if I'm not particularly fired-up by the framework. (There's only so many times I can watch surrogate-bride episodes.) Whedon manages, as usual, to tackle some fairly interesting ethical and moral issues while not ramming them down your throat or even preaching, particularly, and while his characters are — as always — very archetypal, they're fairly well-rounded which is more than one can say for similar audience type shows such as Smallville.

    I'd better stop before I ramble tooooo far. Season 1 really was *not* as abysmal as it ended up rating — I'm constantly puzzled that unfunny pap (to me) like Psych can get renewed over and over again while much smarter stuff (like Pushing Daisies, or the *excellent* but short-lived "Profit" back in the 90s) will instantly get canned. Puzzled, but not shocked. Viewers are stupid — except for me, of course. 😉

    Ye gods. English & French lit degree and Film Studies ex-SO — I could talk about this stuff for hours. Done now! Honest!

  3. Robert Kuang

    Whether it's traditional Whedon or not, the show has a lot of potential, and that makes good TV.

    As many have pointed out, the premiere uses the traditional Dollhouse formula, but it works because of the stylized writing and intense grip on the battle of morality.

    I say keep it up.

  4. We Fly Spitfires

    I like most of Joss Whedon's stuff. I adored Buffy in my younger years although I thought the last couple of seasons were utterly terrible. Firefly was also pure brilliance.

    Dollhouse never appealed to me though. Not only does it sounds very bland but it sounds like Whedon just doesn't care about it. He's been on record saying that he only made it because Eliza Dushku needed a job.

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