Wednesday, 24 June 2009

(Sort Of) End Of Season Review: Dollhouse

::Disclaimer - It's hard to write a definitive End of Season Review for a show that, technically, has not aired all of its episodes. The thirteenth episode of Dollhouse has been held back for DVD release as a result of Fox's meddling with the original pilot, with the hint that it would be shown in foreign markets. That means England, right? And it's on Sci Fi UK? Hence my tardiness with this, waiting to see if it would air on UK TV. Of course, I won't know until Sci Fi updates its website, which is still saying they're only showing nine episodes. Well done, website.::

When I was trying to figure out how to begin writing about the almost completed season of Dollhouse, the only approach that seemed to give the proper background seemed to be the "Harry Knowles Approach", where I recount a long and disjointed series of anecdotes (linked by ellipses, of course) proving that whereas you, the reader, for example, might think that you are the biggest Joss Whedon fan, in fact it is I who is the biggest fan, and have the most Whedon-related memorabilia, and so I am more qualified than anyone to take on this task so there. If you don't believe me about Knowles, this is just one example of his weird impulse to be the biggest expert on every subset of fandom going. Or the man who has the biggest obsession with oral sex and defecation.

Of course, I'm not the biggest Whedon fan in the world, as I have yet to stalk him or name one of my children Xander or Illyria. I do have a cat called Zoe, named after Gina Torres' character from Firefly, but naming cats after TV characters, products, concepts, or smells is not weird or stalkery. However, I would not be here writing this blog about various TV shows if it wasn't for Whedon. Who knows, I might be doing something more constructive, like snowboarding, or rock-climbing, or being an alcoholic. So I owe my bones and my liver to Whedon, at the very least. At the very most, there is my immersion in the TV-obsessed corner of the internet, which has given me good friends, lots of interesting chatter, and a wonderful wife [who is also obsessed with Whedon -- Canyon].

I'd long been excited whenever a show ventured into long-form territory, but before Buffy, DVRs, and DVD boxsets, it was rare to see it in anything non-soap opera. Star Trek: TNG did it every so often, and of course there was Murder One, which was pioneering and unpopular. Buffy was lucky enough to have it both ways, with your monster of the week format plus a close-ended arc running through the season. Around the time that I fell in love with Buffy (a few years after smarter people than I had already figured out how good it was), 24 came along with the same approach to season arcs, and with The Sopranos mopping up awards everywhere, the format finally got enough critical, popular, and nerd acceptance to become the next big thing. N.B. Babylon 5 did it as well, with a five-year plan not dissimilar to that of Lost. I'm aware of that. Despite its rabid fanbase, it never captured the popular imagination. Though Buffy was a show with only a cult audience, it is still referenced by popular culture maven in a way J. Michael Stracsynski's show isn't. By the way, "maven" is the plural of "maven", right?

However, it's been a long time since Whedon did any TV stuff. Angel was cancelled about five/six years ago, and since then I've become obsessed with a number of different shows, some of which are more "respectable", but less fun. I've also been bitten by the Lost bug, a show that has become so complex and ambitious that almost everything else feels like Dallas in comparison. Happy though I was about Whedon's return, I felt a certain amount of ambivalence, partly because of concern that his style of show would seem clunky after experiencing the scope and eccentricity of Lost, but also, of course, because of the Curse of Whedon. A high-concept sci-fi show on Fox? As soon as the pilot was reshot and the show was relegated to a Friday night slot, in an echo of the way Firefly was treated, it was obvious that getting attached to it was a really bad idea.

To make things worse, the pilot left me totally cold. As part of the infamous Fox Fuck Five episode stretch, with Whedon apparently spaying his show at the behest of Fox executives, it looked cheap and poorly conceived, a world away from his last major directorial effort (Serenity), and in terms of audience satisfaction, not a patch on his last "minor" directorial effort (the epoch-shattering masterpiece Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog). The next four episodes were worse, with episodes two and five vying for worst of season. Or is it two and three? Or four and five?

What was so bad about them? Many of the negative points of that opening stretch of episodes have been picked at for months now, but I have to say I agree with pretty much all of them. Dushku-as-lead was never going to work out, even with the formidable Sexy Faith Dance on her side (she cracked that bad boy out in the pilot, just for sexiness fans everywhere). As a dramatic guest star she worked wonders on Buffy, but with zero range and saddled with the part of an identity-shifting woman of many faces, several early scenes felt like pranks being played either on us or on Dushku herself.

As Canyon said many times while we were watching Dollhouse, Sarah Michelle Gellar was no Streep (hell, she was no Jennifer Garner), but at the very least she was appealing and could sell a joke, and even had a few stand-out episodes (I think she did some great work in Buffy seasons five and six). Dushku has an even more difficult job: making the audience care about someone who has no personality for us to empathise with. There are some skillful actresses out there who might have stood a chance, but Dushku does a terrible job. From what I gather, we weren't the only viewers who tuned out whenever she appeared.

She wasn't the worst thing about that opening stumble. For a while the show feels like some kind of bizarre hybrid of Alias and Joe 90, an adventure show about secret operatives operating secretly, doing various odd jobs around LA. As we're to assume our characters will be working for some benevolent organisation, it's jarring to see the Dollhouse staff doing things that are morally repellent. With Boyd Langton (the ever-excellent Harry Lennix) representing the conscience of the show by questioning the motives of the Dollhouse, we realise we're meant to be rooting for the Dolls, not their bosses, but the show doesn't go far enough with that at first. We just get a sense that this is something the show will address in good time, once the benevolent adventurey stuff slows down a bit. Though Whedon does a good enough job of introducing some of that moral complexity in the pilot, the next four episodes are so formless that our disgust over the concept of removing the "self" from a person and replacing it with another isn't allowed to crystallise earlier. It didn't help that the first thing we see is Dushku willingly signing herself over to the Dollhouse. If that's the way it works, then it can't be that bad, right?

The "monster" of the week concept didn't work either. With Echo traipsing off to do various good things (such as saving a hostage, or infilitrating a cultist compound), we get hints that there is a bigger story to be told, especially as we see FBI loser Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) investigating the mysterious organisation. Perhaps it's because we also tuned out whenever Penikett and his Scrunched Up Face Of Impotence lumbered onto set [with his Constipated Ken Doll Walk, no less - Canyon], but this thread felt malformed as well. Hints and winks were one thing, and it was great to know the show was obviously building to something, but I got the sense that Whedon, after years of watching Battlestar Galactica and Lost gain the nerd fanbase he once owned so completely, realised that the old format, of a large amount of MotW episodes sprinkled with liberal amounts of long-form soap operatics and season-arc revelations, was due for a spruce up. Dollhouse's greatest early flaw was that it didn't get the season arc moving fast enough, which we can lay at the feet of Fox.

With only thirteen episodes, Whedon needed to get cracking, and instead we got museum robberies and bodyguard duty for some obnoxious singer. Fringe was luckier with more episodes, and still squandered about 65% of the season on nonsense. Dollhouse didn't get that luxury, and yet for almost half of its run it danced on the spot. That episodic format was a poor fit from the outset, a piss-poor attempt to attract viewers who enjoyed the week-by-week simplicity of pre-Buffy TV, which is why I couldn't help but compare early episodes with Bionical Woman (please forgive me for that, but it's true).

Sadly, Fox didn't realise that we're not just post-Buffy now: we're post-Lost. That show has rewritten the rules for what audiences are willing to tolerate. Yes, the show has lost a lot of the viewers it had in its first season, but as Cuse and Lindelof have said in interviews, Lost was never meant to be a ratings-crusher. And yet, despite that shrunken audience, it's still a bona-fide hit, watched around the world by millions, and discussed and debated more than any other show on TV. The likely audience for something as wilfully peculiar as Dollhouse has been watching Lost and Galactica for years and is not interested in that old way of telling a tale any more. Dollhouse could have been setting itself up for the long haul right away, and would have retained its modest initial audience. Instead, the show felt outdated and slight straight away, and that loyal audience departed in droves. A singularly depressing outcome for those of us who were still hoping the show would come good.

And yet there was hope. Early on in promotional interviews, there was talk of the mythical Sixth Episode, the game-changer that would make us all feel bad for doubting Whedon. This made me feel very uncomfortable, coming as it was from people involved with the show. In addition to thinking that playing up chatter about how the network had finally stopped meddling with the show was, to put it mildly, ballsy and suicidal, I just couldn't see how the show could pull itself out of its tailspin. Whedon had always managed to weave comedy and drama brilliantly, but Dollhouse's first five episodes were clunky, lifeless and laughably unmoving.

And yet it was I who was the fool, as Whedon -- who, I should never forget, is one of my five favourite writers in any medium ever for the very good reason that he's a trillion times smarter and funnier than me -- slapped me in the face with that sixth episode like a fish (though a fish with Patton Oswalt attached to it), and showed us all what the show was supposed to be after all. Viewers had several criticisms of the show, and after Man on the Street, almost all of those criticisms blew away like the chaff they were. Here's a quick rundown of what I thought were the failings of the show, and how they were addressed in the second half of the season.

1) You can't care about the Actives because they are just shells.

This was, for the first half of the season at least, a major concern, and seemed like the major dealbreaker for the series. Whedon may have started the pilot with Caroline giving herself up to the Dollhouse, but this glimpse into who she is before having her personality extracted isn't enough to create a bond with her. Dushku's flat performance certainly doesn't help. If anything, prior to episode six, the only real reason to give a damn about her is because Boyd does, and Lennix nails that caring mentor role so well we want Echo to prevail just so Boyd's day isn't ruined. As for Sierra, Victor, and the others, they're shit out of luck. For instance, Victor's affection for Sierra just seems creepy, especially as we realise how she is being abused.

The miraculous second half of the season solves that brilliantly, but not straight away. Episode six makes Echo seem like even more of a puppet, and episode seven adds confusing detail to Caroline's past, but episode eight, Needs, shows the core attributes of each Active and finally generates that empathic core we need in order to care for these people. Echo was heroic already, Victor was caring and traumatised, November was unable to cope with grief, and Sierra was defiant, though it was this trait that doomed her to a horrific fate.

That episode was so strong, and so brilliantly conceived, that from that moment on it was impossible not to root for these characters, but just to make sure, we see that the "soul" of the Active can bleed through the construct downloaded into their brain, as both Alpha and Echo become what they were always meant to be in the final episode. And yet people still complained about not caring about the characters by the end! I find this utterly baffling.

2) The show doesn't seem to be about anything, or know what it's about.

In an interview conducted after the show began its rise, Whedon uncharacteristically and undiplomatically carped about the interference with his show while it was still airing (he usually waits for his work to be finished and released before complaining). Even more surprisingly, he admitted that he was upset that some episodes of the show hadn't been about anything, and singled out Tim Minear's True Believer, saying it wasn't about anything. He later explained that his quote was taken out of context, and said he had to apologise to Minear, but even so, he hit the nail on the head, albeit inadvertently.

Up until the sixth episode, Dollhouse ironically suffered from an identity crisis. It wasn't just that the show had turned out to be a hodge-podge of action/adventure sub-genres (she's a bodyguard! She's working with the ATF! She's a cat burglar!), though that was confusing. It also had an ill-defined core idea. For the first five episodes it was a caper show that left a bad taste in the mouth, hinting at the ethical and scientific ramifications of Dollhouse technology but burying that enquiry under A and B plot business, as well as using up valuable TV real-estate setting up hints about the future. A lot of effort was being expended, but with the empathy gap listed above, Dollhouse needed to grab the mind while the heart was out of reach. Sadly, the first five episodes were unfocused and over-complicated, and without a sense of conceptual continuity from week to week, it felt as unsatisfying as late-series Battlestar Galactica, except with the added narrative complication of trying to get Dushku into as many fetishy costumes as possible.

Again, the sixth episode saved the day. With unusual but welcome directness, Whedon used a series of vox pops in which people discuss the urban myth of the Dollhouse, and its ramifications for society and humanity. Even though we had seen the Dollhouse through the disgusted eyes of Ballard, we're seeing his reaction, and therefore have our own reaction to his reaction. Is he just in this because of a fixation on Caroline? How much of his search for the Dollhouse is motivated by a need to prove his superiors wrong? With the sixth episode, we get context to realise that the Dollhouse truly is an awful place, and the tech is evil, to the extent that it could possibly poison the human condition irrevocably. Such a thought is available if you ponder it long enough, but having a fictional scientist say, out loud, that this is the worst thing in the world, and will ruin everything, is a sobering moment. Of all of the things I loved about this first series, it was that moment I remember most clearly. It shook me up.

3) Hold on. So, the Dollhouse is actually evil?

It's inevitable that sci fi action/adventure shows on network TV will focus on the heroics of a bunch of photogenic ladies and gents, as that is the acceptable story we identify with the most. Though villains and anti-heroes have their place, it's rare to see something from the point of view of the bad guys. Of course, Whedon has, in the past, explored dodgy morality in his heroes. Angel in particular explored the pros and cons of doing business with evil, and former show producer Shawn Ryan based an entire show (The Shield, obvs) around a bad man, and that resulted in seven brilliant seasons of TV.

However, the seemingly incomplete explanation of what the Dollhouse does meant we were never really sure if the Dollhouse was doing something good or bad. I'm not sure if this was intentional or an unwanted side-effect of the pilot reshoot. Ballard might maintain, from the very beginning, that the Dollhouse is a bad place, but he's such a self-righteous blowhard that it's difficult to side with him. Plus, Tahmoh Penikett has one facial expression -- extreme disgust -- so for all we know, he thinks PopTarts or living room furniture or friendly neighbourhood hotties are sickening.

Over time we begin to understand that the Dollhouse almost certainly is evil, but that jibes with the idea that we're watching an action adventure series, certainly in the early episodes. Thankfully, with the sixth, the action adventure format mostly drops away, leaving us with a fascinating moral puzzle to unravel. Brilliantly, the show keeps pulling the rug out from you, making sure the viewer remains unsure about those motives in a way that would make Lost showrunners Cuse and Lindelof proud. Painting ostensibly evil characters like Adele and Topher as lonely souls who use the Dollhouse to connect with other people humanises them, making it harder to see them as carton villains, though Fran Kranz' performance is so irksome that I only "sympathise" with Topher at a remove. Olivia Williams' performance is so much more nuanced that it genuinely becomes hard to see her saddened in later episodes.

Other characters are shown to have weaknesses. Dr. Saunders is obviously a tragic figure, disfigured by Alpha and seemingly appalled by much of what goes on in the Dollhouse, though later revelations about her character call some of those feelings into question, not to mention the actual workings of the Dollhouse tech (I'm trying really hard not to spoil here). As for Ballard and his relationship with Mellie, you can see that the writers had great fun making Ballard as big a douchebag as possible. Even though Angel was a character capable of good and evil, he always had a nobility, even when he became Angelus. Ballard is just a sleaze. For those who have yet to see the entire series, there is a great fight scene coming up. If you dislike Ballard as much as I do, you'll enjoy it greatly.

So, our notions of good and bad are tossed up in the air on a weekly basis, but even then, I cannot get Needs out of my head. When I found out why Sierra is in there, it settled something for me. No matter what the purpose of the Dollhouse is, I want to see it burn to the ground just for what they've done to her. Of all the things I've seen on TV this year, even including the finale of The Shield, nothing has upset me as much as that revelation. Fuck the Dollhouse, and fuck Adele for going along with it.

4) Is this actually going anywhere?

More than anything else I've said here so far, it hurts to admit that, in the first five episodes, I got the distinct feeling that the show had no plan for the future. It wasn't just the confusing concept, either. Even Whedon admitted in those interviews linked to earlier that he had not come up with a good enough reason for people to hire Dolls when they could just hire normal people. I remember fanwanking that, in the pilot, someone would want not just a good hostage negotiator but the bestest negotiator EVAH, but midwives? That just made no narrative sense, other than to have an action adventure show with a greater variety of possible scenarios, instead of just a spy show (how many times can we see Sydney Bristow trying to recover a MacGuffin of some kind? Hence, double-triple-agents and Rambaldi devices).

After episode six, the episodic format pretty much faded away, not just to provide some momentum heading into the season finale, but also to show that the Dollhouse writers were telling a different story. Instead of Bionical Woman resets at the end of each episode, it became apparent that a mythology was being created, with clues being littered everywhere. Things that seemed ambiguous early on began to be addressed, such as the revelation of the mole's identity, the reasons why the main Actives are in the Dollhouse, and what Alpha is. Even though we don't get the answers to everything, we now get the sense that things will be revealed at a pace somewhere between Fringe-fast and Lost-slow, especially as the introduction of Omega suggests that this season was merely prologue to the real story.

5) Is this format too much for Eliza Dushku?

Upon hearing about the concept behind the show, many people joked that Dushku would not be up to the task of playing multiple characters, as much of her work had shown she had minuscule range. Regrettably, the first five episodes did nothing to dissuade viewers' fears, with Dushku playing the various personalities with little tweaking other than changes to the level of sassiness or concern on her face. Thankfully, the sixth episode came along and...

...Sorry, don't know what I was thinking there. Not even that episode could fix her performance, which continued to be the weakest link in the show. What it could do was allow the other actors on the show to take up some of the slack.

Sadly, this is a mixed blessing. Scenes involving Tahmoh Penikett and Miracle Laurie are painful to watch, with her line readings garbled and his face scrunched up in eternal anger. Fran Kranz' Topher starts out obnoxious and overplayed, and continues to be obnoxious and overplayed right to the end. Dichen Lachman has difficulty projecting anything other than half-hearted sexiness or vulnerability a la Dushku, which is annoying and limiting especially when Needs reveals her tragic backstory.

Thankfully there are some terrific actors onboard who save the day. The ever-dependable Harry Lennix is superb as Echo's handler, effortlessly projecting machismo, authority, and tenderness. Olivia Williams' performance as Adele starts out well and becomes more and more compelling as new and unexpected character traits are layered on. Reed Diamond's Dominic has less to do at first, with some peculiarly broad villainy early on, but by the time Needs rolls around, he is firing on all cylinders, and is the only cast member who walks out of the egregious "comedy" episode (Echoes) with his head held high.

The real revelations are the performances by Enver Gjokaj, as Victor, and Amy Acker, as Dr. Claire Saunders. I was always a fan of Acker on Angel, even during her early, unsubtle hours with the broad accent. Though her character, Fred, annoyed many (including Canyon, who has never been able to fully accept Fred into her heart [she's not Jesus! -- Canyon]), Acker silenced a lot of her critics in the final episodes of Angel, as she became Illyria. Sadly, she only had a few episodes to show what she could do, but in Dollhouse she does excellent work as the agoraphobic medic. It's depressing to see her paired up with the fidgety and "quirky" Topher, though her sour stillness is a nice contrast. She particularly shines in the final episodes of Dollhouse's first season, as we find out more about Saunders and how Acker's character came to be the way she is.

And where the hell did Gjokaj come from? His laughable accent in the first couple of episodes made me ignore him whenever he appeared onscreen, but with the third-episoode reveal of his Dollhood, Gjokaj began to pretty much own the show, especially in Needs and Omega. As for his "impersonation" of another actor on the show, all I can say is wow. Of all the Dolls, Gjokaj is the only actor who has figured out how to make them sympathetic and distinct even though he is required to play different people each week. It's always a pleasure to see someone break out, and if Dollhouse had failed to get a second wind, I would still have been grateful to it for alerting me to the presence of this actor. Let's hope that, if the show only manages one more season, we get to see a lot more of Gjokaj.

There is another terrific actor on the show, though not for long. I shall keep quiet about that, even though the majority of the Internet knew about his casting about four seconds after it happened. Suffice to say, Mutant Enemy fans in the UK will be thrilled out of their minds when they see him.

6) Is this show going to be worth sticking with?

If the points above don't convince you that I think it is, then nothing will. I cannot deny that, even after the sixth episode, there is some shakiness. Echoes is embarrassing to watch, and desperately misconceived. Whedon fans know that he likes to challenge his actors and make them do things they wouldn't normally, but we don't know these characters well enough to respond to their "wacky drunk" selves. Other than Reed Diamond's unexpectedly funny turn, I'd much rather that episode didn't exist. Tim Minear's finale is also disappointing, with only the memorable scene showing Alpha's "Frankenstein's monster"-esque birth working well. Though it is packed with fascinating revelation and intriguing set-ups for the second season, there is some unforgivable reliance on cliche and coincidence, much of which neuters the drama. Also, Dushku is forced to share the screen with two actors who make her look even more foolish than usual.

However, this is nothing to be concerned about. The second half of the season features at least three instant classic episodes, filled with philosophical enquiry, rug-pulling narrative trickery, and action. Though all of Whedon's shows have had depth, this could turn out to be his deepest and most thought-provoking show yet. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that it's going to be worth the effort, because months ago, I was despairing. Considering how I once unironically compared this to Bionical Woman and Knight Rider, it's testament to Whedon's formidable storytelling and showrunning skills that I now think that -- if allowed to continue for more than one season -- Dollhouse has the best shot of replacing Lost as the smartest and most challenging sci-fi show on TV. Let's hope it stays around long enough to prove me right.

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