The Imprint Lives On: Dollhouse Renewed
May 15th, 2009
After rumours earlier in the day were flying about via James Hibberd over at The Hollywood Reporter, the idea of a second season of Dollhouse actually became a probability as opposed to a pipe dream. Sure, the first season ended on a stronger note than it started on, giving us critical types a glimmer of potential that we could mentally build on in constructing a second season (Todd VanDerWerff has a great “Save this Show” piece over at The House Next Door), but its ratings were the series’ lowest yet, and for all the talk of DVR and Online viewers the fact of the matter is that advertisers care most about those shiny demographic numbers more than anything else.
But, for reasons that at this point remain mostly speculation, it appears that FOX has made the decision few expected them to make: within hours of the rumours first starting to spread around the web, word comes that it’s (more or less) official. Joss Whedon has bucked the trend (which really isn’t a trend considering it was only Firefly, but that was so tragic that it counts as three on its own) of network disappointment, and Dollhouse will be getting a second season of 13 episodes to air this Fall on Fridays. Let the rejoicing begin.
Well, let the rejoicing begin for anyone but the advertisers – and frankly, I’m tired of them rejoicing over the wrong shows, and it’s about time we won one for the good guys. And this truly is, in more ways than one, a victory for the internet, for fans, and for the value of television.
Just don’t count on a third season.
If there’s a situation that is most comparable to Dollhouse right now, it isn’t The Office, which Hibberd notes as a potential comparison considering that Kevin O’Reilly, currently at FOX, was the one who gave the NBC comedy a chance during his stint with the network, throwing it a second season and watching it blossom into the comedy sensation it is today. On one level, this makes perfect sense: Dollhouse, like The Office, showed more potential than quality in some of its episodes, although both came around in the end to produce some solid creative momentum. However, this comparison implies that Dollhouse, like The Office, has room to grow its audience, and while I am a fan of the show I simply don’t think this is going to happen. There are two reasons for this.
The first is what I like to call sci-futility, in that any show with science fiction elements is going to start with an audience and then that audience will dwindle over time due to people who aren’t actually fans of genre television slowly bleeding away. It happened to Heroes (expedited by its low quality), it happened to Lost (slowed by its high quality), and it happened to Dollhouse: its demographic ratings dropped 50% from its premiere to its finale, as people who were brought in by elements other than the show’s premise were slowly lost as the show became more and more complicated (which is creatively beneficial but, to some viewers (the wrong viewers, in my mind), not so much).
I don’t hold this out as a problem: I certainly don’t want the show to be less intelligent so that it will have more viewers. However, it does mean that the chances of a deluge of new viewers coming out of the woodwork in the show’s second season is highly unlikely – there’s no doubt that the Whedon faithful will remain loyal, but the chance for expansion is simply not there for the show to breakout in its second year as the more accessible Office did.
The second is that the show is remaining on Friday nights, a decision that likely confounds many observers who blame the time slot for the show’s struggles. To be honest, yes, Dollhouse might have performed better in a slot after American Idol, or after House on Mondays, but the thing is that it wouldn’t have performed as well as the shows airing during those periods. In placing the show on Fridays, expectations were rightfully low: heck, the fact that it’s getting a renewal at all means that they clearly took the tough time slot into account when making their decision.
Keeping the show there might keep it from breaking out, but as noted above I don’t think the show ever really had a chance at it anyways. And while we can use hindsight to say that the show might have done better with an Idol lead-out preview or something of that nature, let’s remember that Terminator had a huge football audience as a lead-in for its premiere and eventually fell even lower than Dollhouse, and perhaps Dollhouse wouldn’t have gotten a second season if it had the added expectation of that big start (and anyone who argues that it would have increased viewership, watch that Pilot and tell me that millions more would WANT to watch the show).
FOX isn’t making this decision because they think the show has potential to grow substantially, but rather because they want to be able to leverage what is working about Dollhouse. DVR numbers for the show have been extremely strong, and we’re seeing more and more networks use this as a way of organizing their schedule: CBS just moved Harper’s Island to Saturdays realizing that, if most people are using DVR to watch the show, they could sell the ad space to better-performing repeats during the week, increase their Saturday viewership slightly, and then still have a fanbase to sell the eventual DVD release of the series. In a world of vertical integration, where networks run all levels of the distribution/sales/production process, it’s not a bad deal in the end.
For Dollhouse, this is all especially true considering the marketing machine that is Whedon’s loyal group of followers, who are more than willing to show their support of the show in ways other than turning on their televisions. This includes DVD sales, for example, which are likely already substantial with pre-orders (especially since DVDs are being sold at Comic-Con in July), as well as online streaming, which is important to FOX through outlets like iTunes or Hulu. The fact of the matter is that this is perhaps the first show to be renewed almost exclusively on the principle of non-live ratings, and it shows an awareness that FOX deserves a lot of credit for.
It’s also an awareness, though, that will run out in time. A second season is justifiable because FOX always struggles for programming in the Fall (without American Idol and 24 to beef up their lineup), and while House and Bones have emerged as solid lead-ins they haven’t built enough of a foundation outside of those shows to possibly think about scheduling a competitive Friday. CBS’ procedurals own the night at this point, with ABC throwing up reality offerings, NBC throwing up pretty well nothing of import, and The CW more or less throwing in the towel. FOX doesn’t have the programming, simple as that, to dominate the night, so a solution that gives them strong ancillary value in other aspects of their business model, and helps satisfy both viewers and critics who were rooting for the show, is a bet they are willing to take.
But when it comes to deciding on Season 3 after that short season is complete, it’s going to be a lot tougher: FOX has fulfilled their good deed to ensure that, if canceled, journalists will cite their kindness in even giving it a second season, and two seasons is enough to bundle them together for a special edition complete series set for maximum profitability down the line. This is in many ways an experiment, and considering how far out on a limb they are going (except at a creative level, where the renewal is pretty well justified) I don’t think it could really be held against FOX if they decide that one season of experimentation is enough for their bottom line.
At the same time, though, I can think of one scenario that turned out differently: Veronica Mars, struggling on UPN in its first season, was given a reprieve despite a lack of ratings success and went on to complete three seasons (the third airing on The CW). Now, admittedly, the expectations for the show were quite different: both UPN and The CW had ceilings as to a show’s success, so Veronica Mars’ numbers (which were quite comparable to Dollhouse’s, if my memory serves me correctly) were more expected for a show on the network. However, based on fan support, critical concern and solid quality, the show got two more seasons than anyone ever expected.
So, for now, it’s hard to know just what will happen: the odds were stacked against it before today and it’s coming back, so placing odds on next season is highly premature if not tempting thanks to the big picture that this decision contributes to. For now, congrats to Joss Whedon and Company, and I’m very curious to see what kind of show we get in the Fall.
- In case you’re wondering where you might expect budget cuts next year, I think the answer is pretty obvious: spend a little less time with the Actives on the missions themselves, and you’ll both cut down on location shooting and make those episodes where you do see more of the missions be much more worthwhile. Combine with the usual cast shuffling (Dushku appears in only 10 episodes, or Topher is on vacation for a while, or someone gets kidnapped/killed/etc. in the middle of the season), as well as a smaller staff of writers (which is becoming more and more common anyways), and you have a show that might just be able to remain financially viable.
- Amy Acker’s pilot was also picked up today, so it will be interesting to see how the show deals with the rather problematic fact of hacing built an entire storyline around an actress who now has a full-time gig – I would think that she would want to tie off her Dollhouse appearance, considering her relationship with Whedon, but ABC Studios might not be so happy with that strategy.