Why I Wouldn’t Save Dollhouse from Cancellation

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Why I Wouldn’t Save Dollhouse from Cancellation

November 11th, 2009

Today, the news came that many expected. Already shelved for November Sweeps in favour of reruns, and with FOX having confirmed that it would be burning off six episodes on Fridays in December, the chances of Dollhouse living to see a third season were always slim. And, to no one’s surprise, the show was officially cancelled today, according to the Hollywood Reporter, thus ending a strange journey for Joss Whedon’s newest series.

And while I will always be a fan of elements of this particular series, and I will miss having it as part of my weekly lineup, I will not be making any effort to try to save the series from its fate. It is not out of a lack of love for the show and what it accomplished, but rather an acknowledgement that it accomplished more than it might have, and that for all that FOX will be getting flack for this decision it was given chances that very few other shows would have received. The show always felt like an experiment, constantly being tinkered with to find the right gear for Whedon’s vision and FOX’s view of the show to become one and the same, and like any good experiment there are some tangible results that can now be put to work by Whedon, the network, and the show’s viewers. Amongst those results:

1) Some great television. Say what you will about some of the show’s weaker episodes, but “Man on the Street,” “Spy in the House of Love,” “Omega,” and “Belonging” were great hours of television independent of the show’s struggles, and some other episodes (like both “Echoes” and “Needs”) managed to take premises that could be either gimmicky or potentially overwrought and showed how this cast and crew could make intelligent, philosophical, funny and sometimes brilliant television. And the unique narrative experiment known as “Epitaph One” will be confounding people for years, further contributing to the show’s legacy of sorts.

2) Being introduced to two really great acting talents. Enver Gjokaj and Dichen Lachman were playing second fiddle to Eliza Dushku in the show’s premise, but they stole nearly every episode they were featured in. On a show that values the ability to be a chameleon, these two managed to slip into the skin of entirely different characters for either extended periods (like Lachman as Priya) or in short scenes (like Gjokaj becoming Reed Diamond’s Dominic) in a way that made them a weekly highlight. While I’m sad they’ll no longer be playing these characters, I know these two will land on their feet, and I’m sure casting directors took notice of their work. The greatest compliment I can pay them is that I learned how to spell their names, which says how often I sang their praises.

3) A chance for Eliza Dushku to prove critics wrong…sort of. While I still feel Amy Acker would have been a more interesting choice for the role of Echo, I nonetheless feel as if Dushku filled her role well when it was written properly. There were some moments in “Vows,” the season premiere, when Dushku showed considerable growth, and I think it’s good that the narrative of Dushku potentially dragging down the show which was present in initial reviews has largely been erased in favour of acknowledging her ability (even if we still feel the role was miscast).

4) A sign that FOX is not as heartless as some fans might make them out to be. While some may claim that this is “another Firefly,” I think that’s somewhat ignorant to the amount of chances FOX gave Whedon. This show would have never gotten a second season if not for the fact that FOX believed in Joss’ vision, and while FOX’s promotional department and the timeslot did the show no favours they didn’t pretend as if the show was going to be a breakout hit. The creative problems for the show early on are on both FOX and Whedon, and once they resolved them FOX gave Whedon a chance they would likely not give anyone else: while I don’t blame fans for not wanting to shake FOX’s hand for cancelling the show, I think history will remember them more fondly for this than for some of their other miscarriages of television justice.

5) The fact that Whedon is able to move onto another project. I thought Dollhouse was fascinating, and I think that I could have seen it go on for a few more seasons. However, at the same time, the reality of Dollhouse’s weak ratings and inconsistency means that I’m quickly able to shift from remorse to excitement over what Whedon will come up with next. I don’t mean a potential Dr. Horrible sequel, although I’d expect that’s a positive spinoff as well, but rather a new series that like Dollhouse plays around with interesting dynamics and which perhaps (based on the experience Whedon gained on Dollhouse) has a better sense of its identity in the early going.

6) A sense of growth in a serialized drama series. Very few shows get to leave the air with the sense that they improved along the way, but Dollhouse simply has a better sense of itself in its second season than in its first. The idea that the show with such a weak first set of episodes has grown into something complex and interesting shows that the kind of patience Fox showed, limited but nonetheless significant, can allow a show like this to grow: heck, if you had told me early on that I’ve eventually find Topher’s character fascinating, I’d have laughed in your face. So often we “write off” serialized shows like Dollhouse early on, especially when they have a set of episodes as bad as Dollhouse did, but the show will forever be held up as an example of what happens when a show is given the time needed. Perhaps, if networks see its example, they’ll keep other shows around long enough to see if the same uptick in quality can occur.

I’m not arguing that Dollhouse should have been cancelled, because this brings us into a sketchy territory of whether the current network system is flawed and whether we should ignore ratings: networks can’t do that, so it’s not really an option. Instead, I’m arguing that Dollhouse being cancelled at this point in time is more than we could have ever hoped for, and that its legacy is some great television, some important lessons about scheduling, some great new talents, and a sign that patience is a virtue that might not get you new viewers but that could result in some great television.

And considering how low the ratings are, I think that’s the best Dollhouse could have ever hoped for: a hero’s exit.

Cultural Observation

  • According to sources on Twitter, FOX will still air the remaining episodes of the show’s second season, although in what capacity (burning them off over December/January seems most likely) has not yet been confirmed. There’s reports on Twitter, however, of the final three episodes airing on January 8th, 15th, and 22nd (the series finale).
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5 Comments

Filed under Dollhouse

5 responses to “Why I Wouldn’t Save Dollhouse from Cancellation

  1. I just want to note a couple things:

    1) I believe the weak first string of episodes in the first season was partially Fox’s fault. I recall Joss Whedon saying something along the lines of Fox wanting him to try things their way for the first couple episodes, you know, “monster of the week” style with little continuous narrative to make it easily to pick up and push off whenever the viewer sees fit.

    2) You’re excited for Joss Whedon’s next project, and hell, I’m sure all of us feeling the loss of Dollhouse are clinging to the hope from this next project, but it seems Dollhouse is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Whedon wants to move on to the internet as his content’s medium, and clearly, if Dr. Horrible is any indication, he will change the face of the interwebs as we all know it. However, Whedon leaving television kind of sucks… Dr. Horrible was AMAZING, but, I’m going to miss having a full season of 22-to-42-minute long episodes being cast aside for either a 45 minute long musical (a la Dr. H) or a season’s worth of 8-ish minute long episodes (a la The Guild).

    3) Am I wrong in blaming the poor ratings on Friday? I mean, I’m just a T.V. consumer, and in no ways do I understand the ratings systems and I don’t claim to know of other Friday shows, but I feel as though Dollhouse would’ve been a much bigger success if they threw it on Monday night with House (before 24 started back up in Winter) like they were planning to do before it got pushed back due to (what I believe were) the creative differences that I discussed back in #1. You’ve got a much better hold on this knowledge so this is an honest question.

    4) Lastly, yeah, I can’t blame Fox too much. Two seasons was more than the ratings warranted for sure, and I don’t think this is as much as a travesty as Firefly (with its unaired pilot and episode jumbling). But if it was mostly Fox’s decision to cripple the first half of the first season and also to air the show on Friday, I feel as though they still are somewhat to blame.

    Keep on writing!

    -Alex M.

  2. Tausif Khan

    While Fox should be given credit for treating the show with respect by looking at DVR numbers and renewing it for a second season they still did not promote the show as much as ABC did for Flash Forward and V which had numerous ads everyweek during college football games and even had the announcers promote the shows. Putting someone to death humanely is still putting someone to death. I feel Fox did that with Dollhouse.

  3. Pingback: FOE4 Musings: AMC’s The Prisoner and Transmedia Participation « Cultural Learnings

  4. Jonnea

    Is it important why this show was canceled ?It is a show – it is a fantasy. I hope that peoples don’t actually identify themselves with the characters of the show. If they do they than need a reality checkup.What is important is the contents of the cyanide in the water supply and the knowledge what it does, than dealing with it. Got it ???

  5. @Jonnea

    The reason most people watch shows like these is because they can identify with the characters. That’s the primary function of any sort of entertainment, to place the viewer/reader/player in some sort of fantasy that they otherwise wouldn’t experience.

    If you find television programs so trivial then I don’t really understand why you’d read a blog critiquing them.

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