September 25th, 2009
“I am all of them, but none of them is me.”
I never thought I’d be writing this post.
No one gave Dollhouse a chance of succeeding when its first season debuted to pretty abysmal numbers at midseason, and when it showed little signs of life on the ratings board when it concluded. It was a show that never found an audience, on a network that had done Joss Whedon wrong before with Firefly, setting everyone up for the inevitable letter writing campaigns when the show was canceled. Not only that, but to some degree people weren’t convinced the show deserved a second chance: it only late in the season discovered anything close to an identity, and even then some believed the show would be let down by some miscasting or the battle between procedural and serial proving too much for the show to handle.
So when the show got a second season against every oddsmaker, it was kind of surreal. On the one hand, as someone who liked what the show did at the end of the season, I was excited to see that Joss Whedon and Co. would have an entire summer to figure things out and put themselves in a position to really deliver some great television. However, on the other hand, I wondered if the end of the season was just a fluke, and that its premise and its star were just never meant to carry this show forward.
And then I saw “Epitaph One.” And then, in that moment, I realized that the premise was not going to be the problem, and that the show’s real challenge was how it will get from Point A (its rather auspicious start) to Point B (a science fiction thematic goldmine). “Vows,” of course, doesn’t entirely answer that question, but what it does indicate is that the ramifications from the end of last season haven’t ended, and that this is still a show capable of delivering an hour of television which treats this subject matter with the right balance of philosophical investigation and narrative procession. It is not a perfect premiere, by any means, but it confirms what I think we were all hoping when we heard the show got a second season: the growing pains are over, and a new life has truly begun for Dollhouse.
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.
May 8th, 2009
If there is a single common trait amongst Joss Whedon’s best work, it’s passion. There is this impression that Whedon is pouring his heart into every little scene, and it’s almost always clear when Whedon himself is scripting an episode because it feels particularly purposeful and engaging. And, as a result of this, his passionate legion of fans respond in kind, and a fan favourite series is born. Unfortunately, the same series is probably also doomed to criminally low ratings, so to an extent Whedon has been painted with the brush of “Critical Darling, Ratings Failure.”
But to be honest, halfway through Dollhouse’s inaugural season, I didn’t feel Joss Whedon’s passion for this series: the premise wasn’t being used to its potential, the actors weren’t being allowed to dig into their characters, and in a television arena where patience is not a dependable virtue amongst a mainstream audience Whedon waited six episodes before finally delivering something with a pulse. But out of loyalty to a man whose work I admire and who even admitted last month at PaleyFest that he was going through a creative struggle on his end more than network intereference, myself and the legions of Whedonverse fans patiently waited for the show to break free.
And break free it has: starting with “Man on the Street” and extending into “Spy in the House of Love” and last week’s fantastic “Briar Rose,” the series has not so much reinvited itself as it has discovered the proper perspective on its themes and ideas. Even the episodes not quite as effective have helped to introduce key elements in a way that, rather than seeming like a random “This could be cool, I guess” sort of storyline, feel organic in the season’s momentum. Key mysteries were squared away faster than expected, one key reveal was played so well that being spoiled didn’t even matter, and heading into “Omega” there have been a number of critics who have noted that Dollhouse has quite stealthily become the show they most want saved during this year’s upfronts.
What impresses me about “Omega” is that it doesn’t present a cliffhanger, nor does it fundamentally change our knowledge of the Dollhouse universe (although I thought we should have seen it change on its own a bit more); while it confirms just what happened with Alpha, and makes good on a subtle line from Dominic last week that many astute fans picked up on, the episode is more about paying off some of the ethical questions and dilemmas posed over the last season in such a way as to less justify than explain them. While not perfect, slowing a bit in its conclusion and struggling in sections that required comic timing from Eliza Dushku, it was a finale that nicely summed up why this show is most certainly worth saving, while leaving more than enough questions to lay the groundwork for a second season.
April 3rd, 2009
There was a moment early on during “Needs” that really struck me, because it really captured why I appreciated the episode more than I, well, needed it.
March 27th, 2009
We make choices, and then we live with them. And then we die with them.
After undoubtedly its finest hour last week, “Echoes” has a lot to live up to, and for the part it succeeds – no, the episode doesn’t reach those heights precisely, but what it accomplishes is something different in a way. Whereas last week did a lot of strong work in regards to establishing Paul Ballard’s purpose and emphasizing the moral grey area for the Actives being used in various ways, this week returned to what last week’s episode really didn’t delve into, the wonderful irony in Echo’s name in particular.
We saw in the season’s second episode that Echo is experiencing her former life, or something aspects of her past identity, in a way that the other actives are not, but in this episode a mysterious toxin created by a mysterious corporation with mysterious ties to Echo’s past life as Caroline emerges which creates this effect in every other active. The episode has some balance challenges, as the humans who receive the drug replace traumatic visions with hilarious lack of inhibition and dominate parts of the episode, but for the most part there’s a good combination of light-hearted fun and a more serious tone.
Still, the above quote captures the very idea of how people are recruited into the Dollhouse: they are given a chance to live for five years without consequences for their choices, that part of their life wiped away for the police or the courts, and then a promise that they won’t even have to live with their choices once they finish their five-year term. It’s a complicated process that I don’t feel we’re supposed to trust, and even if the episode didn’t make me care about Caroline, it at least made me really interested about what she represents in this story.
And that’s still a good bit of momentum, which keeps me engaged with a show that had lost me a few episodes in.
February 27th, 2009
One of the problems with Dollhouse is that there are a lot of variables, too many if you ask me. It’s as if each week Eliza Dushku is a singer, but she doesn’t get the lyrics until she’s about to go onstage, knows none of the choreography, and doesn’t know what song the band is going to play until the music starts. The show builds around her each week, but at the same time the premise of the show means that it’s happening to her, more often than not: she’s not there to fix a situation so much as to sit there waiting for the situation to happen to her.
And watching Eliza Dushku come to slow realizations while more or less a sleeper agent isn’t actually all that interesting: unlike last week, where Echo was placed into actual danger and she began to see past actives and past events in ways that questioned the very nature of this process, this week we’re forced to be concerned about a stuck-up pop singer. And much like with the show’s pilot, where the kidnapping plot felt like something out of a very basic procedural, this one spent too much time (if not the entire episode) being pedestrian, and when it did finally try to become something more it was in one of those trite, on the nose parallels between the case of the week and our recurring characters.
It’s a sign that, no question, this is going to be a rollercoaster of sorts: on weeks like this one, we’re going to be looking back to last week’s episode and wishing that someone would try to shoot Echo with a bow and arrow again. And that’s going to be a balance issue the show’s going to have to confront with time.
February 20th, 2009
When Joss Whedon first introduced the concept of Dollhouse, the show had potential largely based on its philosophical ideas, examining who these actives were, who they are now, and who they could potentially be in the future. In the show’s ostensible pilot of sorts, “Ghost,” we only really dealt with these questions on a surface level: we saw an example of the kind of job that Echo could be given, and a small glimpse into who she once was. But that middle question was left more or less unanswered: while we got some sense of complications with the actives and potential hazards, the philosophical questions (morality, ethics, all of that jazz) were never really investigated.
This is the reason why I’m not sure why “The Target” wasn’t the show’s pilot, because with a little bit more introduction to the key values this is a far more interesting hour of television. Not only was Echo’s “case of the week” far more interesting to watch, but the stakes were higher, and more importantly the people whose lives were at stake were people that we were supposed to care about. This episode, using Boyd’s first days at Dollhouse as a framework, show us a side of Dollhouse that is morally questionable, that raises some important questions both about the security of this process and the transparency of Dollhouse’s leadership, and does a lot more to make me excited about this show and its characters than last week’s comparatively pedestrian offering.
February 13th, 2009
According to logic, and the internal methodology given to Echo before an important mission, you can’t fight a Ghost. And, let’s be realistic, you can’t really pin one down either, trying to define it by regular rules of physics or biology ultimately proving a futile task.
In many ways, Dollhouse is a Ghost of Television, a show that is very tough to pin down and has almost no interest in trying to have this happen. The series, like the actives who are part of the Dollhouse roster, can be wiped clean after every episode, so it is very difficult to judge the pilot as we would normally judge a pilot. The point here is not to actually pin anything down, but to demonstrate for the viewer the types of things they might see and, most importantly, the types of things that we should keep an eye out for in the future.
And, as such, there’s something difficult about passing judgment on this as an actual series. All we can really do is take the parts that we’re given here that we know will remain constant and begin to judge them, but even then the show is going to be meandering all over the place and those parts might be able to rise to the occasion better than we currently realize. It makes all of this, well, a little bit inconsequential; I have a feeling that week by week I’ll be chiming in with another opinion that’s been altered from the week previous, something that with time could get a little old.
For now, though, I’m along for the ride, for two main reasons: because I think the show has some potential as a serialized procedural, and because I’m mildly afraid that the Whedon fans will hunt me down and break my legs if I don’t.