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Series Finale: Dollhouse – “Epitaph Two: The Return”

“Epitaph Two: The Return”

January 29th, 2010

In the eyes of ardent supporters of Joss Whedon, Dollhouse is a continuation of his legacy: an interest in female protagonists who kick ass, an engagement with complex philosophical issues, a unique sense of humour, and an early cancellation at the hands of the villainous FOX.

However, not to be dismissive of those fans, I have to wonder Dollhouse actually has any sort of legacy of its own. We tend to view the show in terms of Whedon’s past successes, whether favourably or unfavourably, but has the show had time to do anything substantial on its own? As someone who has seen relatively little of Whedon’s work (Buffy and Angel are sitting on my DVD shelf waiting for me to get to them), I have struggled over the past few weeks with the question of what Dollhouse will leave behind for those without extensive knowledge of its creator.

It is a show that struggled to find a way to get to its big ideas in the early going, and that simply didn’t have enough time to live up to their full potential. They wanted to tell a story about the end of the world, but that world was never fully formed; they wanted to depict the tragic fall of some characters, but had to rush others to achieve its full effect. The second season has had moments of brilliance (“Belonging,” in particular), but it has had this pervasive sense that this would all be better if the show had more time, that they were trying to tell too much story to “wrap things up” and in the process missing out on some intriguing parts of this universe.

Heading into “Epitaph Two,” I lacked anything close to excitement: I was curious, there’s no question about that, but I wasn’t on the edge of my seat excited for what happens next. Instead, I was anxious to see just how a show that came in like a lamb and rushed its transition to lion plans on saying “bon voyage” to its miniscule but devoted fanbase.

The answer is with an hour of television that introduces too many new concepts too quickly, and which proves incapable of grounding all of them on realistic character motivations. However, in true Dollhouse spirit, there are enough moments of legitimately compelling drama to lift the episode to the point of being satisfying…or, more accurately, as unevenly satisfying as the show has been all along.

And that’s all we can really ask for.

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Dollhouse – “The Hollow Men”

“The Hollow Men”

January 15th, 2010

“This world is for people who can evolve.”

We’re going to be waiting two weeks until Dollhouse concludes its troubled two-season run (although scheduled to finish next week, the cross-network Haiti Telethon is taking over primetime on the 22nd), and it’s going to be interesting to see the kind of anticipation that builds around the show’s series finale. “The Hollow Men” is an engaging hour of television that features a strong performance from Harry Lennix, but there is every sense that this is transition episode and little more: the scale of the “war” is at this point still so small that the episode feels more incidental than perhaps it should.

The show has spent much of its second season implying that events which seem small are going to eventually seem very large, aided by the presence of “Epitaph One” as an image of the world’s future dystopia, but the real trick is trying to actually make those small events seem large in the context of a single episode. The work done in “The Hollow Men” is not inelegant so much as it is hampered by the “rush” towards a conclusion, and at times the episode feels like a “greatest hits” collection of the show’s finest moments as opposed to a culmination of ongoing storylines. The episode spends a lot of time talking about characters as a family, which is a fine idea but which fails to capture the evolution these characters have gone through: while the show’s relatively short run precludes the kind of depth that the final episodes of Lost or Battlestar Galactica brought to the table, there is still a sense that the way Dollhouse made its way towards its finale kept it from having the dramatic impact it perhaps could have.

It does nothing to make me less intrigued about how the show wraps up its run next week, but I definitely am not connecting with the ending as perhaps some others might be.

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Season Premiere: Dollhouse – “Vows”

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“Vows”

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.

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Season Finale: Survivor Tocantins – “I Trust You but I Trust Me More”

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“I Trust You but I Trust Me More”

May 17th, 2009

In my time writing here at Cultural Learnings, I’ve blogged through five seasons of Survivor, although there’s a pattern: I might start out with a few posts on specific episodes, or really commit myself to getting to it on a weekly basis, but without fail it falls off my critical radar. I don’t stop watching the show: although episodes are often spoiled for me, I still quite consistently dig into the week’s episode to see what the show will serve up next. It isn’t that I expect there to be something different, but rather there’s a combination of nostalgia (for a show that is highly familiar for me) and curiosity (to see the ways the show is trying to stay fresh in an environment where most other reality shows of the same era have perished).

This season has, for the most part, lacked major drama: other than Coach, one of the most ridiculous players in quite some time, the characters have been fairly under the radar. Outside of the one exception, people have been pretty pleasant to watch, and early season discussion of an Exile Island alliance seemed like it was going to be a potential dealmaker later in the season. Things got more interesting when the Jalapao Three began to work their way into an unlikely position of power in the season’s back half, but it happened so effortlessly that I was more baffled by Timbira’s lack of intelligence than I was entertained by the turn of events.

Survivor, as a show, is all about big moments or little quirks: either there’s a big personality that makes every moment they’re around like a powder keg waiting to explode, which Coach provided to an extent, or it’s just challenges and tribal council, and posturing for those in between. This makes a finale like this one, which cuts down a lot of the meat in the middle and gets right to the point until the final tribal council. Luckily for Mark Burnett and company, in the vein of some previous finales, there’s plenty of drama to rush through to keep things interesting: while the Jalapao Three have managed to stay strong thus far, it wasn’t based on thier own strategic genius, and with the only remaining Timbira member less incompotent than her predecessors it becomes clear that Three’s Company.

And with that comes the unraveling, which always makes for an engaging finale if not, perhaps, the clean ending the Jalapao Three imagined for themselves.

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Season Finale: Dollhouse – “Omega”

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“Omega”

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.

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Dollhouse – “Briar Rose”

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“Briar Rose”

May 1st, 2009

Dollhouse, as a series, is a bit of a chameleon by design: it is capable of being just about any show you want it to be when it comes to the Actives, and as a result it can switch between an action thriller, a procedural kidnapping drama, or even a small-scale social work investigation. However, the biggest challenge that Joss Whedon has faced with the series thus far is the fact that there needs to be some sort of consistent property that is unique to Dollhouse, that gives it an identity which is, if not wholly unique, at least something that defines the series’ place within the current television landscape.

“Briar Rose,” as an episode of television, stands out amongst the series thus far because it manages to do two separate things that the show has been struggling with. Entirely independent of the Actives (well, somewhat), they manage to co-opt the buddy comedy archetype and give it some very strong new life in the hands of Tahmoh Penikett and guest star Alan Tudyk (Firefly), while also providing an honest to goodness thriller within the confines of the Dollhouse.

What makes it work, ultimately, is that neither of these engagements were dependent on someone being programmed, or a new imprint being developed: the show has evolved, slowly but surely, into a series where we know enough about these characters and their motivations that the show doesn’t need to change itself into being one thing or another in an artificial manner. “Briar Rose” may not be the most stimulating episode in terms of its philosophical and ethical ideas (which is an arguable point), but it manages to string together and give purpose to all of the ideas which came before it, making the previous ten episodes seem more naturally paced than perhaps they initially seemed.

It doesn’t solve the show’s identity problems entirely, but “Briar Rose” represents a huge step in cementing the series’ viability if it moves forward into next season.

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Dollhouse – “Needs”

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“Needs”

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.

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