Favorite Cancelled Shows: Dollhouse

Dollhouse, another creation of Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Serenity, The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron), featured Eliza Dusku (Tru Calling, Bring It On!) as Echo. The series was, however, plagued with story problems that lead to it’s cancellation, as according to Overthinking It‘s article, “Why Nobody Cared about Dollhouse“:

Dollhouse‘s premise was strong, but the show was too easily distracted. In the beginning, the story demands we take it on faith that there’s something special about Dushku’s character Echo — that there is, in fact, a reason we’re following her around. In fact, during the show’s entire two-season run, we only meet three other dolls, and two of those three are still “sleepers” at the start of the series, so we are only introduced to Echo and Sierra. And they spend most of season 1 doing a whole lot of nothing. Echo becomes some dude’s hunting partner-cum-girlfriend, then she becomes a pop singer, then she becomes Patton Oswalt’s wife, then she becomes the reincarnation of her boss’ dead friend, but none of these personae inform or move the plot. None of them carry over. None of them give us any indication of the question that plagues any series: Why Echo? What’s so special about Echo that we’re being asked to invest in her emotionally, even though she has literally no character from week to week? We’ll find out eventually, the show seems to assure us, but it’s in these early weeks that it’s crucial to establish why we care about the main character.

If you don’t, for one reason or another, invest emotionally in the main character, there’s nothing to compel you to keep tuning in. And it’s impossible to invest emotionally in a character whose defining characteristic is her lack of identity [Ed. Note: Sounds familiar.]. This is no small nitpick; it’s a critical flaw in the very premise of the show. Remember what Fenzel said about the avatars in Avatarretarding the development of their characters? On Dollhouse, that happens every single episode.

Worse than that, in the Dollhouse world, Echo’s lack of identity isn’t even unique to her. If, at the beginning of the series, there’s anything in particular that sets her apart from the rest of the tabulae rasae around her, it’s not made clear to the audience until much later (i.e. when two-thirds of the audience has already stopped watching). It’s in these crucial first episodes that it’s most important to explain why we’re supposed to care. Whedon of all people should know by now that this is how you get canned.

Additionally, Dollhouse could be considered the least feminist media he has ever produced, as according to The Mary Sue‘s article, “Reconsidering the Feminism of Joss Whedon“:

Calling to mind Henrik Ibsen’s feminist treatise, Dollhouse was Whedon’s latest foray onto the small screen. However, Dollhouse is about as feminist as Sucker Punch is – that is to say, not very. It actually most perfectly embodies Whedon’s love of male fists in female faces. At least with Buffy, you could tell yourself that she had powers and could stomach it. With Echo (Eliza Dushku), prone to cuts and scrapes of the most human kind, you can say no such thing.  In a rough guesstimate, 93.4% of the show’s episodes involve Echo getting pummeled. Sometimes she’s just generally beaten up, but a surprising number of the episodes involve her getting directly punched, in the face, by a man. It’s extremely uncomfortable, but it indicates a generally pervasive, less spoken male fantasy – the desire to perform harm, with one’s own two hands, on a woman who is stronger.

If you’ll permit the academic tangent, Dollhouse merits recollection of film critic Laura Mulvey and her brilliant thesis, which identified the gaze of the audience in film (or television, updated) as male. It also identified the gaze of the writer and director as male, and the ways in which that manifests itself onscreen. Mulvey found that a disturbing thread had emerged in cinema, a psychological expression of male insecurity: when a female character is strong or otherwise opaque to the male viewer, there are generally two options at hand. The visual medium tends to answer the anxiety of the male by “demystifying the mystery, counterbalanced by the punishment of the guilty object.” What this means in layman’s terms is that the woman must be unmasked (usually by sexual intercourse) orpunished with harm for refusing to submit. In Dollhouse, we are treated to both.

Echo is the ultimate male fantasy – she is a woman that literally anything can be done to for the right amount of money, with those actions then simply erased afterward. See, it’s all right, because she (and the other dolls) won’t remember! The show perpetrates the worst kinds of violence on its female characters. Over the course of the two seasons on-air, Echo is repeatedly used for intercourse and made to pretend she enjoys it, one woman is removed from doll status because of a physical deformity, another female is steadily and terrifyingly raped by her male handler – and even the term “handler” suggests a male role intended to actively control. (By the way, let’s recap: The Watcher’s Council? Predominantly male. The Alliance? Predominantly male. The handlers and Dollhouse’s client base? You got it. In each of these shows, the largely faceless entities determining the fates and roles of women are male.)

And it’s not enough to say that Joss Whedon puts this on display to dismiss misogyny, because the show seems to revel in Echo’s condition for a good part of the first season. Putting her in a variety of sexy spandex and ever-more dangerous situations is a thrill, and the audience, watching, also thrilled, is complicit in Echo’s subjugation. By our very interest in Echo’s changing personalities, we create the need for Dollhouse in the first place. Many men want to see women imperiled; Dollhouse delivers. And a viewer must do all kinds of mental gymnastics to push that underlying reality aside.

I’ll add a disclaimer that, of course, not all men want to see women physically abused. Many men I spoke to for this article expressed a discomfort with these kind of scenes. However, it’s interesting to note that a 2002 study found that men who watched violent or sexually explicit media showed increased aggression toward women and were more likely to think there were circumstances where this violent behavior might be acceptable. It’s not as though Dollhouse is going to turn mild-mannered men into wife-abusing boors, but the pervasiveness of portraying brutality against women with a pretext of them being able to take it might bolster some viewers’ nascent misogyny.

Finally, this is not to say the entire series was all bad, as according to Den of Geek‘s article, “In defence of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse“:

Joss Whedon, it’s fair to say, is not short of fans. Between Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Serenity, Cabin in the Woods, Dr Horrible, and latterly his work with Marvel (not to mention his adaptation of a play by that little-known writer Will Shakesman), he has an enviable back catalogue, and Whedonites (as I promise not to refer to them again after this sentence) rank among the most devoted, rabid and occasionally frightening fans in geekdom. If you want an idea of just how passionate people are about the man’s work, write the phrase “I am a leaf on the wind” in any comment thread below a Whedon-related article, and hang on to something. Said thread may experience some slight turbulence and then explode.

But there is one series that, while it does have its vocal supporters, is generally regarded at best as a noble failure, and at worst as the unloved, slightly deformed illegitimate-child-we-keep-in-the-attic-and-don’t-talk-about of Whedon’s small-screen oeuvre. Its reputation in critical circles – again, not exclusively, but generally – isn’t much better. I refer to the short-lived and ill-treated Dollhouse, and I would like to explain exactly why I think you should give this much-maligned show another chance, because for my money it’s as brave, idiosyncratic and downright thrilling as anything in the holy televisual trinity of Buffy, Angel and Firefly (I’m not counting Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, a) because it’s more his brother’s baby than his, and b) because at the time of writing it’s not particularly brilliant, although I still have hopes that it will reach its potential).

“Did I fall asleep?”

First broadcast in 2009 and cancelled after two thirteen-episode seasons, the series stars Eliza Dushku (Buffy’s rogue Slayer Faith) as Echo, one of a group of ‘Actives’ living in the titular Los Angeles-based Dollhouse whose minds have been (voluntarily – or at least, that’s what we’re initially led to believe) wiped so that they can be imprinted with dozens of other personalities and skillsets and rented out to super-rich clients. These personalities range from horny college students to NSA agents to genius bank robbers and hackers via bounty hunters, dominatrixes and, in what is generally regarded as the nadir of the series, backing singers for temperamental divas. Naturally the ‘engagements’ tend to go wrong in unforeseen ways, often relating to Echo’s gradual rediscovery of her past self, and thus Dollhouse begins as, on the surface at least, a fairly standard mission-of-the-week series (or maybe personality-of-the-week would be more accurate).

It doesn’t stay like that, however. Oh no.

The premise is admittedly problematic, and much of the criticism levelled at the show is valid. For some viewers, the fact that Dushku and the other actives are essentially different characters every episode, reverting to benign blank slates when they’re not out on engagements, is a deal-breaker. How do you relate to a protagonist who is not the same person from week to week? It’s entirely subjective; either you can engage with the conceit or you can’t, but this odd setup meant that the show was hindered from the get-go. Personally I was invested enough in the premise, in Echo and in the richly-drawn supporting characters – both Active and non-Active – to stick with it, and for me, even in their wiped doll forms, the actors exhibit enough personality for me to care about their fates. However, it’s fair to assume that this was a major stumbling block for many people trying to get into the series, and all I can say is that it’s worth persevering.

The Dollhouse itself is also conceptually troublesome, which is one of the reasons why the execs at Fox were unhappy with the series. Fundamentally, the idea is pretty icky. Many of the engagements are of a sexual nature, and whether the actives agree to what happens to them or not they are basically being sold to rich businesspeople wanting a willing partner who will conveniently forget about them after the act. Tension is therefore built into the show, particularly in its early episodes, where the breezy tone of the personality-of-the-week adventures bumps awkwardly against seedy undertones of prostitution.

It’s to its credit that Dollhouse does not shy away from the uncomfortable nature of this concept, confronting issues of sexual abuse and slavery head-on in several episodes once it settles into a more arc-based groove. The blurry moral ground on which the Dollhouse, its staff and its clients operate is explored compellingly, and while you may actually come to sympathise with the reasons the characters give to justify their involvement, the show rarely – if ever – comes down on the side of right or wrong. Ultimately, the picture it paints is of a corrupt and often degrading institution run by people who are all, in their own way, trying to do what they perceive to be the right – or at least the necessary – thing.

It’s a fascinating philosophical minefield to navigate, but it sometimes makes it difficult to know who to root for – not an accusation you could really level at Buffy, Angel or Firefly, no matter how far into darkness their characters slipped. However, if you like your beautiful ass-kicking men and women (and they are very beautiful, and they kick a whole mess o’ ass) served with a side order of existential horror and a generous dollop of moral ambiguity, Dollhouse might just be the show for you.

“I try to be my best”

Whether you buy in to the inner lives of the Actives or not, I think it’s safe to say that the supporting cast is as strong as any of Whedon’s other ensembles. From tech wizard Topher (Fran Kranz) to Dollhouse head Adelle DeWitt (played to icy yet subtly vulnerable perfection by Olivia Williams) to house physician Claire Saunders (Amy Acker! Yay! Someone give this woman all the series and films please), everyone who works in the Dollhouse is damaged in some way. They’re all flawed, ethically compromised people existing in a frightening and bizarre grey area, which makes for some seriously thought-provoking drama. Topher, for example, starts the show as a fairly typical wise-cracking genius man-child type, but as he slowly begins to rediscover his fractured morality, his arc is both compelling and ultimately very moving. Even FBI agent Paul Ballard (once you get past Tahmoh Penikett’s slightly peculiar, mannered way of speaking), who starts as something of a cipher, is blessed with an unexpected and interesting character trajectory.

Credit must also go to Eliza Dushku herself, who I feel is as unfairly maligned as the show in which she stars. Granted, perhaps she isn’t the strongest actress out there, and she is occasionally shown up by Dichen Lachman and Enver Gjokaj, who play fellow Actives Sierra and Victor respectively, but although she may not be as adept at inhabiting different personalities she does provide a firm anchor for the show, and hints at a strange, unsettling intelligence when in her child-like doll state. As the series progresses, with Echo steadily finding a new self nestled in the tangle of borrowed memories and skills with which she has been imprinted, she grows into a very credible heroine, and Dushku acquits herself well.

Enver Gjokaj, meanwhile, should definitely have been the show’s breakout star. The guy is quite phenomenally adaptable, particularly when mimicking other members of the cast – an episode in which he is imprinted with Topher’s mind is especially delightful, with Gjokaj delivering an absolutely pitch-perfect take on Fran Kranz’s twitchy mannerisms. Someone give him all the series and films too. Along with Amy Acker, maybe? Like, maybe they could do the whole driving round in a van solving mysteries thing, maybe? Except that it’s a Firefly-class ship not a van? And then their ship gets damaged and they get rescued by Serenity and join their crew? With Dichen Lachman along for the ride too? For six seasons and a movie? Sorry, I digress.

“I enjoy my treatments”

Dollhouse takes a little while to establish itself, and the early standalone personality-of-the-week episodes, while entertaining, are definitely the weakest. However, after the Joss Whedon-penned Man on the Street (which features a brilliant guest performance by Patton Oswalt and paints a more nuanced picture of the Dollhouse and its function than we’ve previously seen), the series’ real concerns start to emerge, and it kicks into gear in a big way. The latter halves of both Season One and Season Two feature mind-blowing twist after mind-blowing twist, with shifting identities, double-crosses, philosophical quagmires, unforgivable (or are they?) acts, corporate intrigue and plenty of badass fight scenes, despite a rapidly decreasing budget.

The show’s curtailed length also arguably ends up working in its favour; with an early end in sight the writers go for broke, squeezing several seasons’ worth of plots into a handful of episodes and raising the action to white-knuckle levels of intensity. Watching it all in quick succession makes for a serious adrenaline rush, and you’ve barely had time to recover from one rug-pull before the floor beneath the rug gets ripped away. Season One’s finale, Epitaph One, is particularly jaw-dropping, and it’s a crime that it wasn’t actually broadcast during Dollhouse‘s initial run; fans had to wait to discover its apocalyptic delights on DVD.

That (admittedly divisive) episode is, for my money, what really sets Dollhouse apart, cementing it as the bleakest of Whedon’s TV oeuvre – yes, even taking into account Angel episodes like Reprise and Not Fade Away. There are few clear-cut heroes in this series, and even fewer happy endings, and it never compromises on the darkness inherent to its premise. We are there every step of the way, pulled down with the characters as they traverse their own personal hells, experiencing the nightmarish consequences of the technology with which they’ve been playing. It was always a minor miracle that the show was renewed for a second season after the first’s lukewarm reception – although fan pressure might have had a little something to do with it – and having watched it all the way through, I’m still kind of amazed that something this weird and morally ambiguous managed two seasons on a network like Fox. From its murky sexual politics to the ethics of mind-wiping to some fairly on-point political satire, Dollhouse is a fundamentally more adult show than its predecessors, and while it is often very funny, fans of Buffy etc. may be put off by the relentless darkness, and by the lack of Whedon’s trademark quippiness (it’s still there, mind, just… muted).

“Shall I go now?”

Well-acted, thought-provoking and frequently devastating in its twists and turns, Dollhouse is a peculiar oddity, an extremely brave piece of fiction that fearlessly tackles uncomfortable concepts and themes and asks challenging questions. Can you ever truly erase a person’s soul – if, indeed, there is such a thing? What might the next level of augmented humanity look like? Is voluntary slavery still slavery? How much do we love Victor and Sierra (answer: lots)? With its more realistic setting and intelligent exploration of the side-effects of new technology, it has much more of a hard-SF feel than Firefly, and while there are undoubtedly bumps along the way – and one or two contentious twists near the end – if you can look past these and stay the course, it makes for a really rewarding viewing experience. I’ve not even gone into the headfuck that is The Attic, or the reveal of Alpha, or the mini-arc with Alexis Denisof’s Senator Daniel Perrin, or the end of Needs, because you deserve to experience it all without it being spoiled.

So don’t believe the bad press. Give Dollhouse a chance. And you may find one more show to prove your “OMG Joss is totes teh bestest!!!!” theorem.

Or you’ll feel vindicated in your position that he’s an overrated hack. *Shrug* I tried my best.

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2 thoughts on “Favorite Cancelled Shows: Dollhouse

  1. Pingback: On Roseanne | The Progressive Democrat

  2. Pingback: On Frozen | The Progressive Democrat

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