Sunday, March 22, 2009

Beyond the Valley of the Dollhouse

Fox via DVR

I'm still hanging on with "Dollhouse," but just barely. The show has problems. Fran Kranz's Topher character is a petulant, obnoxious, spoiled ass, but by necessity he's a central part of every episode. Dichen Lachman, as Sierra, is so much better than the lead that it's got to be getting on flagship cheesecake/producer credit-bearing Eliza Dushku's last nerve -- and unfortunately the concept of the show is such that they occasionally end up playing the same role, which makes the unflattering comparison plain. Plus, recent episodes have torn big holes in my pet Amy Acker-is-Alpha theory, and I hate it when things go awry with my theories.

"Gray Hour," the first episode to be more than merely pretty to look at, was also the episode where both Dushku and Lachman got passes at a safecracker named Taffy. Lachman in her few scenes, particularly on the heels of the previous episode where she played a pigtailed, backpack-wearing pop fan, made you wish the show would just give up on Dushku's Echo and see what Sierra was up to each week instead. The pop star episode was otherwise utter garbage, with dreadful guest performances and a "CSI"-level flatlining plot twist. It's painful to see Joss Whedon associated with this stuff, as even the poorer early-season "Buffy" and "Angel" episodes had isolated great scenes and keeper performances.

Dushku is supposed to be a different person each week, but in reality she only has two modes -- when she's not "running a program," she's like a child actor having trouble reading her lines, and when she is, she's like a C-list TV actress having trouble reading her lines. "True Believer," an episode recasting her as a blind cult follower, seemed designed to demonstrate Eliza's range after four pretty similar action yarns (and the one where she was the backup dancer, which amounted to the same thing since she was randomly given preconscious kung fu skills). Only she muffed it, badly, flirting with all of the male cultists in the manner of a drunk teenager hitting on an Amish guy for a bet. At least her rack is still magnificent. And I don't feel at all sexist saying so because she reminds us herself in dialogue every couple of personas.

"Man on the Street," the first episode to be written by Whedon himself since the pilot, was positioned as the one where the mythology deepened and the show's hidden depth became more evident. Only it was kind of a mess, on several levels -- the random documentary-style interviews were pretentious and served no narrative purpose, a theoretically comic scene with Patton Oswalt was bad enough to make you wonder if Joss has misplaced his muse ("threw the Kindle at them," ugh), and the finale predictably revealed one of the few remaining recurring characters not already exposed as a robot as... another robot. What's worse, in the installment meant to more fully reveal his overarching vision for the series as a whole, Whedon used his leading lady as a bit player, leaning on the more capable Lennix and Penikett instead.

It's not entirely loyalty to the Mutant Enemy brand that has kept me hanging on. As promised, the show has started to open up a larger mythology after the shallow first few episodes. Harry Lennix is somewhat shunted to the side in his modified Watcher role but I like the way he still shows his compassion for Echo in all of her various guises. Liza Lapira, who plays Topher's overqualified, put-upon assistant, is quite attractive and impressively has significant credits from both the most mainstream show I watch regularly ("NCIS") and arguably the most transgressive ("Dexter"). "Dollhouse" has a self-conscious level of diversity. Perhaps he's making up for the lily-white "Buffy," or the "Angel" writers' infuriating inability (despite being quite at home writing convincing demons and 1000-year-old vampires) to create believable dialogue for black characters, but Joss has overloaded this show with hard-to-spell names from around the world. Tahmoh Pennikett is native Canadian, Lachman is Tibetan-Australian, Enver Gjokaj Albanian-American, Lapira Filipino/Spanish/Chinese. And yet all of these actors can manage multiple accents while Dushku has never managed to completely erase her Back Bay roots in any role she's ever played.

I like the developing Alpha mystery. I like the eerie, Japanese horror-like idea of Echo being remotely deactivated, being returned to a fetal state in the middle of a sophisticated operation. (The balance of terror between psychology and technology on this show is very Kiyoshi Kurosawa.) I like the possibility however remote that when Alpha comes back to headquarters he will eviscerate Topher in the most graphic, unpleasant, and protracted manner possible, such that the fines Fox will incur will double those "Family Guy" gets. But something about the show overall just rubs me the wrong way, and I don't think there's any amount of retooling that can be done that will get the bad taste out of my mouth.

The trouble is, what is the theme here? What's the overarching metaphor? Joss Whedon wouldn't make a series without one, but what he's saying here is cynical and more than a little self-pitying. How can you not watch the show and see Topher as a stand-in for the creator, a comic book geek who grew up to live out his fantasies of turning hot girls into superheroes? And the way the show loves to spread around ambiguity about who is and who isn't an "active" bothers me. Is the FBI agent? Is the doctor? Is the security guy? What about the senator? Hell, what if they're all robots? "Buffy" had a subtext so simple and obvious it was brilliant: High school (then, later, young adulthood) is hell. "Angel" was a little more convoluted, but with how it ended Whedon made it clear that his core theme was redemption, and how it is a process rather than an endpoint. "Firefly" was more basic, hokey even: Your family is whomever you go home to. But now we have "Dollhouse" and the theme is: Everybody's a robot.

That's a sucky theme. I'm not a robot! We all are compromised by the institutions in which we choose to participate, but we don't have to join a particular institution or any institution at all. (My thinking on "Dollhouse," oddly, is influenced a lot by all the reading I've been doing lately about "The Wire," and particular the Omar character -- the maverick, the guy who opts out and doesn't play by anybody's rules.) Joss seems to be making a whole show out of his anger about how "Firefly" got the shaft, and how none of his many master plans for big-budget superhero franchises have panned out. That's really lame, partly because he should be grateful to have the opportunity to make multimillion-dollar-budgeted movies and TV shows of any kind, and partly because the whole Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog thing illustrated (again) that Whedon is one of the few artists out there working in film and television who could conceivably opt out of the whole studio system and market his work directly on DVD to his huge fanbase. Maybe for his next series, he could just put all the episodes up on a website somewhere and charge whatever people were willing to pay, as Radiohead did with In Rainbows. Of course, the economies of scale are different, I don't know if he'd meet his budget.

Yeah, Fox dicked with "Firefly" something awful, and rumors abound that the same thing is happening to "Dollhouse." But Joss didn't have to make another show with Fox, and he chose to anyway. That may or may not have something to do with the fact that Eliza Dushku had her own development deal with the network and wanted to work with Whedon again. After all the movie franchises he's walked off of and bridges he's burned, Joss might not draw enough water these days to get a network show on the air based on his star power alone. But frankly, even as a devoted fan who will insist to my grandchildren that "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was the greatest TV show there ever was, I'm getting sick of his whole act. Most people don't get to make big-screen conclusions to their failed 17-episode series. Joss is incredibly lucky to have the fans he has, even if his talent earned them in the first place. Starting to act like Eric Cartman every time things don't go exactly his way isn't fair to those fans who just want to see him making the best stuff possible, and to see that material reaching a larger audience so that it might have the chance of filling out more than one gift set of DVD's someday.

"Screw you guys, I'm going home."

1 comment:

  1. Best added as a footnote: "Dollhouse" has a chance at surviving for a second season for a totally random reason that has nothing to do with its quality or its ratings at present, which are dreadful. With nothing else particularly promising in the works for Friday nights, Fox might well wait to see what happens with this summer's Terminator movie. If it's successful (Christian Bale has done his best to get it as much free publicity as possible), "Sarah Connor Chronicles" is likely to get a third season. "Dollhouse" and "Chronicles" are at least facetiously a good fit together, and if Whedon can stop the bleeding and rally the season to a promising finish, that might be enough to convince the network to try the pairing again next fall.

    Does that sound like a dumb reason to keep airing a show? "Supernatural" has survived on the CW for four seasons now because it's a good match for "Smallville." "Supernatural" is actually a hell of a lot better than "Dollhouse" (or "Sarah Connor Chronicles") but that never seems to enter into these decisions.