Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Wash Back Backwash

Fox via DVR

A ton of season finales have been stacking up on the recorder the past few weeks, as I've been spending most of my TV time watching the NBA playoffs. A few of these season finales may be series finales: "The Unusuals" seems unlikely to survive and probably doesn't deserve to; "How I Met Your Mother" flirts with cancellation every year; "Life" and "Life on Mars," despite their titles, are both quite dead. It'll be interesting to see if "Parks and Recreation," a spiritual sequel to "The Office" (and a much better fit in NBC's Thursday night Actually Funny Comedy lineup than the turgid "Kath and Kim") can coast to a full second season on the back of its parent show's creative revival recently. I hope to talk about all of these shows in turn, along with "House" and "Bones" (similar themes there, hallucinations and long-delayed consummations) and "Big Bang Theory" and "Gossip Girl" and everything else.

First of all, the show which has the fate that's most up in the air. "Dollhouse" is somewhat undermined by Fox having already axed its lead-in, "Sarah Connor Chronicles," but unlike that show, "Dollhouse" has improved since its pilot. The last few episodes of the season, it became worth watching on its own merits rather than hanging on for dear life due to loyalty to its creator. After a string of really dumb episodes that seemed written by volunteers from among the show's empty-vessel Active population, Joss Whedon's team of former "Angel" and "Firefly" writers (and family members) managed to land a few that engaged themselves with thoughtful, complex real-world issues. Rather than the relentlessly bleak, Orwell-like absolutist vision of the first few shows, a recent arc featuring the demented Alpha mussed up the simplicity of the show's assumed scientific rules and rose lingering questions related to an age-old, sophisticated debate. Nature or nurture? Can you take a person's essential qualities out of them like Twinkie filling, or do we all have a layer that can't be removed?

"Dollhouse" argues that we do, or at least a few exceptional heroic Nietzschean types do. Eliza Dushku's Echo character, recent events suggest strongly, has her own persistent identity -- separate and distinct from the one that belonged to Caroline, the girl Echo was before she consented to become a programmable Active. Where this personality comes from is a bit murky. Echo and Alpha, the only independently conscious Actives we've yet encountered, are composites of all the different programs they've had run on their brains. But also not. There seems to be an essential quality in each -- Alpha is a knife-slashing psycho, and Echo is an instinctual protector of the helpless and exploited -- that emerges. I sort of think of it like taking a rubbing of a gravestone or monument -- you rub the coloring over the hidden message, and all but the important parts get blackened out.

Although the arrival of adult philosophy into the "Dollhouse" project is a welcome one, old problems persist, and the new developments are not all entirely welcome. Whedon is a whiz at shaking out casts quickly, and by getting rid of the extraneous security chief character and expanding the roles for the talented actors who play Victor and Sierra, he's risen the scene-to-scene quality of the show significantly. It was also nice to see the unfortunate actress who had the thankless role of the Active assigned to seduce/occupy Agent Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) sacrificed in a way that redeemed her character and made Ballard's way more interesting going forward. But there's still glaring holes in the cast -- Dushku really isn't going to be up to the change if the show is going to be about big questions all of a sudden instead of chicks fighting in tight clothes, Fran Kranz's Topher gets less and less likable with every scene he's in, Olivia Williams seems a tiny bit too young and way too lacking in confident authority to have the power her Adelle seems to. Promoting Harry Lennix's Boyd to chief of security got rid of the deadweight Reed Diamond, but Boyd is a far less interesting character as a company man as a possible sympathetic/ally for the emerging independent Echo consciousness.

The biggest problem with the last few episodes of the "Dollhouse" season, which were indeed the best the series had yet presented even with their glitches, was the casting of Alpha. Whedon has now managed to use more than half the cast of "Firefly" as special guest villains on his other shows. You can see why actors would be willing to work for him on spec. Alan Tudyk is a terrific actor, but his use on "Dollhouse" was all wrong. First of all, they threw him into a flashback with the Dollhouse leadership from a few years back, wearing a suit, conservative haircut, looking professional. This was a dead giveaway. Nobody who knows Whedon's work wouldn't immediately recognize Alan Tudyk, and anyone with that same knowledge would recognize that Joss never uses his pet performers as throwaways. Nathan Fillion got a juicy part when he went to "Buffy," and likewise for Gina Torres and Adam Baldwin on "Angel."

So, that ruined all the surprise of the penultimate episode, which was supposed to be Alpha's big reveal. By laying their clues too thick, the producers let on before the episode even started 1) Tudyk was Alpha 2) Alpha likes to cut up people's faces 3) Dr. Saunders (Amy Acker) has a scarred face. Then Ballard, Alpha, and Saunders appear in a scene in the Dollhouse blatantly staged so that Tudyk's back is to Acker. So, yeah, we get it. No bombshell there. I was half-right about Acker's character, who isn't the former active I thought she was but another one, named Whiskey. What a great name!

The double whammy with the casting of the former Hoban Washburne was that I don't think Tudyk works for Alpha: no one would cast him as a face-slashing serial killer, and that's what the man Alpha used to be (and is again) was, before trading his prison sentence to become a medical experiment. I don't know if I really buy Tudyk as a killer born. If he was playing this broken doll with many superimposed personalties, one of which (or, intriguingly, the combination of which) was causing him to kill, Alpha would be sympathetic and interesting and Tudyk would be totally the guy. I don't think the story Whedon is going with is any more or less dramatically valid, but I don't think he got the right actor. Danny Trejo would have been good.

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