Jump-starting Dollhouse

25Mar09

I’ve finally caught up with Dollhouse, which had been lingering a bit long on my TiVo. As anyone paying attention to the extratextual buzz knows, last week’s episode, “Man on the Street,” was hyped to deliver the narrative payoff and higher stakes that many feel the series has lacked. I concur with the consensus buzz: that episode was all that, and definitely fulfilled the potential that many of us Whedonites felt the show had.

But what interests me from a more meta-narrative level is what this delayed payoff tells us about the practice of television storytelling. Essentially, the first five episodes were about establishing an intriguing sci-fi scenario. However, they were not very effective in setting up characters – since the dolls are effectively characterless, this becomes a core problem for narrative engagement. The other characters were established primarily as single-dimension clichés – the hard-nosed security chief, the ruthless businesswoman at the top, the goofy amoral science guy, the obsessed FBI agent, etc. That type of characterization is understandable in most shows, as the central character starts out as the one with the emotional depth that might later be matched by others on the periphery (see season 1 of Buffy for a clear illustration). But when your central character is denied a personality of her own, there’s a serious lack of emotional depth available to explore. The one character who seemed more fully realized was Boyd, but he is so guarded that we have little to engage with.

If the first five episodes can be seen then as essentially a very long first act to set-up the core dramatic scenario and cast of characters, episode six succeeds by both complicating the core narrative premise and by providing some depth to the characters around Echo, especially Ballard.* But is it too late? Television programming typically is defined by its first few episodes, with a pilot establishing both a fanbase and a ratings expectation for the network. Up until now, Dollhouse has been sustained in the fan community by the mantra of Trust Joss, assuming that Whedon will deliver his typical masterful television storytelling if we only give him a chance (and remember that early episodes of Buffy and Angel were quite erratic, and even Firefly took awhile to get moving).

A useful parallel might be a novel by a beloved author – if you pick up a new book by a novelist you trust and the first 100 pages seem off, you’ll probably stick it out to see if they can deliver. And we try not to judge novels based on their first 20 pages. But television demands a bigger hook to get people engaged in the longer time commitment of a weekly series, and it’s rare in today’s industry that a network will allow a show to grow if it can’t start strong. (The ratings have been bad, but not atypical for today’s television environment, especially on Friday nights, so we’ll see how patient Fox is.)

Could the intrigue of “Man on the Street” have been front-loaded more in the series? The best point of comparison is Alias, which is its most apt parallel. The pilot of Alias is a tour-de-force of narrative – it establishes the premise, the core character, and her relationships with her dual father figures, then reverses the scenario. Twice. If the pilot of Alias doesn’t get you hooked, you’re simply not going to enjoy the show.

Dollhouse has a harder time establishing the scenario because it is more of a far-fetched sci-fi set-up – we recognize the spy world of Alias easily, allowing the pilot to focus on characters and revel in the show’s high-style and narrative twists. There’s much more heavy-lifting to do on Dollhouse to get the audience up to speed, so it certainly couldn’t have revealed the depth of conspiracies in the first hour-long episode (and I did quite like the pilot). But episodes 2-5 were far too stand-alone without real consequences, and the running plots of Ballard’s pursuit, Alpha’s betrayal, Echo’s malfunctions, and the Victor/Sierra relationship didn’t amount to enough to justify faith in the show delivering more sustained intrigue.

I’m sure Fox was hoping that the episodic structure of the first 5 episodes would invite more drop-in viewers and hook people before it got too complex. But that is based on an older logic of television – in the DVD/download era, a show with complex mythology and serialization needs to establish it early to hook the dedicated fans, and allow others to catch-up once the buzz increases. Instead, the episodic flatness of many early episodes probably pushed away more viewers than it drew in, making it a harder sell to the dedicated sci-fi and Whedon fans to stick with the series.

In hindsight, “Man on the Street” would have probably worked better as the third episode, with the second featuring one of the more interesting one-offs (the hunting story was my own favorite) and accelerating the Ballard pursuit plot. But we’ve arrived where we are in the series without Fox completely giving up. Let’s hope they understand the need for continued patience, as I want the chance to see where Whedon will take us next.

* My wife and I simply refer to Ballard as Helo, especially because Ballard has been so boring up until now. But the recognizability of so much of the cast from other roles does make for some interesting extratextual resonance – Faith was brainwashed by Kellerman and the teacher from Rushmore, tended to by Lock from The Matrix and Dr. Fred, and pursued by Helo’s descendent, who clearly inherits an obsession with robotic women…



6 Responses to “Jump-starting Dollhouse”

  1. Totally with you on Faith and Kellerman, Helo, Fred. Damages is working this way for me now, too, what with Rawls and Lester Freeman working together.

  2. How odd that this is linking to a review of Skins, of all things, from my own blog.

    But no, definitely agree on the rather weird choice to start this season as they did, although I think it goes beyond character (which, as you argue, is important considering Echo’s a tabula rosa half the time) into the realm of plot. The mythology became far more interesting here, sure, but more importantly the “story of the week” was a far more complex and morally grey use of the Dolls. While previous stories seemed to have been chosen for either excitement (Echo goes on wilderness sex hunt! Echo is a bank robber!) or FOX-suggested procedural cliches (Echo plays Expert Negotiator!), this one was a scenario where ONLY a doll could inhabit his deceased wife, and where his desire was not purely sexual or purely monetary but rather highly emotional. It wasn’t just more convenient, or more foolproof – it was perhaps even necessary.

    That is the kind of introduction we needed to the Dollhouse for us to relate to it, not something we’ve seen before: familiarity was never going to be this series’ strongsuit, so why they chose to open with it in the pilot remains a baffling question to which I have no answer. The only hope now is that they don’t suddenly revert back to something approximating the first five episodes: they’ve got the momentum, now they need to keep it.

  3. A friend and fellow Whedonite emailed me after it aired and the entire content of the email was “Episode #6 was finally good. That is all.” I think that encapsulates the combination of relief and tiredness I also feel about the show at the moment. I agree with pretty much everything you wrote, especially the parts about Man on the Street as episode 3 and the ineffective presentation of most of the other characters. And Myles is also right – the momentum needs to be maintained. One excellent episode doth not a good TV season make. But to be honest, part of me is getting tired of Dollhouse. I’m not sure they can pull off things like Man on the Street every week, and mostly I say that because the score is still 1-4-1 (I’m counting episode 2, the wilderness survival episode, as a tie). For me, there needs to be more character development, not just surprising revelations. I’m much more invested in Mellie now, from both the development and surprising revelation surrounding her, but Ballard still doesn’t have enough oomph, and I found it interesting that here, in the episode that’s clearly the best of the six so far, Echo’s role can only be described as minor. Pivotal, yes, but other than the kitchen fight (very well choreographed!) and the subsequent scene in the alley, she didn’t do much of anything. Which was kinda okay.

  4. 4 Rob

    Glad to finally get your thoughts on a show that has completely failed to hook me, despite the fact that Joss Whedon is the only person who can persuade me to use my television as a device for the reception of current programming, and not just a screen upon which to watch DVDs of past Joss Whedon shows. But I missed episode 6 because I was out watching your nephew singing and dancing. (Your nephew who now goes around singing “Ninja Ropes.” We are a family of Joss geeks.) Hulu time, I guess.

    One question: what is it about Amy Acker that says, “white lab coat”?

  5. 5 scottellington

    From the familiar dog-eat-dog broadcast environment of scrambling for ratings (that obliterated Firefly) a new, more patient and cooperative FOX executive kangaroo court has licensed Dollhouse to find its own original voice, identity and audience. In that regard, the central character and the show are given leave by the executive producer and the network, respectively, to evolve into a new longform narrative addiction, and thereby resurface the field on which ratings game is played.
    I’m forced to this presumption by the layered complexity that is only now emerging since the episode you mention, and by the acrid bitterness that filled the gaping crater Network made of Firefly. Without certain assurances tendered by a more sympathetic network establishment, there would be no Dollhouse.
    I also believe that (somehow) the familiar top-end functionaries in the L.A. Regional Dollhouse hierarchy will eventually be revealed to be ruthless, cutthroat, amoral sociopaths employed by us, the audience, to do our nefarious bidding.
    I mean that I believe this show is aimed very precisely at a clear view of American prejudices and predispositions to stereotype blank slates, do violence to women, and perpetuate injustice. I think it’s profoundly courageous social commentary disguised as escapist entertainment, and that it actually stands a reasonable chance of changing the game completely.


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