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…
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Tags: alias, dollhouse