Dollhouse:  Freaking Doomed

Dollhouse: Freaking Doomed

Okay, I’m calling it right now. Dollhouse will turn out to be a huge disappointment for everyone involved.

You love the sexy, sexy Dushku.

The new Joss Whedon show Dollhouse is doomed.  I don’t mean it’s doomed in the sense that it’s going to get cancelled within the month. (Although it almost certainly will. I mean, Friday night, Fox? Really? Really?) I mean it’s doomed in that it’s going to suck.

The thing about Joss Whedon is that his strength as a writer/show-runner doesn’t really involve hot chicks kicking ass, ridiculous high-concept premises, or elaborate mythologies.  His more successful shows have featured these, true, but they have succeeded despite them, not because of them.  What he does well, above all else, is heartwarming banter:  funny little moments that bring out the affection that his characters have for each other.  The best episodes obviously have a lot more going on, but banter is his bread and butter, and this, honestly, is what I tune in to see.

Unfortunately, the premise of Dollhouse makes this kind of writing impossible.  Problem one:  Eliza Dushku basically has to play a new character every week, which means she has no continuing relationship with any of the other characters.  Thus, no affection.  Thus, no funny little moments.  This in itself wouldn’t be a crippling weakness if the other characters were able to make with the sweet bantery goodness…. but this brings us to problem two:  all the other characters are flaming assholes.  Oh sure, Dushku’s watcher “handler”–played by Harry J. Lennix doing his best Morgan Freeman–seems like a good egg, as does the loose-cannon FBI agent who’s trying to bring the Dollhouse organization down.  But for obvious reasons these characters can never even meet, let alone establish that critical Whedonesque rapport.

Could the show surprise me?  It certainly could.  If nothing else, the Dushku-of-the-week gimmick should allow Whedon to mess around with a wide variety of genres, which is another of his major strengths.  (This week was wilderness horror, a little in-joke for fans of the 2003 Dushku vehicle Wrong Turn. Next week looks like a retread of The Bodyguard, which was at least funny when the Simpsons did it.) I plan to keep watching until it’s cancelled… but we’ll see.  There’s always the chance that it will suck without getting cancelled, which is the most depressing possibility of all.

19 Comments on “Dollhouse: Freaking Doomed”

  1. Gab #

    I’m caught up on this show now.*

    What if Whedon is just trying to do something different this time and we hold the show to that standard instead of our pre-conceived notions of what he “does” normally? If you thought of it as something outside Whedon’s “typical,” could you then like it at all?

    I know Whedon isn’t writing for _Castle_, but the commercials look as though they’re going for that same interaction between characters- and if the reason is solely because Nathan Fillian is starring, I’m perfectly okay with copycatting. The question would be, then, can those people pull it off as well as Whedon?

    Is it sad or awesome that I only know Dushku via _True Lies_?

    *On Demand-type players are a rant of their own.


  2. stokes #

    You make a good point, Gab. Demanding that Dollhouse fulfill my internalized standards of Whedonosity would be kind of a dickish fanboy move on my part.

    But that’s not really what I did (although in retrospect, I can see why my original post came off that way). I have been taking the show on its own terms, at least as far as I’m aware… but I just don’t like it much. This post is just me speculating as to why.


  3. pavi #

    just watched both episodes…there is already a little bit of banter between blonde ‘treatment’ boy and the handler…plus the watchability of eliza dushku works for me :) not as good as buffy/firefly right now…but i see it growing on me.


  4. stokes #

    I noticed that bit of banter, but it didn’t work for me, and I’ll tell you why. The blond ‘treatment’ character, Topher, is a flaming wad, perhaps the waddiest wad of the whole waddy lot. Not to put too fine a point on it, but his job is essentially to dose Dushku with roofies on a weekly basis… and quite OFTEN so that she’ll go sleep with someone. I’m all for dark and compromised characters who struggle with their morality, but Topher doesn’t seem to have any qualms about his job (or at least not yet). In one of the clips they’ve been using to advertise the show, he enthuses that he gets to work in “a house full of hot babes!” A selling point to be sure, but in this context, ick.

    Anyway, the handler’s reaction to this character is – quite rightly – disgust, and therefore, although their interaction was clever, it was also painfully cold.

    But maybe there’s something to build on there. And if it’s kind of working for you, don’t let me rain on your parade! Like I said, I’m going to keep watching myself.


  5. Matthew Wrather #

    I totally agree, Jordan. For what it’s worth, I had a similar, though less thought-out, reaction to the first episode:

    I think the problem is one-dimensionality, not waddishness (though they are all wads, to be sure, even the FBI agent). TV is a medium for characters; the reason we tune in week after week is that we like spending time with these people (or love to hate it). Great serials are build around great characters (a trend that in the early 2000s took a turn for the Shakespearean with Tony Soprano and Vic Mackie).

    And I come down slightly differently on the question of the sky-high concepts and mythologies relationships to JW’s previous shows’ success. I don’t think they’ve succeeded despite the mythologies (as though the mythologies were a burden), I think they’ve succeeded because the mythologies were secondary to the shows’ success.

    In fact, I think that the fully-drawn characters are what made the mythologies work — filled them out, in a way.


  6. Gab #

    I think the characters’ one-dimensionality is partly why I’m not digging it, as well. And, actually, the concept of the show, which is actually what you said about the blonde guy, Stokes, is a big part of that- everyone involved, be they workers at the Dollhouse or the people hiring them, knows the dolls are manufactured weekly to do various things, losing any genuine personality every time they get reprogrammed. These people that are not the dolls are participating in a dehumanization process I find extremely disturbing. So unless the show goes to great lengths to demonstrate how messed up the whole notion is, my opinion won’t improve.

    But, I will also probably keep watching it. Why? WHY!?


  7. Sabriel #

    “These people that are not the dolls are participating in a dehumanization process I find extremely disturbing. So unless the show goes to great lengths to demonstrate how messed up the whole notion is, my opinion won’t improve.”

    Yeah. The premise of dollhouse is creepy. If it weren’t a Whedon show I wouldn’t even have bothered to finish the first episode, but because it is a Whedon show I’m going to stick it out. Buffy and Firefly both had rough starts, and it might be that dollhouse will take a while to get its feet on the ground.

    I agree with one of the commentators over at Bitch Ph.D. that he’s ultimately going for a feminist statement, but that it’s going to take an elaborate set up before it’s time for Echo to start owning her reality and fighting back. I honestly see a lot of potential in this, but maybe I am just deluding myself.

    I’m worried that season one will be one long creepy-arse set up, and season two won’t happen because the show got canceled. In the end, the fans will be left holding one big pile of dung with no resolution. We might get a comic book or something, but nobody will read it, and Whedon’s feminist cred will be severely tarnished.


  8. John P #

    The thing about Joss Whedon is that his strength as a writer/show-runner doesn’t really involve hot chicks kicking ass, ridiculous high-concept premises, or elaborate mythologies. His more successful shows have featured these, true, but they have succeeded despite them, not because of them. What he does well, above all else, is heartwarming banter

    In my mind, you have these two premises completely reversed.


  9. Gab #

    Sabriel- not to be creepy, but have you read the book by Garth Nix of the same name/ is that your inspiration for a pseudonym?

    John P- Care to elaborate?


  10. dLo #

    I’m pretty sure I already signed the petition to save the show last year. :-)

    My random thoughts that do not contribute to this conversation:
    – Tahmoh Penikett’s character is like Agent Mulder, but much more annoyingly stubborn and less intelligent.
    -Echo’s role-per-week thing reminds me of Agent Bristow on Alias…and that sort of had its appeal, right?
    -I hate Topher. But I guess it was either the route of the smartass annoying young kid or the stuck up scientist with a British accent who freaks out if you touch any of his stuff.
    -Alpha seems like a Gollum meets Sylar thing. Either way, what nightmares are made of. Couldn’t he at least have worn some pants in what I thought was his scene? Hairy.
    -If I had ever seen Dark Angel, I’d probably want Dollhouse to turn into that.

    I’m done dropping names and characters of other shows now.


  11. Foxdie #

    Hmmm… have you not been watching the show and are just going on a summary you read?

    Both episodes have so far hinted at a much larger story than “Dushku of the week” and in fact, we’ve already gotten bits of that “banter” and relationships between characters – in fact, that this is apparent DESPITE the assumption otherwise is a major plot point that I can already see coming up 2 episodes in.

    Hopefully Whedon managed to squeeze in enough sex appeal and awesome explosions so Fox doesn’t pull the plug too soon, and we’ll see where this goes. I doubt Echo is a good little Doll for long.


  12. John P #

    Gab – I have never found Whedon’s notion of “heartwarming banter” to either warm my heart or entertain me. It sounds like the Memorable Quotes page from a weekly D&D game. And while I think the guys I roll dice with on a weekly basis are hilarious, I wouldn’t stake a franchise on them.


  13. Sabriel #

    @Gab: Yep! I took Sabriel as a pseudonym because of the Garth Nix books. What can I say? She’s awesome, and so am I.


  14. Gab #

    John- Thanks for the elaboration. But let’s not limit ourselves to just D&D- I think any social get-together could have a Memorable Quotes board, especially when you’re sitting around and “chilling” with people in a living room. Really, any environment where there is discussion involved- listen to the podcasts from this site, oh my GOODNESS… But hey, I play weekly D&D, too, so I totally know what you’re talking about with regards to that particular environment being conducive for one-liners and the like. Are you 4th Ed?

    Which relates to…

    @Sabriel- I love the first book, but I must say… The other two I found rather lacking, especially since she was barely in them- they thus lacked her (and therefore, by degrees, your?) awesomeness, and the other characters weren’t quite as compelling to me so quickly as she had been. But I have a DnD character based on the concept of an Abhorsen (i.e. a necromancer that does good things), and she’s pretty rockin’, herself.


  15. Sabriel #

    I loved the first book. The second book was probably the worst; Lirael is too mopey for me, and she took too long to leave the Clayr. However, I liked the third book, mostly because the third book is where you learn about how the wall was created and I’m a sucker for world-creation.

    The thing I like best about the series is probably the way death and necromancy work. All of the scenes where an Abhorsen goes into the river death are amazing, and the use of bells (who have their own personalities and are capable of creating backlash against the user) as necromantic tools is a nice touch.

    I have played both a prefab Call of Cthulu game and a prefab Deadlands game that involved church bells raising the dead. It’s a fairly common idea, but a cool one.

    The fact that you made a DnD character based on the concept of an Abhorsen is just awesome.


  16. Gab #

    The River of Death is such a great idea. My favorite scenes usually took place there. And I agree whole-heartedly about Lirael. You read _Across the Wall_ too, right? For some reason, I have only come across bells doing necrotic magic in the _Abhorsen_ series, but maybe I just don’t get out enough.

    I sort of stole the “backlash” bit for her implement, too- it’s the skull of her “dead” master with his soul preserved in it, but he gets angry at her sometimes (giving a minus to my dice rolls) and her spells don’t always work (or, conversely, he may give a random boost of encouragement in the form of an extra damage die or spell that turn). Only after telling the rest of my group did the similarities between my character and _Mystery Men_ occur to me (because they brought it up)- but I suppose it may have been a subconscious thing.

    Sorry, OTI owners, I have totally commandeered the comments here with my enthusiasm for those books and my D&D campaign…


  17. stokes #

    @Sabriel –

    I agree that he’s probably going for a feminist statement. Even if the show were to get cancelled before Dushku starts taking a more active role, isn’t it pretty clear where the moral lines are drawn? The creepiness that Gab referred to strikes me as very much the point of the show. I suppose it would be possible to watch Dollhouse and just think “Oh man, that technology would be so AWESOME!” But it would be difficult.


  18. Anila #

    You Suck!!!!!!!!!!!


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