Dollhouse: A Retrospective

The season finale of Dollhouse aired on Friday, and while the fan base waits eagerly to find out if it’s been canceled or not, I thought it might be nice to revisit the series.

What's the point of them learning Tai Chi, I wonder?

Still doomed, quite probably.

It’s been weeks now since I first sounded off about Dollhouse. In my first post, I was pretty hard on the show, claiming that it was unpleasant to watch, and would probably be cancelled no sooner than it deserved.  My main complaint was the lack of likable characters who liked each other, which I still maintain is Joss Whedon’s main (only?) strength as a creator.  I speculated that the show’s heady premise—a house full of brainwashed supermodels who, for a price, can be programmed with any personality and skill set—would preclude the development of any lasting relationships between characters.

The season finale of Dollhouse aired on Friday, and while the fan base waits eagerly to find out if it’s been canceled or not, I thought it might be nice to revisit the series.

I was wrong about the most important point:  as a whole, Dollhouse was not a catastrophe.  It had weak moments, to be sure… considering how much experience Whedon et. al. have as writers, I was surprised to come across so many tone-deaf, embarrassing pieces of dialogue.  But there have also been a lot of genuinely nice moments.  I enjoyed watching FBI agent Tamoh Penikett’s fall from grace, starting as a Mulder-esque crusader against the Dollhouse in the first episode, going to an unemployed civilian who uses the Dollhouse’s services (he’s forced into it, so we can still think of him as a “good guy,” but still), and finally a Dollhouse employee.  And one of the season finale’s bombshells – that the Dollhouse’s physician is herself a repurposed Doll – was actually pretty darn cool.

We’ve also had some good talks in the open threads about whether or not the series should be counted as “feminist.”  At the end of the season, this is still very much an open question.  The show certainly deals with the ways society (and perhaps the entertainment industry in particular) objectifies women.  Again the FBI agent character is a standout here… his desire to sweep in on a white horse and rescue Dushku from her tormentors is presented as creepy and patronizing, and what’s more, he knows it.  On the other hand…  Look, the Dolls are all named after letters in the NATO phonetic alphabet.  (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etc.)  This is kiiiind of cool, although one wonders what would happen if they ever hired a 27th operative.  But why is it that the female dolls all have “awesome” names like Echo, Tango, and Sierra, while the male dolls have prosaic names like Victor and Mike?  Where are the female dolls with named Juliet and Delta?  Where are the male dolls named Uniform, Papa, and (oh, this could be a controversial episode) Zulu?  Granted, one of the male dolls is named Alpha, and one of the female dolls is named November (which is still a pretty dippy name, but within the realm of possibility).  But they’re both “special.”  Alpha is a psychopath, and November is the girl next door type that we’re supposed to think of as fat even though she’s still in absurdly perfect shape by any rational standard.

And while we’re at it, what’s with having all the dolls, men and women alike, be smoking hot?  Even If the internet has taught me anything, it’s that people’s physical tastes are widely varied.  If there was really a house full of brainwashed pleasure slaves out there, they would run the gamut.  Then again, we’ve only seen the Los Angeles dollhouse, and we’re told that there are others hidden all over the country.  Maybe they just split them up geographically.  Maybe, somewhere in middle America, there’s a house where all the dolls are really really fat.  Here’s hoping the show gets renewed, so it can explore some of these fascinating possibilities.

8 Comments on “Dollhouse: A Retrospective”

  1. Gab #

    I would definitely watch it if it gets renewed, but ABC has canceled better shows with more support because of “ratings” before, so I’m not going to hold my breath and think FOX will be different. (This is also why I’m worried for _Castle_, but that’s beside the point.) Like I said before, we won’t know until the announcements are made, so I can still hope, at least (and there’s a difference between hope and expectation, if I may add).

    I’m curious about the thirteenth episode, the one that will be on the DVD. I thought this “last” one had a nice wrapped-up feeling to it. Of course, there were lots of ambiguities, but they were done in such a way as not to feel too drastic and necessarily *beg* for more episodes. I don’t see how another episode would do anything but disrupt the sense of closure/peace I got from Friday’s, unless it was nothing but origin story, i.e. Caroline’s last few days before signing her contract or something like that. I have my own theories to answer some of the questions raised in the last few minutes (I wouldn’t feign the creativity needed to come up with all of those unexplained backstories, though), but I’m okay with keeping them in my head and never knowing if I’m “right” or not. It’s kind of like the fandom mentioned by Mlwaski in her origins stories post (I think that’s where I saw it, anyway…), I guess- I kind of like my idea and may get disappointed if I don’t think what the writers come up with is better.

    For some reason, the show itself often makes me think of the mind-clearing stuff the Psy-Core did in B5 to replace the death penalty. Probably because of the whole erase-the-previous-personality-and-replace-it-with-a-manufactured-one thing. And there are some parallels in terms of latent memories resurfacing. There are some huge, gaping differences, naturally, but a core conundrum linking the two is: What is the real essence of a person? Is it their brainwaves, is it something more? And then you can dive into stuff like whether science and spirituality are, ultimately, at their deepest foundations, mutually exclusive? I don’t think either series answered any of these questions, and I rather like it that way.


  2. Gab #

    Oh, and about the good-looking-ness of the dolls, I think this has to do with the mainstream Popular Culture. Sure, a random guy in his trailer may like more junk in the trunk, but this isn’t the “norm” as portrayed by the Masses. Overall, Popular Culture tells us thin is beautiful, and there are certain aesthetic criteria which are obviously defied but nigh impossible to define out of that context. Take the, “I know art/porn/insertwhateveryouwanthere when I see it,” because you can put “beauty” there, too; and we all have a sense of when Popular Culture sees something as “beautiful” or not, we just can’t say exactly what makes something as such. BUT, it’s much easier to say why something isn’t. And I suppose this could also apply to definitions and descriptions like “thin” and “fat,” too.

    ANYHOO, my point is if it’s fantasy, the ideal is what would be portrayed. It’s not just meant to be fantasy and wish-fulfillment for the world within the show, but for the viewers as well. Since the viewers come from a world where people like the dolls in the show are “ideal,” it follows the dolls would look they way they do.


  3. Tom #

    If the point of the Dolls is also to do physical engagements along with their general prostituting, it would be better to have dolls in good physical shape.

    Sadly, they burned a great storyline on the doll who gets a dead person’s personality. That’s like a half-season “big bad” storyline right there.


  4. Gab #

    @Tom: I got the impression that the contract the gal set forth was only signed because she limited how long her doll would be around after her death. I can’t explain why, but something in the dialogue made me think the contract wouldn’t have existed if she hadn’t said she’d give it up, and this being a stipulation on the part of the Dollhouse itself, not her; and, as she said, she knew she wouldn’t be able to get away from them, so she didn’t fight it and try to take off.


  5. Saint #

    I wonder if this series is supposed to be Joss exorcising his guilt over being a writer. All of his shows feature torture as a recurring theme, usually performed by the villain on the hero. Whedon himself said that he came up with the character of Buffy as a corrective for the years of helpless horror-film women in the 70s and 80s. Perhaps Dollhouse is supposed to be Joss correcting himself for spending fifteen years creating identities (characters), assigning them to bodies (actors), putting those bodies and those identities through the torture of ongoing narrative (Buffy’s constant self-sacrifice, Angel’s loneliness, Mal’s self-denial) for the entertainment of paying customers (the audience).

    In this view, the “pretend emancipation” episode expresses the futility of Joss’ guilt. The dolls, like all his characters, may (over time) seem to point themselves toward a destiny independent of their creator’s wishes, but ultimately, the creator does have complete control over every aspect of the dolls’ futures. The one exception is, oddly, cancellation; that is, death. Each doll, like each of Joss’ characters, follows orders (“How can I do my best?”) until death from some outside interloper (Alpha, or the network) cuts the mission short.

    The guilt-of-the-TV-creator metaphor might explain why the show is set in LA. The last time Joss set a show in LA was Angel, which ended with a demon-run law firm sending the entire city to Hell. If that’s not the anger of a frustrated industry veteran, it’s darn close.


  6. Gab #

    Wow, Saint, that’s pretty good stuff there. What about moments of role-reversal, though? I’m thinking of the second episode where Echo takes care of her handler after he gets shot, or the moments in Firefly where Anara absolves/advises/comforts Shepherd. Is this Joss’s way of expressing his wish to be free of the responsibilities he has to those characters as their caregiver?


  7. Saint #

    I think those role reversal moments, where a person whose occupation is to care for another becomes the receiver of care, are supposed to absolve Joss of his guilt over the commercial aspect of his writing.

    In Dollhouse, there’s a recurring question as to whether the people looking out for the dolls are really interested in their welfare. Boyd is hired to be Echo’s handler, and is often reminded that he’s supposed to look out for her to the extent that it’s his job. When Echo rescues Boyd in the woods, two things happen:

    1. Boyd has permission to honestly care about Echo, because she’s proven that they’re closer to partners (a relationship Boyd would understand, as an ex-cop).

    2. Boyd no longer needs to feel guilty about being paid to look out for Echo, because Echo and Boyd share a mutual admiration. He can convince himself that he would do his job even if he weren’t being paid, which allows him to continue to accept his salary.

    It’s a similar situation in Firefly. Book is definitely no bureaucratic religious pencil-pusher. He really loves people. But does he love people because he’s religious, or does he love people because he has a personal interest in their safety? When Alara convinces him that he can reconcile his beliefs with his relationship to the crew, Book finally accepts his role as an non-intervening overseer without feeling guilty about the crimes the crew commit.

    These characters enact the conflict Joss feels about caring for characters that are supposed to be his professional responsibility. The message: you can care about the people who work for you, AND do your job well.

    Joss’ mother and father, as well as two brothers, are all professional writers, so it makes sense that Joss would have pretty sophisticated anxieties about the relationship between money and writing. He understands that writing is just a job, but he clearly cares enough to do extraordinary work.


  8. Gab #

    Oh, very nice. So would Boyd stepping in and helping Sierra and Book shooting kneecaps be Joss sticking it to the industry and writing for the sake of the art and not the $$$?


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