[To mark tonight’s series finale of Dollhouse, we present a guest article by Jon Eric offering a controversial take on the show’s cancellation. We’ve already had a lot to say about the series; see if you agree with Jon about the justification for the cancellation. And come back on Monday to hear the podcast panel’s analysis of the final episode and of the series as a whole.]
Today marks the series finale of Joss Whedon’s most recent baby, a sci-fi drama named Dollhouse. It was a rough two years, and perhaps the biggest surprise was the show’s longevity—Whedon’s last attempt at a weekly television show was cancelled after only half a season, so his fans were especially vigilant this time around: “Save Dollhouse” websites had cropped up before the show even premiered.
But in between the appearance of the first “Save Dollhouse” website and the airing of the first Dollhouse episode, Whedon’s fans seem to have turned on him. What happenedx? Maybe it had something to do with the promotional materials – how can you encapsulate such a high-concept science fiction show in a :30 TV spot? – or maybe the perception (justifiable, even if incorrect) that Joss’ Dollhouse was nothing more than a particularly highfalutin whorehouse. In the face of controversial subject matter, Whedon loyalists had a hard time coping, and some lost their faith. After all, it’s difficult to defend, let alone recommend, a show whose first-season advertising was dominated by this:
Look at how they repeat-edited the words “Dominatrix scene!” Like the network was salivating over this one little bone Whedon and Dushku had thrown them: “At last, something we can use to market this nerdy show to the hornballs who actually watch Fox on Friday nights!”
But in fact, the “Dominatrix Scene” in the show is little more than what we see in that trailer – it’s an establishing shot, a throwaway scene. She’s returning from an engagement we never see, for a client we never meet, and why should we? It’s just your standard submissive john. Why would we be interested in some standard dominatrix encounter when there are so many more interesting stories to be told?
Somehow, the die-hards missed the subtext. Whether it was Fox’s failure to communicate the concept, or the netroots feminist movement crying out against Joss’ handling an admittedly delicate subject matter (or both), Whedon’s already-small fan base fragmented itself and Whedon’s self-proclaimed feminism came under fire.
Here’s the problem: when a core audience as small as Whedon’s fragments, the resuling fraction isn’t enough to sustain a show on a major network. Especially when it airs on a Friday night. Dollhouse didn’t have a large advertising budget, Fox didn’t seem that interested in pushing the ads, and it’s not as though the concept were easy to pitch, so the series never really had a chance at an audience any larger than the supposedly-loyal Whedon fanbase. As it happened, they got something quite a bit smaller, and now the show is cancelled due to poor ratings.
It’s easy to blame Fox for all the mishandling. Fox has killed so many worthy series in the past; what’s one more? I don’t deny that Fox’s lack of care with their product helped to ensure an early demise… But some of the blame rests with Whedon, too. I submit that Whedon’s show was terminally flawed from the start, that its premise defied an audience, that its writing team is guilty of fatal sloppiness — in short, that unlike its predecessor, Dollhouse deserved to be cancelled.
Dollhouse‘s premise was strong, but the show was too easily distracted. In the beginning, the story demands we take it on faith that there’s something special about Dushku’s character Echo — that there is, in fact, a reason we’re following her around. In fact, during the show’s entire two-season run, we only meet three other dolls, and two of those three are still “sleepers” at the start of the series, so we are only introduced to Echo and Sierra. And they spend most of season 1 doing a whole lot of nothing. Echo becomes some dude’s hunting partner-cum-girlfriend, then she becomes a pop singer, then she becomes Patton Oswalt’s wife, then she becomes the reincarnation of her boss’ dead friend, but none of these personae inform or move the plot. None of them carry over. None of them give us any indication of the question that plagues any series: Why Echo? What’s so special about Echo that we’re being asked to invest in her emotionally, even though she has literally no character from week to week? We’ll find out eventually, the show seems to assure us, but it’s in these early weeks that it’s crucial to establish why we care about the main character.
If you don’t, for one reason or another, invest emotionally in the main character, there’s nothing to compel you to keep tuning in. And it’s impossible to invest emotionally in a character whose defining characteristic is her lack of identity [Ed. Note: Sounds familiar.]. This is no small nitpick; it’s a critical flaw in the very premise of the show. Remember what Fenzel said about the avatars in Avatar retarding the development of their characters? On Dollhouse, that happens every single episode.
Worse than that, in the Dollhouse world, Echo’s lack of identity isn’t even unique to her. If, at the beginning of the series, there’s anything in particular that sets her apart from the rest of the tabulae rasae around her, it’s not made clear to the audience until much later (i.e. when two-thirds of the audience has already stopped watching). It’s in these crucial first episodes that it’s most important to explain why we’re supposed to care. Whedon of all people should know by now that this is how you get canned.
The way Dollhouse‘s first season worked out, both fan and critical appeal seem to have coalesced around the show with the airing of episode 9, “A Spy in the House of Love”, when (spoiler alert) Echo began to manifest the first signs of the trait that would later set her apart from the other dolls, her self-awareness. She watches the technician imprint Sierra, and for the first time in the series, Echo makes the connection: “You make people different. I want to help. Make me into someone who can help.” Neither Echo nor any other doll had made this connection yet, and this is when we get the moment that we’d been waiting for since episode 1. This is when we see what sets Echo apart from the crowd.
Maybe I’ve got it wrong, though. Maybe I’m judging the series based on what I wanted it to be, and not on what Whedon intended for it. It might not have been Whedon’s intention, at least not initially, to build up a huge story arc. It’s entirely conceivable that Joss wanted to have his fun first, make Dollhouse an escapist adventure-of-the-week compilation series where our heroine gets a new disposable personality every episode, courts danger, and then comes home to get wiped and restore the status quo. Then, a year or two down the line, they could spring the heavy plot stuff on us.
If this was the plan, it didn’t work, because the audience clamored for more answers, sooner. And Whedon, with mounting audience pressure and the threat of cancellation, caved, making “A Spy in the House of Love” and the rest of the serial-based episodes through the rest of the season much earlier than he’d originally intended. This raises the question: How much is too much, too soon? How little is not enough?
For the answer, we can turn to the other superstar auteur of network TV, J.J. Abrams, who has exemplified this dilemma perfectly: his megahit Lost, which spawned a whole sub-genre of ensemble cast dramas with interlocking stories, has allowed its plots to become so cumbersome in its first five years that reruns are now aired with a running stock-ticker of explanations, in case you missed an episode or two. So Abrams decided to take a different angle when his new series Fringe got the green light. Fringe, which debuted a couple of months before Dollhouse, makes it clear that the incident at the heart of each episode is part of a larger pattern (called, appropriately enough, “The Pattern”), but most of these episodes can still be taken on their own with relatively few curveballs discouraging newcomers. So maybe this is what Whedon was going for. On the other hand, though, Dollhouse‘s premise offered several advantages that would have allowed him to sidestep this problem easily.
Maybe he could have simultaneously developed a weekly-adventure (episodic) action mood without sacrificing the larger (serial) story arc that would have kept those few viewers engaged. At the beginning of the show, Echo is the only doll we know. Later we meet Sierra, then Victor, then November. Each of these dolls is played by a competent actor, capable of playing any personality that might be thrust upon them. Suppose Whedon had decided, for the sake of the series as a whole, to sacrifice those big surprising moments when Victor and November got revealed, and just let us know right upfront that these characters are dolls? Or, if there must be encounters that don’t inform the larger story, the least Whedon could have done was give those encounters to someone who isn’t supposed to be as critical as Echo is supposed to be! Most episodes have an A-plot and a B-plot anyway, so why not divide your time up relatively evenly between the episodic material and the serial material?
As it is, the first eight episodes of the show are mostly filler. And that’s a ton of filler for a nascent show with a difficult concept and no mass audience. Given how the show turned out, it feels as though Whedon, for one reason or another, intentionally delayed what he knew would be “the good stuff.” I suppose he called it building suspense. I call it shooting himself in the foot. By the time he got to the big reveals near the end of the season, most of his already-small audience had already stopped caring — and stopped tuning in.
One wonders what might have been. Maybe word of mouth would have spread; maybe the skeptics in Whedon’s audience would have come around eventually had the show been handled better. But with the show as it was, even if someone had enjoyed parts of season 1 enough to recommend it to a friend, that friend would have to have an awful lot of faith in Whedon to sit around and wait for the story to get good. The diehards will wait like that, but everyone else… Well, they had better things to do on their Friday nights. Echo, we hardly knew ye.
Agree? Disagree? Try to be your best in the comments.