Saturday 4 April 2009

Trying to write about Dollhouse (this is going to take a while)

"Dollhouse" is now seven episodes young. The much-awaited, game-changing sixth episode has aired, and I still haven't gotten around to figuring out what to think about the show. The problem is that this is the first time ever, apart from "Dr Horrible", that I follow a Joss Whedon-show from the very beginning. I was late to see "Firefly", and actually only saw "Buffy" and "Angel" when they aired on German TV with a delay of at least a year (and the first season of Buffy I saw was the fourth).
First of, "Dollhouse" was an idea Joss had when talking to his former star Eliza Dushku, who played Faith in "Angel" and "Buffy". The show is co-produced by her, and even though it is not named after her character Echo, it is essentially about her. The premise of the show holds the most difficult obstacle to overcome for the viewers: the show is about a secret organisation that keeps a couple of Actives, which are basically human beings whose very identity has been erased in order to provide a clean slate upon which any identity can be inscribed, and rents them out to whoever can come up with the money. They go on a mission and become whoever it is necessary to fulfil that mission perfectly. After they complete the mission, their memory is erased and they return to their basic doll-like status that resembles an innocent, clueless child, devoid of memory, passion and any drives apart from the most basic human ones.
That means one thing: the Actives, and the main character of Echo, require a different kind of character building than usually seen on television. The show has a greater mythical arc about the organisation itself and the very first Active, Alpha, who apparantly has gone rampant and isn't, as initially assumed, eliminated. The show also slowly tries to uncover whoever the woman that is now Echo was before she became an Active, and how the whole thing looks from the perspective of a (now former) FBI-agent that is on a mission to destroy what is only an Urban Legend for his colleagues.
There are a couple of rules for every Whedon show: love usually ends in tragedy, people die suddenly and unexpectedly, even the smallest characters can grow into something much bigger over the course of time (just admire the course both Cordelia and Wesley took when they left Sunnydale and came to "Angel"). The problem with "Dollhouse" is that, with that initial premise, it is difficult to imagine how the whole character development thing is going to work. In contrast to all his previous shows, there was no great exposition as to the mythology of the whole thing (as there was with "Buffy", where the prophecy of the slayer was always spelled out at the beginning of each episode). The greatness in this idea is of course that it could go any way. There are no rules here, and while it was clear who we identified with in "Buffy", "Angel" and "Firefly", it is very shady who or what the viewerse are supposed to root for here. The organisation that works in the shadows and, according to common wisdom, uses people like slaves after making them mindless? The obsessive FBI agent, who is apparantly willing to do pretty much anything for what he perceives as the greater good? Echo, whose personal path isn't clear yet? The person in the background that might be the big evil pulling the strings or something else entirely?

At least I am intrigued, and I wish that the show gets at least four seasons to let the mythology unfold. On the other hand, as Whedon explained during a "Dr Horrible" panel at last year's Comic Con, the industry is changing, and by turning to the internet for distribution, he managed to cut out a couple of people that might otherwise force him to make decisions he doesn't want to make. This is a turning point for the format of television shows, just as it is a turning point for pretty much everything else too (the economy, politics, the music industry...) - but in this case I know where to look for ideas that might just work.

This is the first part of the "Dr Horrible"-panel from last year, featuring Joss Whedon, his brothers Zack and Jed, Maurissa Tancharoen who all helped to write it, and actors Nathan Fillion, Neil Patrick Harris (a match made in heaven...) and Felicia Day (from the last season of "Buffy" and the genius web series "The Guild"). Note the interaction between audience and panel members to figure out why this might be the future of, well...

Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.

1 comment:

? said...

You should have studied film but then again I can see a picture of you as the chancellor... thanks for the enlightenment.