Months after everyone else (but coincidentally about the same time as my friend Katranna), I decided to give Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse a go.
Now, I’ve made no secret of the fact that I find Firefly the best of Whedon’s shows for many reasons, not the least of which is because I found its premise the most fascinating. I had seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel at the behest of several of my friends, and while I enjoyed them, I could never fully love them because vampires simply aren’t my thing. ANGST! WOE! IMMORTALITY SUXORS! WAAAH! EMO!
The other reason is simply because the chemistry of the cast is phenomenal. From the pilot episode (I’m talking about “Serenity” here because I only saw Firefly on DVD), I could see why these people were on board the ship and why they cared for one another. Wrap up a good space western/space pirate/space Robin Hood premise (hello…awesome????) with Whedon’s trademark characterisation and humour and I was sold.
Whedon’s writing is the main reason I was able to get through Buffy and Angel. In the midst of all these clichéd storylines, Whedon and his writing team could find kernels of truth in their characters, make me care about their journeys, but most importantly, make me laugh and cry at the same time.
The laughter is probably the most important. Drama is all well and good, but if it’s angst and woe all the time, it rapidly loses my interest but more than that, it becomes unbelievable. Humour is the most effective when it’s true and this is where Whedon excels. His laughs don’t come from slapstick or juvenile (okay, sometimes juvenile) humour; they arise naturally from the characters and their situations. Tension is often underscored when a normally humourous character turns serious.
My biggest problem with Dollhouse is that the funny is curiously absent. (Also, is it just me or does the Dollhouse operate out of the old offices of Wolfram & Hart?) My god, everyone is so dour. The only lighthearted character on the show is Topher, the Dollhouse’s resident genius, who is a stock Whedon dorky boy next door. He is the most recent in a long line before him—Xander, Oz, and Wash—who act as the show’s “voice of reason”. They are normal people amongst extraordinarily characters, and therefore are the most sympathetic and beloved characters of Whedon’s universes. Unfortunately Topher falls short compared to the others because he lacks a moral compass. Now, I love morally ambiguous characters, but I think Topher is representative of why Dollhouse lacks luster for me as a whole.
(Spoilers to follow.)
Dollhouse, as a whole, lacks a Big Bad. This is partially because it’s so morally ambiguous. People are brain-wiped, imprinted with entirely new personalities, and then whored out to really rich clients! But they’re really doing good things too! Like negotiating hostage situations and getting abused little girls to come out of their shells! When everything is shaded in grey, then we can’t decide which side we want to champion. This would be something if Whedon intended the show to be an interesting exercise in moral ambiguity (like Mad Men—I mean, Don Draper is such an ass, but he’s such a compelling ass!), but it’s clear he intended Echo to be the series protagonist.
Fine. But there’s a problem here as well. The construct is that Echo used to be a woman named Caroline who voluntarily gave up her consciousness. She is, as of the series start, a “tabula rasa” (as Adelle puts it). She is also not a person. Therefore, she can’t really be a character. Ergo, we can’t really sympathise with her.
Dollhouse raises fascinating questions about self. When the consciousness is gone, what remains? A soul? How is a soul different from consciousness? But when Echo starts becoming self-aware, I start running into a mind block. Who is Echo? Is she starting to form a personality separate from Caroline? The show seems to imply that a personality arises from the sum of a person’s experiences. Even if the memories of a person are “scrubbed” from consciousness, something lingers from all the imprints Echo has taken on. Therefore, Echo is emerging as a personality different from Caroline. I think.
I think. There’s so much about this show of which I can’t be certain. I think, I think, I think. Dollhouse is full of interesting characters, but fails to coalesce into a coherent storyline, an arc I can foresee, even if I don’t know the specifics of what is to come.
And then there is “Epitaph One”.
“Epitaph One” was never aired, but damn if it wasn’t the best episode of the entire season. THIS is where Dollhouse should have started. Until “Epitaph One”, none of the pieces add up to anything. I suppose one could argue the groundwork for a post-apocalyptic future is laid down in the previous episodes, but I don’t think they were made clear enough. I would be okay with starting with a post-apocalyptic future and then watching the rest of the season play out as it did—at least then, we would have a clear idea where all this was headed.
I will give Dollhouse another try once the second season airs. I like it. I think. Jury is still out.