As my tagline says, I am a huge fan of the TV shows "Buffy" and "Angel." I also enjoy Joss Whedon's other projects, including the aborted Fox series "Firefly" and its cult-hit movie "Serenity," and the Internet-driven "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," and his screenwriting work in general (hello, "Toy Story"). In short, I am a huge Whedon fan; I read his interviews and blogs wherever I can find them, and idolize him as an intelligent, philosophical fantasy writer and TV creator. So when I heard that he was creating a new show for Fox, I was worried, as most fans were (given that Fox aired "Firefly" episodes out of order and then cancelled the series mid-season). However, I trusted that Whedon felt he had a good relationship with the new execs and that his ideas were in safe hands. And the premise was exciting: an institution that offered "dolls," wiped of their memories and thus able to imprinted with new personalities to serve whatever purpose for which they were rented out. As memory and identity are topics of great interest to Whedon (for example, see "Buffy" episode "Tabula Rasa" and season 4 of "Angel") and to me as well, I was thrilled. I expected the same kind of philosophical exploration that "Buffy" and "Angel" had both attained in their maturity. And after years of practice in fantasy TV, I expected him to start out strong and have me rapt from the pilot.
Of course, I did not count on Fox's influence. I watched the first couple of episodes of "Fringe," which premiered last fall, and while they were enjoyable, they were a little too sci-fi for my taste. Too much was explained, so leaps in logic and dialogue had to be made and believability was lost. Even in fantasy, some integrity of practicality and real-world consistency should exist. As it is, I have trouble planting myself in front of the TV when shows are actually on, so I haven't seen "Fringe" since last September. But the first episode of "Dollhouse" reminded me of "Fringe" in a bad way. Whedon's influence was in there, in Topher, who has the kind of geeky super-smarts and casual manner of speech that characters like Willow, Jonathan, Andrew, and Knox had (which primed me for a possible downfall for that character, since all those other characters found darkness at some point; makes you wonder about Whedon, doesn't it?). There are hints of the philosophical content in snatches of dialogue about Echo's nature and why dolls are highly desired. But overall the show is flashy and Whedon's signature writing style and depth of content is hidden beneath layers of showy chase scenes, sexy dancing, and angsty corporate and government chatting. The show was even filmed in the same way as "Fringe" and action-y Fox shows: lots of camera motion, glittering sets, and a sharpness that looks great, but lacks the warm look of "Buffy," the cool noir look of "Angel," or the excited, colorful vibe of "Firefly." Sure, this is a show about perfection, but where can it go if it only professes perfection and doesn't explore the important questions about perfection? Perhaps the show has already locked itself in by trying to be stylistically too much like its theme, or perhaps it's just Fox's influence.
How, then, can the show let Whedon's brainy grounding show through the sheen? Already, the only hints of Whedon's character, style, and intellectual backdrop are in the premise of the series and in those bits of dialogue. But as many have noted, there are other, dramatic problems with the show already. As Whedon himself says, "Echo is a much more complicated character by virtue of being hardly a character, and the premise itself is designed to be kind of distancing" (Press). How, then, can we be engaged, and where can the plot go without strong character motivations? Whedon's shows have always been character-driven; Echo not being a character might not be a problem, but the other characters should be fleshed out and interesting. As others have pointed out, the characters are pretty two-dimensional, and it's no excuse that this show just started; in Whedon's other shows, the main characters were pretty vividly introduced, from Xander's skateboarding mishap when he first ogles at Buffy to Lorne's musical number to Wash's dino play. In addition, the characters of "Dollhouse," besides Echo, are in quite typical situations. The FBI agent Paul Smith who faces ridicule for his interest in finding the Dollhouse, considered urban legend by his fellow agents, is a walking cliche. The ridicule that cop Kate faced in "Angel" because of her preoccupation with macabre cases is interesting because she was exposed to horrors early on and got into an uneasy working relationship with Angel that frames her preoccupation. Being a cold corporate exec is interesting when you're sexy and enjoy messing with people's heads like Lilah on "Angel"; when you're just cold and unnaturally pretty and all your dialogue is telling people you're running a business, like Adelle DeWitt, you're a walking cliche. And the ex-cop who's now a handler and still an idealist in a cynical world? Puh-lease.
The biggest problem, however, is that by the second episode we've been handed a story arc and told that everything we've seen thus far is related to someone called "Alpha." By doing that, "Dollhouse" has fallen into the same trap "Fringe" has with "the pattern." In the real world, things happen for no reason, and there are threads of events that don't necessarily connect back to point one. The rest of the first season of "Dollhouse" will presumably be spent explaining "Alpha," which might keep viewers for awhile, but it makes for a tiring story that might ultimately lead to potential fans tuning in for part of the show and checking in with Wikipedia to see if anything interesting is happening.
Of course, this might all be too soon to tell, but if things don't get beyond the flashy and start letting the real Whedon shine through on "Dollhouse," this is one viewer lost. Lucky the truly Whedonesque shows are still just as good as ever, safe on my DVD rack.
Sources and Additional Reading:
Havrilesky, Heather. "Trapped in the Dollhouse." Salon.com. Feb. 12, 2009. http://www.salon.com/ent/tv/review/2009/02/12/dollhouse/index.html
Press, Joy. "Joss Whedon Just Wants to Be Loved." Salon.com Feb. 10, 2009. http://www.salon.com/ent/feature/2009/02/11/joss_whedon/index.html
Note: I apologize, I would have added more sources and related links, but as you may know, the social bookmarking service Ma.gnolia went down this month and everyone's bookmarks, including my sizable collection, were permanently lost.