In defence of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse

Feature Stefan Mohamed 10 Mar 2014 - 06:00

Stefan tackles criticism of Dollhouse, a brave series he argues is unfairly maligned in Joss Whedon's body of work...

Joss Whedon, it’s fair to say, is not short of fans. Between Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Serenity, Cabin in the Woods, Dr Horrible, and latterly his work with Marvel (not to mention his adaptation of a play by that little-known writer Will Shakesman), he has an enviable back catalogue, and Whedonites (as I promise not to refer to them again after this sentence) rank among the most devoted, rabid and occasionally frightening fans in geekdom. If you want an idea of just how passionate people are about the man’s work, write the phrase “I am a leaf on the wind” in any comment thread below a Whedon-related article, and hang on to something. Said thread may experience some slight turbulence and then explode.

But there is one series that, while it does have its vocal supporters, is generally regarded at best as a noble failure, and at worst as the unloved, slightly deformed illegitimate-child-we-keep-in-the-attic-and-don’t-talk-about of Whedon’s small-screen oeuvre. Its reputation in critical circles – again, not exclusively, but generally – isn’t much better. I refer to the short-lived and ill-treated Dollhouse, and I would like to explain exactly why I think you should give this much-maligned show another chance, because for my money it's as brave, idiosyncratic and downright thrilling as anything in the holy televisual trinity of Buffy, Angel and Firefly (I’m not counting Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, a) because it’s more his brother’s baby than his, and b) because at the time of writing it’s not particularly brilliant, although I still have hopes that it will reach its potential).

“Did I fall asleep?”

First broadcast in 2009 and cancelled after two thirteen-episode seasons, the series stars Eliza Dushku (Buffy’s rogue Slayer Faith) as Echo, one of a group of ‘Actives’ living in the titular Los Angeles-based Dollhouse whose minds have been (voluntarily – or at least, that’s what we’re initially led to believe) wiped so that they can be imprinted with dozens of other personalities and skillsets and rented out to super-rich clients. These personalities range from horny college students to NSA agents to genius bank robbers and hackers via bounty hunters, dominatrixes and, in what is generally regarded as the nadir of the series, backing singers for temperamental divas. Naturally the ‘engagements’ tend to go wrong in unforeseen ways, often relating to Echo's gradual rediscovery of her past self, and thus Dollhouse begins as, on the surface at least, a fairly standard mission-of-the-week series (or maybe personality-of-the-week would be more accurate).

It doesn’t stay like that, however. Oh no.

The premise is admittedly problematic, and much of the criticism levelled at the show is valid. For some viewers, the fact that Dushku and the other actives are essentially different characters every episode, reverting to benign blank slates when they’re not out on engagements, is a deal-breaker. How do you relate to a protagonist who is not the same person from week to week? It’s entirely subjective; either you can engage with the conceit or you can't, but this odd setup meant that the show was hindered from the get-go. Personally I was invested enough in the premise, in Echo and in the richly-drawn supporting characters – both Active and non-Active - to stick with it, and for me, even in their wiped doll forms, the actors exhibit enough personality for me to care about their fates. However, it’s fair to assume that this was a major stumbling block for many people trying to get into the series, and all I can say is that it's worth persevering.

The Dollhouse itself is also conceptually troublesome, which is one of the reasons why the execs at Fox were unhappy with the series. Fundamentally, the idea is pretty icky. Many of the engagements are of a sexual nature, and whether the actives agree to what happens to them or not they are basically being sold to rich businesspeople wanting a willing partner who will conveniently forget about them after the act. Tension is therefore built into the show, particularly in its early episodes, where the breezy tone of the personality-of-the-week adventures bumps awkwardly against seedy undertones of prostitution.

It’s to its credit that Dollhouse does not shy away from the uncomfortable nature of this concept, confronting issues of sexual abuse and slavery head-on in several episodes once it settles into a more arc-based groove. The blurry moral ground on which the Dollhouse, its staff and its clients operate is explored compellingly, and while you may actually come to sympathise with the reasons the characters give to justify their involvement, the show rarely - if ever - comes down on the side of right or wrong. Ultimately, the picture it paints is of a corrupt and often degrading institution run by people who are all, in their own way, trying to do what they perceive to be the right – or at least the necessary – thing.

It’s a fascinating philosophical minefield to navigate, but it sometimes makes it difficult to know who to root for – not an accusation you could really level at Buffy, Angel or Firefly, no matter how far into darkness their characters slipped. However, if you like your beautiful ass-kicking men and women (and they are very beautiful, and they kick a whole mess o’ ass) served with a side order of existential horror and a generous dollop of moral ambiguity, Dollhouse might just be the show for you.

“I try to be my best”

Whether you buy in to the inner lives of the Actives or not, I think it's safe to say that the supporting cast is as strong as any of Whedon’s other ensembles. From tech wizard Topher (Fran Kranz) to Dollhouse head Adelle DeWitt (played to icy yet subtly vulnerable perfection by Olivia Williams) to house physician Claire Saunders (Amy Acker! Yay! Someone give this woman all the series and films please), everyone who works in the Dollhouse is damaged in some way. They’re all flawed, ethically compromised people existing in a frightening and bizarre grey area, which makes for some seriously thought-provoking drama. Topher, for example, starts the show as a fairly typical wise-cracking genius man-child type, but as he slowly begins to rediscover his fractured morality, his arc is both compelling and ultimately very moving. Even FBI agent Paul Ballard (once you get past Tahmoh Penikett’s slightly peculiar, mannered way of speaking), who starts as something of a cipher, is blessed with an unexpected and interesting character trajectory.

Credit must also go to Eliza Dushku herself, who I feel is as unfairly maligned as the show in which she stars. Granted, perhaps she isn't the strongest actress out there, and she is occasionally shown up by Dichen Lachman and Enver Gjokaj, who play fellow Actives Sierra and Victor respectively, but although she may not be as adept at inhabiting different personalities she does provide a firm anchor for the show, and hints at a strange, unsettling intelligence when in her child-like doll state. As the series progresses, with Echo steadily finding a new self nestled in the tangle of borrowed memories and skills with which she has been imprinted, she grows into a very credible heroine, and Dushku acquits herself well.

Enver Gjokaj, meanwhile, should definitely have been the show's breakout star. The guy is quite phenomenally adaptable, particularly when mimicking other members of the cast - an episode in which he is imprinted with Topher’s mind is especially delightful, with Gjokaj delivering an absolutely pitch-perfect take on Fran Kranz’s twitchy mannerisms. Someone give him all the series and films too. Along with Amy Acker, maybe? Like, maybe they could do the whole driving round in a van solving mysteries thing, maybe? Except that it’s a Firefly-class ship not a van? And then their ship gets damaged and they get rescued by Serenity and join their crew? With Dichen Lachman along for the ride too? For six seasons and a movie? Sorry, I digress.

“I enjoy my treatments”

Dollhouse takes a little while to establish itself, and the early standalone personality-of-the-week episodes, while entertaining, are definitely the weakest. However, after the Joss Whedon-penned Man on the Street (which features a brilliant guest performance by Patton Oswalt and paints a more nuanced picture of the Dollhouse and its function than we’ve previously seen), the series’ real concerns start to emerge, and it kicks into gear in a big way. The latter halves of both Season One and Season Two feature mind-blowing twist after mind-blowing twist, with shifting identities, double-crosses, philosophical quagmires, unforgivable (or are they?) acts, corporate intrigue and plenty of badass fight scenes, despite a rapidly decreasing budget.

The show's curtailed length also arguably ends up working in its favour; with an early end in sight the writers go for broke, squeezing several seasons' worth of plots into a handful of episodes and raising the action to white-knuckle levels of intensity. Watching it all in quick succession makes for a serious adrenaline rush, and you’ve barely had time to recover from one rug-pull before the floor beneath the rug gets ripped away. Season One's finale, Epitaph One, is particularly jaw-dropping, and it's a crime that it wasn't actually broadcast during Dollhouse's initial run; fans had to wait to discover its apocalyptic delights on DVD.

That (admittedly divisive) episode is, for my money, what really sets Dollhouse apart, cementing it as the bleakest of Whedon's TV oeuvre – yes, even taking into account Angel episodes like Reprise and Not Fade Away. There are few clear-cut heroes in this series, and even fewer happy endings, and it never compromises on the darkness inherent to its premise. We are there every step of the way, pulled down with the characters as they traverse their own personal hells, experiencing the nightmarish consequences of the technology with which they’ve been playing. It was always a minor miracle that the show was renewed for a second season after the first's lukewarm reception – although fan pressure might have had a little something to do with it - and having watched it all the way through, I'm still kind of amazed that something this weird and morally ambiguous managed two seasons on a network like Fox. From its murky sexual politics to the ethics of mind-wiping to some fairly on-point political satire, Dollhouse is a fundamentally more adult show than its predecessors, and while it is often very funny, fans of Buffy etc. may be put off by the relentless darkness, and by the lack of Whedon's trademark quippiness (it's still there, mind, just... muted).

“Shall I go now?”

Well-acted, thought-provoking and frequently devastating in its twists and turns, Dollhouse is a peculiar oddity, an extremely brave piece of fiction that fearlessly tackles uncomfortable concepts and themes and asks challenging questions. Can you ever truly erase a person's soul – if, indeed, there is such a thing? What might the next level of augmented humanity look like? Is voluntary slavery still slavery? How much do we love Victor and Sierra (answer: lots)? With its more realistic setting and intelligent exploration of the side-effects of new technology, it has much more of a hard-SF feel than Firefly, and while there are undoubtedly bumps along the way - and one or two contentious twists near the end – if you can look past these and stay the course, it makes for a really rewarding viewing experience. I've not even gone into the headfuck that is The Attic, or the reveal of Alpha, or the mini-arc with Alexis Denisof's Senator Daniel Perrin, or the end of Needs, because you deserve to experience it all without it being spoiled.

So don’t believe the bad press. Give Dollhouse a chance. And you may find one more show to prove your “OMG Joss is totes teh bestest!!!!” theorem.

Or you'll feel vindicated in your position that he's an overrated hack. *Shrug* I tried my best.

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