I was recently asked by Mr. Lousy if Dollhouse was worth watching. Mr. Lousy has seen all the other Joss Whedon series from Buffy to Angel to Firefly, and, like me, was a latecomer to all of them. (We both overshot Buffy by more than a decade.) I am going to recommend that Mr. Lousy arrive late to the table once again, bearing in mind that I might not steer others in the same direction, for Dollhouse is the most sci-fi of all the Whedon shows (no – I am not forgetting Firefly) and the most difficult in terms of maintaining patience as the pieces very gradually fit together.
I think Dollhouse has to be watched from beginning to end in order to truly appreciate that Whedon and his storyrunners had a vision for the entire series. There are no aimless drifting storylines that muck up the series as a whole, such as in Angel with Cordelia’s goddess pregnancy and its utter ruination of the most surprisingly successful character arcs stretching across both series; nor any weak seasons that, as Mr. Lousy put it, make viewing feel like homework, case in point: Buffy‘s almost mirthless season seven.
Firefly only lasted 13 episodes plus its theatrically released coda, the stupendous Serenity, so there was less time to make faulty diversions. The short two-season run of Dollhouse gave it the Firefly competitive advantage: there was less time, and thus less opportunity, to make major fuck-ups. I don’t mean this as a backhanded compliment, but as a mere observation of how multiple seasons heighten the chances for multiple missteps. Dollhouse avoided the trap by getting cancelled with enough warning time for Whedon to wrap it up.
That said, I do hate the twist at the end of the regular series – the big reveal of a duplicitous character – but my frustration is somewhat countered by the two episodes (the last ones of seasons one and two) that serve as an extension of the story, essentially taking the “what if” premise to a continuation of the narrative in the not-so-distant future. I might suggest that they be watched together as a two-part bonus after the regular series ends because they snap together as one, and they really only connect directly to the season two finale.
An aside: the set of the actual Dollhouse headquarters rivals any of Whedon’s other memorable sets, including the Wolfram & Hart office from Angel, the library from Buffy, and the ship from Firefly.
If you are into auteur theory, then you can consider Dollhouse to be a meta-commentary on Whedon’s use of major female characters in past series, manipulating them to fulfill his own needs. I’m more interested in the story than in how Joss Whedon might be considering himself in the context of his own female creations, playing with actresses/characters as his private doll collection.
The backbone of the story involves a secret for-profit organization that uses some out-of-luck desperados as Dolls, breathing, lobotomized-like mannequins who only truly come to life after a cartridge implants a temporary personality (or imprint, in the series’ terminology) while they sit in something like a dentist’s chair and undergo a process that looks like electrocution in order to match a client’s specifications for a temporary assignment. Their imprint selves, called Actives, are creations of a programmer, with no relation to self other than the body the imprint inhabits. Questions of identity, free will, the relationship between information and being, the disconnect between memory and reality, the implications of sex trafficking, how sex and power intersect, the definition of rape, who holds power in a corporate world, what constitutes mortality and immortality, and the role of morality in technology are either explicitly made or implicitly drawn out. The answers are often left up to the audience, who have to sit through some squirmy situations illustrating the above quandaries before hoping to reach any conclusions or judgments.
Heroes and villains are not nearly as clear as in Whedon’s other shows. Watching Dollhouse makes you wait and sweat it out, sorting out right and wrong as you learn more about the operation and the underlying end game.
It’s harder to identify with the Dolls than other Whedon protagonists because they are mostly either in a quasi-vegetative state (walking and talking as if trapped in a New Age spa
where original ideas and independent will are censored) or in the programmed persona for their mission, which might be as a lost lover, a fetishistic object, a personal bodyguard/kung-fu kicking machine, etc…
Also difficult is the lead. I quite liked Eliza Dushku as Faith as the unhinged counterpoint to Buffy in Buffy and later in Angel,
but I’m less of a fan here. I don’t think she is as disastrous as some, but she lacks the quality to make us latch onto her character, whose true bits and pieces come so slowly that we need of a subtle actor more than a strong screen presence to invest ourselves in since we do not have a full character to follow until late in the series. It does not help Dushku that the rest of the cast is so strong in comparison.
For me, the real star of the show is Olivia Williams,
who plays the head of the Los Angeles branch, because she is so wired to a character that keeps us perpetually wondering and worrying, and whose trail of inconsistencies add up to a solid whole by the end. She is the grey zone at the heart of Dollhouse. In a show largely devoted to a consideration of free will, her character is the major player, cognizant of her role and its implications, always able to make her own conscious decisions, and as a consequence, always cursed to question and confront them.
Regarding the rest of the cast, I’ve read some dissatisfaction about with the sort-of leading man played by Tamoh Penikett (Helo from Battlestar Galactica), but since he sports the most magnificent jawline in history, I dismiss all criticism. He is the slightly taciturn muscle with the transparent motivation of uncovering the truth.
The other Dolls, who have permanent code names, temporary downloaded persona/imprint/Active names, and real citizen names (it’s not as confusing as it sounds) are more intriguing, primarily Sierra and Victor. I won’t say more for fear of dropping spoilers, but there are strong stories for Dolls other than the lead. There are also some drop-ins from other Whedon shows, Wesley and Winifred/Illyira from Buffy and Angel, and River and Wash the pilot from Firefly. Apollo from BSG even turns up!
And speaking even more about Battlestar Galactica, that series had a slew of female characters who were badasses played by strong actors to such a degree that Eliza Dushku really comes off as a slicked-up wet dream in comparison. They merit their own discussion, but I will leave it for now at: Eliza Dushku, you are no Katee Sackhoff (Starbuck). Lucy Lawless, Grace Park, Mary McDonnell, Sackhoff, and Tricia Helfer (below) all have the edge of being able to lock into a deeply conflicted character and take her as far or further than the writing demands.
Dushku isn’t bad, exactly, but she just isn’t good enough to carry the show as the central character. She does not ruin the series by any means, but other actors could have captured Echo (her Doll name) to better effect. Suggestions?
Speaking ad nauseam of Battlestar Galactica, Dollhouse seems to owe a lot of its downloading of selves to the re-boot of BSG by Ronald D. Moore, in which the human-like Cylons evaded mortality by downloading their memories into another identical model at the precise moment of the active model’s death. The evolution of individuality despite the contraints of programming occurs in both BSG and Dollhouse, but is more evocative in the former, primarily because the series ran longer and allowed for a slower, rockier process of self-discovery; moreover, because the Cylons were always conscious of their existence, their path toward free will takes more surprising turns, making the evolution far more dramatic. (NB: Both shows have sleepers who do not realize that they are Dolls/Cylons. I’ll say no more since these revelations are rather fantastic; however, this does point to Blade Runner and its predecessors as other earlier influences.) The Cylons have no off-button (other than being shut down and “boxed”); they have to discover their selves for themselves. The Dolls’ march toward real personhood is less complex and therefore somewhat less compelling.
Dollhouse is probably my least favorite of the four Whedon series, but it is also the one I would most likely return to for a reconsideration, especially after taking it in as a whole and weighing it against not only other Whedon works, but also shows like BSG that have more in common thematically. If Buffy and Angel seem more slanted to a female audience and Firefly skewed toward a male one, Dollhouse, as I might argue for BSG, wavers between the two. It does have a very superficial male appeal (or an appeal to a new generation of girls, raised on a diet of music videos that equate dress-up sexuality with power, even when the sexy are powerless puppets), featuring servants parading around in fetish-wear and following sex fantasies down to detail, no doubt enhancing the ratings in the process.
A more discerning female (and male) audience could look through the slick surface (and this is the slickest show in the Whedon canon) to arrive at the questions posited earlier, slipping deeper into the grey zones and sliding from soft sci-fi into harder sci-fi along the way.
Is this a show for boys or for girls, or more for grown-ups willing to tread into water deeper than it looks from above – and to keep treading until they see through the murkiness to the bottom?
As stated before, I felt cheated by the regular finale, but the tacked-on harder sci-fi post-finale is what I choose to remember as the series’ end, and when I look back on the entire run of the show, I am more appreciative now than I was as initially I viewed it. Mr. Lousy, you in particular need to watch it all the way through. You did Firefly in a single day. You’ve already proven your mettle; now put it to use.