Dollhouse has been an interesting experience. Originally it was cause for great excitement. Joss Whedon, the master behind such hallmarks as Buffy, Angel and Firefly had a new show coming, with many of the Whedonverse regulars! Unfortunately, the delivered show didn’t live up to the hype at all. It was in fact, a great letdown.
It may have made sense to wait a while as many shows had poor first seasons until they got settled, however Dollhouse has shown no signs of improving. It’s second season is quite a bit better than the first, but ultimately it is still just as bland and empty as the first. I also wonder how far that excuse can apply to Whedon’s shows, with Angel, Firefly having excellent first seasons, and Buffy being decent enough. It actually took me a while to get into Firefly being such a radical departure from the Buffyverse, but once I did the characters, stories dialog was top notch.
So, what is the problem with Dollhouse as a show? Well, where to start? It has none of the smooth wit or dialog Whedon is famous for. When characters speak it is always very brief and efficient, as though they are in a hurry. It is understandable that the dolls lack a personality, but why do the normal people? Is it all part of a larger plot plan to show that everyone is a doll?
It has (so far) none of the clever examination of moral and world issues so prevalent in his other works. The setup for the shows is a rich opportunity to examine what it means to be an individual and the importance of identity, corporations growing out of control, questions of the soul etc…, None of these are examined. It is sometimes hinted at, and Echo’s development is perhaps hinting towards such a plot, but so far nothing. The entire first season entirely squandered this opportunity, and the second season has so far only been dropping hints. In effect, 2 seasons over 2 years have failed to have any meaningful examination. No wonder it was canceled.
Then, there are the main characters. Many problem have an issue with Eliza’s acting. Personally, I think she plays a blank doll fine, and while her acting in her various guises is far from great, it is passable. It certainly would not be enough to bring the whole show down. What about the other characters? Again, the acting is nothing special, which isn’t a problem. Enver Gjokaj is one of the better actors on the show. His portrayal in the last episode (2×05) of Topher was perfect, with it being a perfect impression.The problem, is with the characters. They are bland and uninteresting, and morally suspect without any kind of reasoning or explanation given.
In all of Joss Whedon’s other TV shows, there is a common theme for people fighting for something. We had Buffy fighting against the forces of hell to save the world, Angel fighting for his humanity, and the crew of the Firefly fighting against a totalitarian government. This theme is absent in Dollhouse. Instead, we have a large apparently very evil corporation screwing around with peoples lives and personalities for profit. Indeed, it seems to be implied through that Rossum wins regardless, which invokes a feeling of ‘why even bother?’. The only character who was fighting against them was bland and uninteresting, and ended up working for them.
In the first season, we had Agent Ballard explaining why the Dollhouse was evil in every episode, while displaying a disturbing obsession with Echo that was never quite explained. For reasons that don’t quite make sense and appear to be forgotten, he now works for the Dollhouse, suddenly being convinced he is doing the right thing. With Senator Perrin revealed to be a doll, there is no one actually fighting the Dollhouse.
Boyd is obviously a moral character and has a lot of concern for the people in the Dollhouse despite obvious moral qualms about his work. An apparently meaningful relationship with echo in season 1 was abandoned in season 2. Why show these characters and their moral concerns if you are not going to expand on them. All we see is these people voluntarily working for an evil corporation without offering any justification. This makes it hard to sympathize with or like these characters, when we instinctively feel we should be rooting for them to be taken down.
One of the more annoying things about the show is the fact that everyone is turning out to be a doll. Dr. Saunders turned out to be a doll, which was interesting given that she was a member of staff. Then Lubov turned out to be a doll, which seemed like an interesting twist. Then Mellie was revealed to be a doll, which is exactly when it stopped being clever. After the last episode revealing that the Senator was a doll, it became an annoying plot device that makes it hard to be invested in the story. I won’t be surprised if any more major characters turn out to be dolls.
Another point that I found annoying, although it applies to a lesser extent to all of Joss’ shows, is a negative male portrayal. The males on Joss’s shows always seem to embody negative sterotypes to directly contrast the strong female characters, instead of just having ‘normal’ male characters. Topher seems particular annoying because he appears to be a clichéd lonely brilliant nerd. Much like Andrew. We then had Ballard with an unexplained obsession, one of the handlers being a rapist, the Dollhouse directors being willing to sell Sierra into sexual servitude for profit and Dominic trying to murder Echo. The only decent character seem to be Boyd who is still quite questionable. By contrast the females are all strong and independent, and work hard to do the morally right thing such as DeWitt restoring Serra so she would not have to be a slave, and Caroline being an activist before she was a doll.
One last small thing that has been bugging me with the show, and with other movies or shows with similar concepts such as Avatar, is why a persons consciousness must be transferred. Surely however that technology would work by reading the brain, it would make a copy? What would necessitate that the original be erased? It’s a minor point, but it seems that it is avoided for the sole purpose of the problems such a plot point would cause. If it is obvious to me, then it is probably obvious to others, so why not explain it away in the show?
Some people might say that Dollhouse was canceled just as it was getting good, and I am not sure that is true. The show has certainly improved, however I don’t think it has improved to a point that warrants renewal. The characters are still bland, there has not been any strong overall story or development, the stand alone episodes are weak….the audience has nothing to connect with. The show may have had potential, but they had two years to figure things out and correct their mistake. If they didn’t learn by now, then it is a fairly safe bet they may never have.
It was an interesting ride though. I wonder if the series will continue on in comic form ala Joss’ other works. I can understand many people watching the show being fan’s of Joss and wanting to see where the show went. What I don’t get is the blind loyalty some of these whedonites seemed to display, aggressively defending what is basically a bad show. Even if the show were good overall, when they defend obviously bad writing or dialog, it seems to be nothing more than fanaticism born out of some sort of twisted loyalty.
Something that this Penny Arcade strip captured perfectly:
While Dollhouse was ultimately disappointing, I look forward to Joss’ next project, and hope that he may return to his original winning formula.
It seems I spoke too soon. I wrote this post before watching episodes 2×07 and 2×08, which seemed to contradict many of my problems with the show. The later episodes have definitely been interesting, although the story would have worked much better as a season/show arc rather than a conclusion to the canceled series. I have to say I was quite disappointed with the attic being a matrix ripoff and Victor and Sierra having a love that transcends self. Still, it is entertaining enough and I wonder how the show will end in January.