Saturday, 7 March 2009

The Wise Man Built His Dollhouse Upon The Rock

There is a certain amount of circumstantial evidence at this point that Dollhouse is shit.

Allow that to sink in for a moment: a Joss Whedon show that blows goats. I was as surprised as anyone.

It wasn't just the fact that people were down on it, either, since it's hardly unheard of for me to love passionately something everyone else thinks is horribly crappy. It's the specific nature of the complaints. If its detractors are to be believed (and I have no reason to doubt their veracity), Whedon has gone from shows that deliberately subverted the idea that women on TV should simply be eye-candy flesh-pots, to a show which embraces that idea with gusto.

A lot of people are very upset. It's hardly unheard of for a talented writer to go off their game, but deliberately embracing the very lowest common denominator bullshit exploitation you've always railed against? Well, that's something very different.

Here's the thing, though: what if it's all deliberate? Let me offer you two scenarios.

Scenario 1: the show is intentionally as uncomfortably voyeuristic and exploitative as the events it is depicting. One of the best things about A History Of Violence was the variety of motives, targets and consequences of the violence on display. You could almost hear Cronenberg asking after each punch or gunshot "Is this OK?" Are you morally justified in punching the school bully. If a sexual encounter with your wife essentially starts off as rape and becomes frenzied, passionate love-making, is it wrong?

If Dollhouse is trying to raise similar questions about the objectification of people (and women in particular), then forcing the viewer to question themselves as they are viewing doesn't seem like the worst idea in the world (q.v. Shivers, also by Cronenberg, with its stripteases, lesbian kisses, and women getting parasites in unmentionable places whilst relaxing in the bath). You can't try and do something like that and not be exploitative, otherwise you've already answered the question and you're trying to get other people to agree with you. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but in this post BSG world it wouldn't be surprising that Whedon (who has admitted to learning from BSG's example, or at least lamenting that he can't do it they way they do) might want to pose a question rather than ram a moral message down our throats.

If that's the idea, then it seems to be working to a point. People certainly are discussing these questions. There's another question that's also being asked in addition, though, which is "How much longer will this shit be on the air." A film asking uncomfortable questions of the viewer by daring them to enjoy what's on display can work, but a TV show? Asking the same question every week? Not so much.

Maybe it won't be every week, admittedly, but we'll come back to that. The second scenario is this: Whedon has fucking well had enough of you. Yes, you, you pricks. The unwashed masses baying for immediate satisfaction. The knuckle-dragging mono-brows shovelling pizza into your face as you watch the latest celebrity reality show. The people who keep Ant and Dec employed. You finally ground the poor bastard down.

Whedon tells a story about the day he was heading back to his office after having a crappy meeting with some studio execs over his ideas for a new Batman film, and wondering how many more times he would need reminding that the suits don't give a damn about the creative process, only to get in to find that Firefly had been cancelled.

Maybe he's finally learned his lesson. Maybe he's finally abandoned the idea of ever getting something artistically impressive on the air ever again. Buffy only became something interesting in its second season, Angel followed in it's wake, and Firefly got put down before many of us had seen the first episode. Perhaps every episode of Dollhouse is a deliberate fuck you to the world, forty five minutes of tits and ass and jiggling and baby oil and sexual compliance. People keep saying they've heard the show picks up with the sixth installment, which Whedon wrote himself. I keep imagining the episode opening to reveal Whedon sitting in a chair, naked, screaming "Take a good look!" over and over whilst Tennyson's Ulysses crawls across the bottom of the screen. "Picks up" might not be quite the right term, I'll grant you, but it would make for a fucking excellent punchline, and at this point I'm not sure if there's any point hoping for more.


Gooder said...

Or everybody suddenly realised Whedon keeps recycling the same characters and people have tired of his (admittedtly quite entertaining) one trick.

It's also mentioning that for me in A History Of Violence Cronenberg misses the mark and the film is the same as every other revenge thriller ever made and doesn't really challenge the viewer on their enjoyment of violence. 'Funny Games' is a much better take on this, much more unsettling.

jamie said...

But, from the episode of Dollhouse I've seen (the first), very few of the characters in the show are like his previous characters, or even very likeable. It's a lot darker and less humorous than his previous efforts too.

Maybe people are wanting more of the one-trick pony and are disappointed with what they've been foisted with instead; or maybe Whedon dropped the ball trying to do something too deliberately different.

I don't really want to judge until I've seen a bit more, as yes, I gather it is supposed to improve. At the moment though, it lacks the appeal to make me really want to dl the episodes.

SpaceSquid said...

I haven't seen Funny Games, I'll have to look out for it.

What I will say, though, is that I think A History Of Violence does work in challenging your appreciation of violence, until the final act where it all goes to Hell and we just get to see a guy killing a whole mess of people.