Wednesday, 20 May 2009

A Dollhouse Is Not A Home

Two months ago I wrote a post on the growing complaints against Dollhouse, in which I posited some potential explanations for the problems it was allegedly demonstrating, without having actually seen any of the show in question.

Having now watched the pilot episode (and I concede that more data is needed), I can indeed see a number of problems with the show, but curiously, none of them were quite what I expected.

First, the sexy times. I wonder whether Narin made too much of the first episodes hi-jinks. Sure, Echo is introduced to us as a leather-clad biker chick who also likes to dance in her nightie, but that's what her character is supposed to do. She's a hooker, for God's sake. She doesn't know she is, but she's a hooker. Beyond that, her initial mission as spunky totty is over before the credits (which are absolutely terrible, by the way), so it's hard to get too pissed off about it. Likewise, the communal shower scene is creepy rather than titillating, one facet of the treatment of the "actives", which is purposefully depicted as creepily cynical. Note for example how they all sleep in the same room, in separate boxes, like dolls. OK, it's hardly subtle (Narin is bang on about the lack of subtext, especially with the totally idiotic boxing match flashbacks), but it isn't particularly sexy either. Complaining that Dushku spends most of the episode as a "dominatrix type" smacks of wanting to have your cake and eat it; if Echo dresses provocatively, it's sexist, if she dresses professionally [1], she's rocking the dominatrix look, and it's sexist.

As to the central premise of the show, I have problems with it, but again, not the ones I was expecting. The moral implications of the 'house aren't exactly ignored, so much as deliberately side-stepped by the people working there. And what else would one expect? That's how people who rely on the immoral and/or illegal to get their paychecks often operate. Self-deception and endless sophistry. When DeWitt (the controller of the Dollhouse) attempts to pull Echo out of a mission to rescue a young girl on the grounds that they no longer have a client, ex-cop Langton (the closest the first episode has to a moral compass) points out that DeWitt constantly claims the Dollhouse is there to help people. Forced to choose between risking discovery without reward, and having to abandon her already tattered claim to doing some good in the world, DeWitt chooses the former. How could she not? We all need to believe that what we're doing is right.

So, at least from the pilot episode, the set-up itself isn't causing me any problems. We're not being asked to agree with what the Dollhouse is, we're being asked how much good can be done within an organisation that is inherently bad (if there is a prototype Dollhouse elsewhere in Whedon's work, it's probably Wolfram & Hart once Angel took over). It's nowhere near Galactica's ability to juggle multiple characters and viewpoints and make them all seem valid (which is presumably what Whedon was aiming for), but it's not a terrible initial attempt.

My problem, then, is this: how the Hell are they going to keep this up? I have no idea how Whedon pitched Dollhouse, but it could very well have been "One action movie a week, all starring Eliza Dushku". Which is all well and good, but the very nature of Echo makes her difficult for us to care about. She's a new character every week. The other actives are the same, meaning any connection to the characters by definition has to involve the shady runners of the Dollhouse, or Tahmoh Penikett's FBI agent Ballard, who so far seems to be a bit of a dick too. It's certainly not impossible to write a TV show in which people become attached to anti-heroes (Whedon's done it himself, albeit with shows less po-faced than this one), but I'm not convinced it will work when they're essentially abusing the main "character" every single week.

Moreover, one wonders how later missions can work. In the pilot episode a multi-millionaire who uses the Dollhouse (so he already uses mind-wiped hookers) asks them to help his kidnapped daughter. We can feel for the child, of course, but it's difficult to view the father with anything but contempt. By it's very nature, though, the Dollhouse is only available to such people. How many different ways can a scenario be cooked up which allows one of these unprincipled billionaires to require help in a matter we actually can give a shit about?

Lastly, Ballard represents a significant problem, since either his quest is doomed to failure (or worse, doomed to go on indefinitely without real resolution like the main plot of the X-Files) or will succeed and require extensive re-structuring of the show. Such shake-ups aren't inevitably a bad idea, of course, though in the case of Dollhouse any such change might well either dropping the central idea, or altering the specifics to such an extent that it becomes unbelievable, even in the context of an already silly show.

Still, time will tell.

[1] Well, what counts for professionally in TV land, anyway.

No comments: