There's a reasonably famous experiment on perception in which people are asked to watch a short clip of a basketball game, and count the number of times that the players in white T-shirts pass the ball. After watching the video, the viewer is asked one very simple question:
"Did you notice the gorilla?"
Because a gorilla walks through the shot, about halfway through the video. It even stops and does a little dance. And you know what? Nobody does notice the gorilla. Once we've decided what we need to focus on, human beings turn out to be very good at tuning everything else out in order to pay close attention to the things they're looking for.
So what does all this have to do with 'Dollhouse'? It's very simple. The series (which I watched on DVD over the course of the last couple of weeks) quickly developed a reputation as being underwhelming, not worthy of Joss Whedon's reputation. Even among Whedon fans, 'Dollhouse' was seen as a creative misstep. "It moves too slow." "Not enough happens in each episode." Whedon and Eliza Dushku had to personally plead with the fanbase to keep watching for at least six episodes to give the metastory, the overall arc of what happens to Echo and what secrets the Dollhouse holds, time to develop. When the DVD finally came out, fans watched the unaired pilot and said that it was better because so much more of the "real story" was in it.
The thing is...the metastory? That's the three men in white shirts passing the basketball. The stories in each episode? They're the gorilla.
The central concept of the Dollhouse is something that can generate a near-infinite number of good stories without ever changing the status quo. (More on this when I get around to writing "Storytelling Engines: Dollhouse", natch.) It's a series where the lead character can turn into anyone, enter any situation, play any part with perfect accuracy. That's a hook for so many good story ideas, and the first five episodes play through some great ones; Echo goes from being a bodyguard for a singer with an obsessive fan to infiltrating a religious cult to staging a complex theft on a museum, all plots that should be engaging and interesting.
But the fans are saying, "We were promised that this was about Echo regaining her memories and personality! We were promised that this was about an FBI agent trying to crack open the secrets of the Dollhouse! We were promised Alpha, dangit!" And those stories are designed to simmer under the surface slowly over the course of the run of the entire series, not boil over in the first six weeks. (Just imagine if someone told you that Season Two of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' was "about" Angel going bad and Buffy having to fight him. You'd be absolutely out of your mind with boredom by Episode Eleven. "...the heck? Ted Ritter as a killer robot? Boy, talk about your lame Monster of the Week series!")
Now I'm not saying that it's the fans' fault for not liking the show. Well, okay, I sort of am. Ever since 'Babylon 5' introduced the idea of an overarching metaplot that would build from one episode to the next, we've been conditioned to expect that the metaplot is more important than the individual episodes (possibly because metaplots reward diligent and loyal viewers, and sci-fi fans tend to be both of those things, so we feel kinda special when watching shows with big oomphy metaplots because it feels like they're aimed at "us".) Nothing kills the fun of watching a show faster than projecting expectations onto it that it can't meet. (Even though "Babylon 5" spent a lot of its time on stand-alone episodes, too...)
But of course, the fans didn't form their expectations in a vacuum. (Which is why I'm not actually saying that it's the fans' fault for not liking the show.) Fox, Whedon, Dushku, and everyone concerned picked their angles to promote the series, and they gave people the impressions and expectations that turned out to be, um, not so realistic. If people were expecting Echo to be on the run by Episode Five, accompanied by FBI agent Paul Ballard, that's in no small part because that's how Fox sold the series. (It also doesn't help that it's hard to wrap your head around the idea that mind-wiping pimps could be anything other than unequivocal bad guys. You expect Echo to escape or avenge herself because that's what heroes do. It's kind of difficult to accept the idea that the Dollhouse owners have their own side to the story.)
Which is, in the end, why the season finale--"Epitaph One", which didn't actually air due to weird contractual obligations and which is available on the DVD--is so clever. Without getting into any spoilers, it gives people almost more metastory than they can handle, a great big chunk of game-changing events that flow seamlessly out of the previous twelve episodes, but that alter things so much that fans will be poring obsessively over Season Two (and if we're lucky enough, Three, Four, et cetera) to figure out the details. It tells the fans, both current and potential, "Hey. Be patient. We're going places, this is the map...just sit back and enjoy the journey."
I don't think people were expecting to "enjoy the journey" when they watched 'Dollhouse'. I think they were so impatient to get to the destination that they never looked out the window to see the scenery. If they did...or, thanks to the miracle of DVD, Hulu, iTunes, Tivo and DVR, if they do...they might see some very cool gorillas.