Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Dollhouse

(or "So Why Is It About To Be Canceled, Anyway?")

So a while back, I made a post about how Fox had badly mishandled the publicity campaign for "Dollhouse", creating audience expectations that weren't fulfilled when the series went to air. This proved to be #2 on the list of Most Controversial Things I've Ever Said, ranking well behind "Marvel should go back to writing comics for kids because there's not a big enough market for comics for adults to sustain a major publisher" but significantly ahead of "Gee, '300' really sucked." There are some people who just do not like "Dollhouse" on the face of it, and can't imagine why anyone would like it. And apparently, judging from the ratings, there are enough of those people out there that it's hard to believe the series will get a third season. (Fox has, at least, pledged to show all of Season Two.) Why doesn't "Dollhouse" work for these people? Well, some of that is inherent in the set-up of the series.

Which...man, love it or hate it, you have to admit, it's ballsy. Really ballsy. The idea of a sinister, clandestine organization that kidnaps people and wipes their memories and identities is a pretty well-worn fictional trope, which is part of what the show has counted on. At every turn, as Eliza Dushku begins to remember the woman she once was, our collective familiarity with the tropes of science-fiction and action-adventure practically leaps out of our hindbrain and demands that she go on the run from faceless, sinister agents of the Conspiracy while trying to find the proof that will bring down the evil (yet suave and debonair) woman in charge. It's an idea so well-worn it's practically carved a groove in our skulls.

But that's not what "Dollhouse" does. "Dollhouse" doesn't treat the evil conspiracy as "faceless" or "sinister". (Well, maybe "sinister".) It's a show that asks the question, "What sort of actual human being could or would do that sort of thing to someone?" It's following the conspiracy as much as it's following Echo, taking the characters who would normally be two-dimensional bad guys and trying to make them into the main characters. This is a very risky choice. As I've commented in the past, in a long-running series, you don't have to make the protagonists "good", but you do have to make them "sympathetic", and this show has a lot of spiky, damaged people running the show. From Mr. Dominic, who's angry, humorless, and violent; to Topher, who's glib and callous about his treatment of human beings as lab rats; to Adelle, who is simultaneously worldly-wise, shockingly naive, idealistic and ruthless...these are a collection of messed-up people. Which they'd have to be, to do the sorts of things they do, but it's hard for an audience to sympathize with them. Even the three audience-identification characters (Echo, Boyd, and FBI agent Paul Ballard) each have their own tremendous flaws that led them to the Dollhouse in the first place. It's a show that constantly flirts with making you hate its characters.

That's unbelievably dangerous for a TV series. When the series' plots fail (and while "Dollhouse" has a great "go anywhere, do anything" premise in its concept of people who can become anyone for a few days at a time, every series is going to have dud plots now and again) you can always fall back on your characters, the good will they've built up and the chemistry between them to get people to continue to watch. Think of a show like "House", which is basically the same plot every week--it thrives because Hugh Laurie is electric, and the character he's playing is mesmerizing. You don't go back to see how he'll solve this week's case, you go back to see what he'll say and do while he solves it. "Dollhouse" almost dares you to care about its characters, and that's a tough sell.

And then Joss Whedon, as he sometimes does, pulled a game-changer out at the end of Season One. Not "Omega", for those of you who don't generally buy TV shows on DVD--there's an additional episode to the first season that never aired. This show, "Epitaph One", completely changes the focus of the show--instead of, "What sort of person would design a machine that can rewrite a person's mind?", it becomes "What are the consequences of the existence of a machine that can rewrite a person's mind?" It takes the show from the realm of a character study into that of speculative fiction, and does so with gripping intensity. In fact, it's arguable that this is going to make it even harder for Season Two to get a foothold, ratings-wise, because even the fans of "Dollhouse" are now split. While some want to keep watching the edgy, twitchy staff try to sort out their moralities, others would just like to skip ahead ten years and find out what happens to everyone. Can the show handle this balancing act successfully?

Probably not, judging by the ratings. But love it or hate it, you have to admit, this show is going to be memorable.


Mory said...

I don't see that Epitaph One has changed anything for the show. It absolutely should have redefined the show: as you point out, the premise of the show suddenly seems very different, and I think it's a premise that's much easier to follow. I think the show would be getting a lot more viewers if it really were about what would naturally happen if people's identities were rewritten, rather than a secret group who hires people to wipe their minds and rent them out to rich people for jobs too specific for any real person to do.

The trouble I see with the show is that its premise is too hard to even comprehend. There are too many little details. I considered that maybe the show needed a 20-second intro, so that new viewers aren't totally lost, but then I realized that there is no way to sum up the show in 20 seconds and expect it to make any sense at all. The show's concept is just too darn complicated. Joss Whedon should have seen the problem as soon as he had to throw out his straightforward pilot for being too tedious. He's falling into the same trap as when he wrote Runaways, where he tries to do way too much at once.

John Seavey said...

"It's good, but will it get them off their tractors?" :)