House Broken

It might be hard to accept, but it needs to be said.  Dollhouse‘s failure is not the fault of Fox.  This time, we have to blame Joss Whedon.

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After watching Fox rake Firefly over the coals, I know it seems natural to point fingers at them as Dollhouse has struggled with with a poor time slot, increasingly common preemptions and an early, lengthy production shutdown.  Firefly was a classic show right out of the gate.  Its treatment as a failed property so early in its run was absurd, made worse by Fox’s meddling with the airing order of episodes and – yes – regular preemptions.  Its run was cut unceremoniously short halfway through its first season.  It was a travesty; Firefly started great and got better as it went.  What could have been a healthy SF franchise died because executives didn’t understand what they had.

On the surface, the problems with Dollhouse sound familiar.  Without knowing what’s going on behind the scenes, I can’t discount executive meddling as a drag on the show.  There’s a clear difference, though, between Firefly and Dollhouse.

Dollhouse is a far worse show, by almost any measure, than Firefly.

It has a great premise, I agree.  Occasionally, when they find the right story to tell within the premise, it really works, too.  The unaired episode, Epitaph One, is ironically the best of the lot, and it shows that the premise Dollhouse is far from an unworkable idea.  It’s got some amazing actors running around in it, too.  Olivia Williams, (Adelle DeWitt), Enver Gjokaj (Victor), Dichan Lachman (Sierra), Harry Lennix (Boyd Langton) and Reed Diamond (Laurence Dominic) have all put in noteworthy performances.  The ingredients are there.  Even with every bit of executive meddling Firefly faced, there’s enough raw material to pull from to put together something worth everyone’s time.

A premise is not a show, nor are the raw materials of good storytelling guarantee of creating something memorable.  Dollhouse is troubled by problems deeper than network interference. What bothers me is that, judging by his interviews and statements, Joss Whedon is either unaware or in denial about his show’s weaknesses.  With Dollhouse a near lock for cancellation at the end of its 13 episode second season, it’s fair to ask why this show didn’t succeed, despite a miraculous and probably undeserved renewal after its troubled first season.

  • Misplaced Faith – I love Eliza Dushku.  She’s sexy and tough and full of charisma.  I fell for her as Faith and was impressed by how well she handled some of the tougher material for that character.  Watch “Five by Five” and “Sanctuary” in Angel’s first season for Eliza at her best.  But when I hear Joss claim it was her ability to play any role that inspired him to create Dollhouse, I question his judgment.  While strong in some areas, Dollhouse has put her weaknesses center stage.  Worse,we’ve twice seen better actors play the exact same character as her within the same episode: Season one’s “Gray Hour” and season two’s “Belle Chose.”  If you were concerned about her ability to be the center of a show that demands she convincingly play different people every week, you were sure of it after those episodes.
  • Broken Dolls – One of the worst things you can do to a group of characters who are supposed to be experts is to give them only stories where they screw things up.  Yet Dollhouse‘s primary plot device is to have the Actives malfunction in the middle of a mission.  We’re three episodes into season 2 and we’re still without a successful engagement.  It strains credulity that anyone would hire these people when malfunctions result in things like kidnapped babies and homicide.  (Having worked in many corporations I’d argue that it does not strain credulity that these people still have their jobs. Look how long Ken Lewis kept his position at Bank of America).  It’s also boring to see the same device used over and over again.  Joss has been a canny writer in his other shows, able to turn cliches on their heads every episode.  Here, we just get the cliche.
  • Inertial Dampeners – What do you do with your miraculous renewal after ending a season with the introduction of a great antagonist, followed by an un-aired episode that turns the premise of your show on its head? Go back to the status quo, right?  For reasons I do not understand, Joss Whedon opened a season that needed an immediate ratings boost with three stand-alone malfunctioning Actives plots in a row.  This is where my disappointment with Joss – and my annoyance with his apologists – becomes acute.  By rights, your show should have been canceled.  Yet, rather than open with a barn burner of a season premier, we get Echo pretending to marry an arms dealer to help take him down.  This was followed up by imprinting Echo to think she was the mother of a newborn.  Then a serial killer story.  Yes, Friday night is a death slot.  Yes it can be hard to pull ratings up.  But it’s nearly impossible to hold an audience when you tread narrative water for most of a month.  With your show on the bubble, there’s no excuse for not going all out.  Nothing in season two has been bad, but not bad is not enough when your existence is on the line.
  • Ignoring History – I realize that Fox’s decision not to show “Epitaph One” made things difficult for Joss and his writers.  For those who saw it, a troublesome premise suddenly made sense.  Coming into season 2, Joss made comments that the premier would feature new scenes in the bleak future of “Epitah One” to get the rest of the audience up to speed.  When this was dropped due to concerns of creating an overly complex opener, I got worried.  Without seeing where this technology was going to lead, Dollhouse can seem small and uninvolving.  Now, three episodes in, I’m wondering if we’re going to see that future acknowledged at all before the lights go out.  I worry that this has created two, separate but equally unsatisfied, groups of fans.  On one side, you have those who haven’t seen “Epithaph One” and feel, as I did last season, that the premise is intriguing but pointless.  On the other, those who have seen it and are wondering when the hell it’s going to have an impact on the show itself.  Ignoring his most provocative episode, for any reason, is not helping Joss’ show.

A better time slot, a more consistent schedule and better advertising might pull in more first time viewers.  But of the shows that have aired, how many would compel them to keep watching?  Of the first season’s thirteen episodes, I can only think of six: “Man on the Street”, “Needs”, “Spy in the House of Love”, “Briar Rose” and “Omega.”  If someone watched it on DVD, you can add “Epitaph One” to the list.  That’s half, and all of them in latter half of the season.  Of the second season’s three episodes, I doubt any would turn a casual viewer into a fan.

It’s not Fox’s fault that Joss Whedon has had trouble getting a handle on his own premise, nor is it their fault that he started season 2 with a run of episodes resembling the least favorite of the previous season.  Like every other working writer, Joss Whedon is not infallible.  He’s fantastic and funny, and he’s created three of the most beloved series’ of the last decade.  He’s no slouch.  But that doesn’t make every failure someone else’s fault.  Dollhouse has been an interesting piece of work and, on the balance, I’m glad to have seen it.  It still could be a lot better.

I hope that the second half of season 2 is as good as people are saying.  Sadly, it’s too late.  I fear Joss missed his shot.

At the least, let’s give Fox the credit they deserve for giving it to him.

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