Tuesday, February 2, 2010

In Memoriam: Dollhouse

Dollhouse, Joss Whedon's latest series, has come to a close after a twenty-six episode run. Because I feel like it, I thought I might drill down into a sort of critical recap of the series.

The basic premise of the show proved difficult for most viewers--essentially a high-concept sci-fi take on the white slave trade. Not that this idea is particularly hard to wrap one's brain around, but the gimmick of the show--that the main character routinely had her memory wiped and adopted new personalities for each assignment--deprived it of an emotional anchor. Much of the conflict of the show grew out of the character arcs of various protagonists and semi-protagonists who were at odds with each other. Kudos for originality of concept and for having organic conflicts rather than the rote good-versus-evil routine, but the unfortunate side effect of this is that no one knows whom to root for--or against.

There are ways this could have worked. Maybe if it had been more of an ensemble piece, rather than focusing on Eliza Dushku's Echo. The show worked at its best when it drew focus back from her. Perhaps the whole premise would have been easier to swallow if the narrative perspective came not from the dolls, but from their handlers, just so you have someone to cheer on week after week. We get a little of that in Boyd, but he's peripheral, not focal, (of course, this turns out to be a major plot point in the second season). In fact, the way the second season played out necessitated some of the choices that weighed down the first. And, honestly, even that might have worked if there had been a more versatile actor in the role (no offense to Dushku, but if it had been Christopher Guest or Gary Oldman or some female equivalent--we'd all have been mesmerized). Hell, if Enver Gjokaj (Victor) had been the focus, it would have been more interesting. He's a much more versatile character actor, better with accents and impersonations--his impression of Fran Kanz (Topher Brink) is so good that it got a reprise after a few episodes.

But instead, our focus is Echo, not because Echo is a particularly interesting character, but because she's going to be in about twelve episodes. Seriously, it's not until the end of the first season that the show truly breaks out of itself and morphs into the deeper character-driven serial that will carry it through the first half of the second season. Part of this is the emergence of Alpha--a genuine villain. Part of it is that the actors are a bit more comfortable in their roles. Part of it is that Echo starts being a character rather than a body. And part of it is that the show has always had a little bit of an identity crisis.

Because, let's face it: Dollhouse was never about a dollhouse. It was about the technology behind the dollhouse, the world of the dollhouse. It explored the different ways that said technology could affect society. This is all well and good, but it creates a very schizophrenic series. It starts out as a one-off adventures, but then it because a sort of mini-series that individually studies its main characters. [SPOILERS] Then it becomes an epic march to war against an evil corporation, and we finish things off with a little zombie apocalypse coda. [END SPOILERS]

So, could it have been better? Sure. Nonetheless, it was well-written, reasonably well executed, and it played with some interesting ideas in the spirit of all good science fiction. I was constantly being surprised by plot turn after plot turn, and I found the series imminently enjoyable. And mostly, I'm happy that it found a way to draw itself to some closure. I particularly liked that the closure didn't seem all that rushed, even though it was. And the fact that purchasers of Season 1 got a glimpse of what was coming in the Epitaph 1 episode made for some very rewarding foreshadowing.

[SPOILERS]

It was great to know that Topher would eventually have a mental breakdown while watching his mind start to fall apart. You could see Dewitt's guilt about how she used him begin to mold into a maternal sort of love for him. You could watch Alpha go on a rampage, knowing that he'd eventually become a good guy. And in the end, their stories all had endings--Adell's guilt was replaced with a charge to rebuild civilization. Topher got some redemption. Victor and Sierra finally got a chance to be together as a family. Ballard was resurrected to be killed a second time (that's how you know he's important--Whedon killed him off twice), and then sort of resurrected once more.

[END SPOILERS]

So, I have my complaints, but I've enjoyed it and I can't wait to see what Joss Whedon turns out next.

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