Test Pilot: File #33, Dollhouse

Test Pilot #33: Dollhouse

Debut date: February 13, 2009

Series legacy: Bursting with potential, much of it untapped

Welcome to 2012, friends, readers and fellow humans. Test Pilot grew into a popular (relatively speaking, of course) and personal favorite feature in 2011 and I think we have a bunch of really intriguing stuff coming up that will allow Test Pilot to trend upward into the new calendar year as well. For example, to kick things off this year, we’re doing something special: A Test Pilot theme week. Instead of tackling a new pilot within a certain theme every other week, my guests and I will be discussing them over the next four days. This is obviously a different approach and maybe it won’t work, but if it does, look for more theme weeks in the future.

This week, four guest co-writers and I will discuss the work of one Joss Whedon. You folks might not have heard of him, I know. But he’s the voice behind Buffy the Vampire SlayerAngelFirefly and Dollhouse. Although Whedon has not won nearly as many Emmys as the Davids (Chase, Simon, Milch) or someone like Matthew Weiner, he is one of the most respected and admired creative forces in television (and well, now film apparently). His work on the first two series spurred on an entire field of academic study, the third has one of, if not, the most tragic network mismanagement stories and the fourth might be looked at completely different in five or 10 years.

Throughout the week, I will be joined by veteran viewers of all four series and we will talk about how each of these pilots reflect larger Whedon-y (Whedonian?) traits, why they are heavily beloved and what kind of idiot I could be for not watching them sooner. If you missed the posts on Buffy, Angel or Firefly earlier in the week, please check them out.

Today, we wrap up our look through the Whedon oeuvre with his most recent foray into television, Dollhouse. Like Firefly, Whedon’s second project with FOX featured a number of changes mid-production, various minor controversies, a terrible time slot and shockingly, a second season. Along the way, Dollhouse suggested greatness and a slew of intriguing ideas, but never quite there. What can the pilot tell us about the series’ successes and failures?

Joining me today is John Aspler. John is a neuroscience/music undergraduate student hailing from Montreal, Canada. He writes because Lost and Buffy inspired him to take television far more seriously than anyone else he knows in real life. Writing about television, as well as cultural criticism, are his favorite things ever in the world. This fact constantly causes him to question his chosen fields of study as he considers dropping everything in favor of a life of journalistic blogging. He writes semi-occasionally for SpoilerTV, has his own TV blog with a terrible layout, a rant blog shared with angry friends, and can be found on twitter @LostCadence. John, take it away:

Dollhouse opens on security camera footage of two women sitting silently on opposite sides of a round table. The first line, uttered with the intense seriousness of an incredibly arch older British woman, had the unfortunate effect of causing me to giggle uncontrollably. “Nothing is what it appears to be,” she says, with the weight of an overtly stated metaphor clinging to her every syllable. I couldn’t help but think about some of the things my Grade 7 English teacher had taught me, foremost amongst them being to never explore “things aren’t what they seem to be” as a literary theme. The idea is so broad that any story can be made to fit that mold.

In the case of Dollhouse, it really does happen to be one of the central ideas holding the story together, but to start the first scene by waving a giant explicit metaphor at the audience seems a little tacky. This could have been set up in a much more nuanced fashion. Joss Whedon is one of my favorite television authors, but this first line kind of threw me for a loop.

Then again, Whedon rarely shies away from using big in-your-face metaphors. In fact, it’s one of his trademark storytelling techniques. Season six of Buffy very clearly explored drug use and addiction through witchcraft, season two had Buffy’s apparently wonderful boyfriend become a soulless dick the morning after, and Whedon has himself stated that Buffy is a coming of age story in which high school is literally hell. These are the things that I loved about Buffy. Why should Dollhouse’s metaphors bother me so much? I guess it all comes down to execution. Metaphors are a fantastic way to tell a story, but Dollhouse basically spoon-fed that particular idea to its audience. Furthermore, the line served as an indicator of the general quality of the pilot. It’s almost as if Whedon was inserting metacommentary in order to tell the fans ‘look, this is a good series even if it does not yet appear as such. Please be patient.’

All of that to say, I came into Dollhouse with incredibly high Joss Whedon-related expectations; however, I immediately found myself worried about how said expectations might be crushed. While I would greatly enjoy being able to judge Dollhouse based on its merits outside of the context of the Whedonverse, I’m not sure that I’m capable of such a feat. This makes figuring out how I feel about the Dollhouse pilot a very difficult task. I don’t think I’m ever going to know if it disappointed me because it was weak, or if it was mediocre and lacking in elements that the words “Joss Whedon” had lead me to expect. These missing elements included strong/compelling female characters and a sense of development.

I should probably take a moment to explain that, despite my above negativity, I absolutely adore Dollhouse as a completed entity. More than any other Whedon series, Dollhouse relied heavily on its high concept. Said concept acted as a crutch during season one, but wound up heightening the drama throughout season two. It asked big questions that demanded morally complex answers and didn’t shy away from confronting them. The moment that Dollhouse really began to give me what I had initially wanted was in the episode “Epitaph One”. Post-Apocalyptic future in which technology to alter the human mind has run amok? Yes please!

Furthermore, season two remains one of my favourite seasons of a Whedon series to date. Unfortunately, the problems present in the pilot didn’t really start working themselves out until most of the way through the first season. Fortunately, the promise of its high concept convincingly resolved itself over the course of the series’ second season.

Whedon is well known for crafting gripping stories about strong female protagonists. Right from the pilot, Buffy had Buffy, Angel had Cordelia, and, although Firefly was essentially a Nathan Fillion-led ensemble, it had Zoe, Inara, and Kaylee.

Dollhouse was supposed to highlight Eliza Dushku’s Echo. Or rather, Dollhouse was supposed to tell the story of Caroline, a woman who had gotten in over her head with strength to buck the system despite being a retrograde amnesic with minimal sense of self. Somehow, being the best able to have your mind wiped and reprogrammed in order to complete a wide variety of tasks was supposed to imply strength of character.

As the concept was structured, Dollhouse felt like it should have been the tale of Paul Ballard: FBI agent extraordinaire. Caroline could have been a victim who would LATER become a protagonist as Ballard uncovered her past and took down the Dollhouse. There’s nothing wrong with having a strong male protagonist and, had Whedon been primarily trying to tell Ballard’s story, my point might be moot. Unfortunately for Whedon, Eliza Dushku had been heavily pushed as the kickass star of Dollhouse in promotional material, in the opening credits, in interviews with Whedon himself, and in the structuring of the weekly stories. Furthermore, Tamoh Penikett only appeared briefly and never with any of the other series regulars (not unlike when he was a guest star on Battlestar Galactica throughout its first season).

I have no problem with Joss Whedon trying to tell the story of a woman devoid of character slowly creating one for herself from nothing. Given the disturbing nature of the dollhouse and the ultimate direction in which the series was taken, I suspect that this might have been one of Whedon’s goals. The problem is a combination of my expectations (my own problem), how the series was marketed (further skewing my aforementioned expectations), and the pilot’s structure (an actual series problem). Marketing problems were likely more a function of how FOX handled Dollhouse, which would make the following criticism a little harsh; however, the series itself tried to make Echo, as she appeared in the pilot, seem stronger than she should have, conflicting with any purposeful opposite intent on Whedon’s part.

As such, the majority of each episode devoted its time to Echo, who was thrown into weekly situations requiring her new programming to save the day. In the pilot, we were supposed to be rooting for Echo as she saved a child from a group of kidnappers; however, we wound up rooting for her persona of the week (Eleanor Penn) to save the weekly guest stars instead. Topher (the dollhouse’s nerdy tech guy) specifically said “what happened at the dock happened to Eleanor Penn, or the people we made her out of.” As in, not Echo. That isn’t to say that Topher was 100% correct, but we wouldn’t be made aware of this until well after the pilot. How could a character with no personality, or rather, a personality that changed between episodes, be an interesting one? How could this character be the compelling leader of an ensemble drama? As early as the pilot, the series felt more like an elaborate live-action creation of a CV for Dushku to show the world her range as an actor – a range I was not entirely convinced existed based on the pilot – rather than a coherent story about a woman with no identity.

Still, at the beginning and end of many episodes, we were given glimpses into why Echo was supposedly the protagonist. Unlike many of the other dolls, she appeared semi-aware. Furthermore, Echo learned and grew despite consistently having her memory wiped. From nothing came something. Sadly, season one’s overly episodic structure denied us much of this development. Even sadder is the fact that this was completely absent from the pilot. Echo was blissfully unaware of her episode-long struggle. It’s hard to sit through dramatic situation after dramatic situation when there’s nothing emotional at stake for the central character. Echo didn’t even take home a clichéd life lesson from her ordeal because SHE COULD NOT REMEMBER SAID ORDEAL!

At a major turning point in the pilot, Boyd (Echo’s handler) disputed wiping Echo of Ms. Penn’s persona for fear of her losing the tools necessary to save the day. He was trying to argue that Echo herself was important, while essentially claiming that the only reason Echo would be of use was because of other people’s experiences and some lucky programming on Topher’s part. In fact, Echo being allowed to continue her mission was more a function of Boyd’s argument with Dewitt (the head of the dollhouse) than it was a reflection of Echo doing anything particularly amazing.

Honestly, I could not have cared less about Ms. Penn’s adventures as a hostage negotiator. That probably says more about my personal preference for serialization than it does about the quality of the situation of the week; however, had this story been used to tell us something about the characters – generally the primary goal of series relying heavily on procedural-like storytelling – then I might have had more positive things to say about the pilot. While it did help introduce us to Boyd, Topher, Dewitt, and Echo’s hostage negotiator persona, it told me nothing about Echo (or Caroline) herself.

That isn’t to say that none of the other characters appeared interesting. The best character development came in the form of the aforementioned potential protagonist: Paul Ballard. His introduction is one of the pilot’s strongest moments. It’s a great character beat in which we learn about his determination to root out and destroy the dollhouses through the juxtaposition of a scene in which he panders to his superiors and another scene in which he never gives up and winds up kicking the crap out of an opponent while boxing. As the season wore on, his disconnection from the rest of the cast became frustrating because he was so compelling and yet so uninvolved; however, the season one finale sorted that out by having him become Echo’s handler.

Truthfully, I’m not certain what Whedon could have done differently. In order to lead us to the promised-land that was season two, he needed to sustain a slow-burning mythology-based development. If Echo became self-aware too early, the series would have to move into territory it wasn’t yet ready to explore. If Ballard discovered the dollhouse too early, then he would be forced to fail regularly or else to save Caroline far too soon. When Echo ultimately learned to harness all of her different personalities, it helped that we had witnessed her execute so many different missions. It made the payoff feel warranted, even if the setup had been somewhat excruciating. Echo’s slow development into a person also made her anger at the possibility of being “killed” when Caroline was to be given her body back much more powerful. All of these amazing elements were only possible because of the manner in which season one was set up.

What did I think of the Dollhouse pilot? There were elements that hinted at the quality to come. The series’ big questions were compelling, Ballard was especially good in his very few scenes, the hook involving videos of Caroline being watched by a naked man surrounded by men he had killed was intriguing, and the dollhouse mythology left me wanting more information. However, the rest of the pilot was an accidental mess. Trying to push the conflict as something that the protagonist had no actual hand in was always going to be problematic. The pilot tried to shrug the concern off as if Whedon knew that it existed but was trying to deny the matter. The issue seems to be the contradictions inherent in Whedon’s goals. On the one hand, the pilot made for an interesting look at a decent ensemble cast, while on the other, it tried too hard to ensure that Echo was considered the main protagonist. Season two ultimately brought us a strong female lead – the character that Whedon was likely interested in showing us in the first place – that could not have existed without her confusing development throughout season one. Sadly, it took way too long for Whedon to make that point clear. “Nothing is what it [appeared] to be.”


Now, my not-so-newbie thoughts on Dollhouse:

I closed my thoughts on Buffy the Vampire Slayer by noting that Joss Whedon was a writer/director who knew how to play within the constraints of the broadcast network and studio system. Obviously, the WB and UPN aren’t NBC or CBS, but doing projects like Buffy and Angel a decade-and-a-half ago was still relatively risky.

And yet, as time has passed and the broadcast networks have seen their ratings decline as cable networks take a larger chunk of audience attention and all networks except CBS have begun catering to some kind of niche, Whedon’s failed more than he’s succeeded. This is a time when a series like Fringe (one that debuted right alongside Dollhouse in the 2008-09 season) stays on the air for four-plus years. This is the era of the cult television series. And yet, here we have Whedon’s final television project that didn’t really connect with viewers and only got a second season out of the kindness of FOX’s heart, really.

One could probably argue that Firefly failed because it was too novel, too “different” for broadcast television, especially in 2002. Whedon expected too much from his audience (which is a conversation or another day, I guess). But what’s really interesting to me is that it’s almost as if Whedon tried too hard to play with the system with Dollhouse, at least with the pilot and the first season. It’s not like he was unaware of the television landscape, his past history with FOX or the general expectations that come with a series that has his name at the top.

Therefore, instead of moving forward with the much more complicated, “here’s the deep end, now swim” approach the initial pilot episode “Echo” took, Whedon decided to shoot an entirely different pilot episode in “Ghost” and well, the results are middling at best. John talked a lot about how the struggles of the pilot (and much of the first season) end up laying the groundwork for what eventually became a very strong second season and while I don’t disagree with that sentiment completely, it does seem as if Whedon ran away from the intriguing themes and concepts behind Dollhouse as quickly as he could in season one.

I will be the first person to support the initial use of procedural, case-like stories. I understand the logic of starting off with close-ended, only-partially complicated episodes. This is especially true for a series like Dollhouse, where the concept was certainly going to be somewhat difficult for general audiences to consume. My problem with Dollhouse’s pilot and most of the episodes that use the “appointment of the week” structure isn’t that they simply use that structure, it’s that the execution of the structure is rarely that interesting and early on, only served as a way to show the gimmicky parts of the series’ concept (and as John mentioned, to show off Dushku’s sometimes-strained acting abilities).

Whereas a series like Fringe eventually figured out that it could use the episodic stories to impact the lead characters in moving ways, Dollhouse never got there. Most of them followed a simple structure – Echo gets in trouble! Sometimes Victor or Sierra gets in trouble! – and while they occasionally moved the plot forward, nothing that crucial happened on a character level. Most of those beats and reveals were saved for the big mythology episodes. The separation between the two kinds of episodes didn’t really matter once the second season got going – though season two’s standalone episodes are pretty miserable as well – but the first season is often such a mess that it’s hard to believe anyone but diehard Whedon fans and intense television watchers stuck around (and that’s probably completely true).

Hindsight is our favorite science, but re-watching “Ghost” now, it sure feels as if Whedon hoped the concept itself would be enough to keep people coming back, without actually fully getting into many particulars about what that concept was. Again, I understand the rationale for this decision and I would never advocate for a pilot to spell everything out and then leave no real mystery left moving forward, but there’s just a weird flow and lack of depth to Dollhouse’s initial episode that I wouldn’t really expect from Whedon (even based on my small knowledge in that regard). The series obviously took a very dark and compellingly deranged turn in season two and I think I would have preferred that there were just a smidgen more of that ominous feeling early on in season one. Because there’s no question that Dollhouse features one hell of a premise, one that raises all sorts of ethical, moral and fundamental questions about society. And yet, “Ghost” is just too nonchalant about all of that, despite Boyd’s protests.

The lack of engagement with the series’ big themes is probably the biggest disappointment of the Dollhouse pilot for me. Although I’ve been annoyed with my peers’ incessant needling that I HAVE TO WATCH everything that Whedon’s done, I’ve never really doubted the man’s ability to craft supremely complex and interesting television. I think the second season of Dollhouse features one of the strongest runs of high-concept, pulse-pounding mythology-based storytelling in recent years and the success of those episodes relies just as much on their willingness to address the creepy nature of the series’ whole premise as it does the slew of out-of-nowhere twists. And what we learn in “Ghost” or many of the first season episodes doesn’t necessarily lay the groundwork for those reveals and pay-offs as much as it delays getting to them.

Moreover, “Ghost” and much of the first season suffer because Dollhouse lacks the fascinating group dynamics that power Buffy and Firefly, even in the pilot stage. Much like the first episode of Angel, “Ghost” relies too much on its central character and even more egregiously than Angel, Dollhouse’s central character is a bit of a bore (although more purposefully so, of course). Dushku gets better as Dollhouse progresses, but the whole “different people” gimmick isn’t really her strong-suit. Harry Lennix and Olivia Williams are fine as Boyd and DeWitt, but Fran Kranz didn’t figure out how to make Topher less obnoxious until much later and “Ghost” doesn’t feature enough of Enver Gjokaj and Dichen Lachman. And because of the series’ premise, these characters don’t really interact with one another in powerful ways at this stage. There’s no sense of togetherness or rapport and although that’s entirely part of Dollhouse’s larger sense of alienation and manipulation, it does remove what is clearly one of Whedon’s writing strengths. Again, once these folks do come together in later episodes, the series improves. Waiting to get there, though, is a bit of a pill.

Ultimately, Dollhouse is a weird entity. On paper, it is powered by Whedon’s most novel and compelling premise and in many instances, the real execution of that premise results in tremendous episodes and interest in some very heavy, but important themes about control, technology, manipulation, etc. In that regard, the series features the strongest Whedon output I’ve personally ever experienced. Nevertheless, because Whedon and his team attempted to satiate general audiences too much in the early going (perhaps because of what happened with Firefly?) and never quite figured out how to bring the two different kinds of episodes together that well, Dollhouse remains a supremely flawed whole. I hope that its failure* doesn’t keep Whedon from trying television again, because he’s clearly one of the best storytellers we have. Maybe just stay away from broadcast networks, Joss.

*Failure is relative. Two seasons isn’t the kind of run we just ignore.

As we come to the end of our Joss Whedon theme week, I would like to add two points. The first is that I need to thank Greg, Chris, Rowan and John for taking part in this little experiment. It has been really fun and I think each of them brought something slightly different to the table, creating a great experience overall. Secondly, I’m ready to watch some more Whedon-penned television. You win, Whedon faithful.


Conclusions on legacy: “Bursting with potential, much of it untapped” sounds perfect


3 responses to “Test Pilot: File #33, Dollhouse”

  1. The thing that frustrated me about Dollhouse Season One was that I didn’t think there were inherent problems with Echo’s character development and the major arc needing to be a very slow burn, and for the show to have to favor stand-alone episodes at the beginning – because its setting seemed perfect for writing great episodes of that form.

    There was complete choice over your protaganist’s character and skill set, and the usually annoying aspects of “reset TV” where things are back to normal at the end of every episode are both completely consistent with the premise and ripe for commentary/subversion. We could have had a season of great one-shot stories by a bunch of writers, kind of like a contemporary Twilight Zone but with arc lurking in the shadows.

    Instead I found most Dollhouse stand-alone A-stories to be pretty dull in premise and weak in execution – “Ghost” is even one of the better ones! Whereas the arc episodes – which in theory should have been harder to get right – were generally brilliant, albeit increasingly compressed/telegraphed as the show squeezed up against cancellation.


  2. “Therefore, instead of moving forward with the much more complicated, “here’s the deep end, now swim” approach the initial pilot episode “Echo” took, Whedon decided to shoot an entirely different pilot episode in “Ghost” and well, the results are middling at best. John talked a lot about how the struggles of the pilot (and much of the first season) end up laying the groundwork for what eventually became a very strong second season and while I don’t disagree with that sentiment completely, it does seem as if Whedon ran away from the intriguing themes and concepts behind Dollhouse as quickly as he could in season one.”

    Not really. After Joss Whedon wrote and directed Echo (which was very good) as the first episode, FOX then told him that he could not use it as the first episode. He negotiated with them so that he could craft a more action-packed episode to be the first episode but keep Echo as the second episode. Although they agreed, they then insisted on such major changes to the show that Echo would no longer work anywhere in the series. Quite apart from forcing the Joss Whedon to abandon ‘Echo’, the Fox executives also demanded that the show shy away from its darker subject matter. Even while the show was on air, Joss Whedon said quite clearly that he was frustrated that the show, in his words, was required to dance around its premise.

    Whatever you think of Dollhouse’s merits and weaknesses, you need to get the history right. It wasn’t Joss Whedon who ditched ‘Echo’ or ‘ran away from the intriguing themes and concepts behing Dollhouse’. Joss Whedon makes mistakes (the 3 or 4 god-awful episodes that closed season 2 (with that spectacularly inept plot twist) weren’t Fox’s fault), but here you’re laying the blame at the wrong person’s feet.


  3. Very much enjoyed your look at this pilot and the other Whedon pilots. I’ve subscribed to your RSS feed and I’m looking forward to what you have coming in 2012.


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