Monday, June 17, 2013

Joss Whedon's Dollhouse: Post-Mortem (season one)

Maybe I'll add more to this if I can get through season two. Let that line mark the tenor of this post: I've rewatched season one of Dollhouse primarily because I wanted to rewatch something and 26 episodes of that seemed a lot more manageable than 144 of Buffy or 110 of Angel.

If you haven't watched Dollhouse, don't think I'll make you in order to read this post. Here's the gist: in contemporary L.A., there's a super-science organization that can create people by imprinting personalities onto empty people--Actives or dolls. They get those dolls through a few different ways; the main character Caroline/Echo was caught breaking into a Rossum Corporation lab and needs to sign up to get away from the law (I guess). Meanwhile, FBI Agent Paul Ballard is the only person who thinks the "dollhouse" is real and tries to track it down.

So there's a fun premise, but it never really works out. Even with a little dollop of that "artificial family" thing that Joss Whedon seems to like so much, none of these characters really gets all that interesting. First reason is the obvious: half of the cast has no personality, identity, or desires. Second, the "crusader fighting to find the truth" has some fun moments, but is very cliche and uninteresting. Does he want to find the truth or save the girl? Blah. Also at the end of season one, he gets some leverage over the Dollhouse and uses that to free the doll who was used to manipulate him--the woman who probably signed up to get away from her grief over her dead child. How is that helping anyone?

There's also the central nonsensical elements: there's this super secret organization that has dozens of regular people who just help out, like the masseurs who take care of the dolls. How is that secret? The central idea of blank Actives waiting for admins to fill them up has interesting parallels with actors waiting for writers/directors; but there's something that doesn't quite fit with how they talk about bodies having some residual soul or the personality being the soul.

That said, there are some excellent moments, most of them having to do with the "real" characters of the Dollhouse: quirky lonely genius Topher (it's wonderful and sad when he "makes a friend" for his birthday), hard-edged but soft-hearted Adelle, the mysterious Doctor Saunders. There's some parallels here with other Whedon stories, like: Whedon enjoys when old people act inappropriately, as they do here in "Echoes" or in Buffy's "Band Candy." There's also some great moments when some of the dolls get imprinted with personalities of other actors, which gives them some opportunities to act. (See also Buffy "Who Are You.")

I do want to single out the last episode of season one, which takes a radical departure and shows the future apocalypse that results from this technology, for both a radical and interesting idea; and a really terrible execution. Here's just one issue: if the world ends sometime between 2009 and 2019 and the issue is stolen or lost identity, how long would it take for people to start using cyberpunk/apocalypse names like Mag and Zone? It's a dumb allegiance to the trope of cyberpunk apocalypse without any real thought.

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