Whedonesque: Or, Why I’m Still Totally Watching Dollhouse Tonight

Posted by Jesse February 20th, 2009 at 11:01am In General

I elected not to use one of the naked ads, but good promotion, Fox.

I elected not to use one of the naked ads, but good promotion, Fox.

Let me begin with a preface that will sound alarm bells in alert readers: I am a huge fan of most of Joss Whedon’s work (he protested too much, already). For serious: if you asked me for a list of the five best TV shows ever, there’s a better-than-fair chance I’d find room for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I never really got into Angel, but I did (eventually) find love for Firefly, just in time for Serenity, which I also dug.

So naturally, I was anticipating Dollhouse, his new show, and maybe the only show in history likely to inspire more fervent rescue campaigning before it aired than after.

That’s probably unfair: I actually kinda liked the (incredibly low-rated, but maybe not for Fridays) Dollhouse pilot. It certainly holds a lot of promise and you can be damn sure I’ll give a Whedon-authored, Dushku-starring, sci-fi-leaning show more than an episode or two. But watching the Dollhouse pilot — which no one associated with the show seems to think is the best it can offer — I couldn’t help but think about certain tropes, tendencies, and tics that have developed in Whedon’s work over the years, some good and some bad.

It might be weird to point this out in light of Dollhouse as it is, in many ways, the biggest departure we’ve seen from him. But looking at Whedon’s tendencies is illustrative of what works and doesn’t about Dollhouse — so far, I stress, one episode into the run.

The funny: slangy humor.
Dollhouse plays like Whedon’s least funny series, which is probably why it’s disappointed some of his fans. I admire his interest in going in a less quippy direction, but a Whedon show without at least a little humor is like summer without ice cream. Incidentally, I completely despise the nounification of “funny,” which Whedon is more or less responsible. Mad props to his dialogue-writing skillz, but he must forever accept responsibility for Entertainment Weekly calling comedy/humor/funniness “the funny” approximately forty times a year, and weak-minded writers everywhere following suit.

All aboard the crazy-talk express.

All aboard the crazy-talk express.

Drusilla speak: that crazy-talk thing.
The most immediately recognizable Whedon element in Dollhouse — apart from Eliza Dushku herself — is the way the “actives” talk when they’ve been wiped — childlike, detached, slightly surreal near-babbling. This might be a cool stylistic touch if Whedon wasn’t so fond of coming up with reasons for characters to do this. They’re all basically talking like somewhat less insane versions of Drusilla from Buffy; this was also imposed upon Summer Glau’s character in Firefly from time to time. He even has people doing it in the Buffy comic. It’s weird and distracting. If Whedon is using Dollhouse to explore his creepier and more serious side, he might want to clean up the crazy-talk.

Previously on: continuity.
Obviously, there were serialized dramas before Buffy, but few shows have mixed the episodic and the overarching with such pleasurable skill. I, once again, admire the idea that Dollhouse will be less continuity-heavy than some of Whedon’s other ventures; not every show can hook as much investment as Buffy or Lost, and the X-Files format (some continuity, some pure stand-alone, not always integrated) has become almost underrated in these post-Buffy days. Sometimes continuity can turn into a crutch, a cheap and soapy drug designed to keep viewers caring rather than discerning (or even, in some cases, enjoying). So as disinterested as I am in the CBS procedural style, I am excited by the anthology-ish aspects of the blank-Dusku Dollhouse premise.

Nah, this one got to live.

Nah, this one got to live.

Spoiler alert: killing off sweet, lovable and/or beloved characters.
Look, this trick worked wonders on Buffy and became sort of a series trademark. It was when it started popping up in everything else Whedon touches that I started getting a bit skeptical. The turning point for me was Serenity, where a certain death was definitely jarring and effective, but also felt a touch arbitrary.

The apex was then reached Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog. I admire Whedon’s willingness to go dark and sad with the material, but unlike a lot of filmmakers, the problem isn’t actually how he utilizes this plot twist (usually with a fair amount of skill), but that he’s doing it at all. I actually called the death in Dr. Horrible pretty early on (even for a 40-minute movie), because I knew it would be the deeply Whedonesque emotional hook he’d use to attempt to elevate his (already quite wonderful) material. The suddenness becomes sort of, well, predictable. It’s actually pretty clever, too, because by killing likable characters, Whedon is able to make anyone who objects look like a softy who just cares too much — not someone who might be sick of a particular plot twist (which might seem a little sadistic after so many twists of theknife). So actually, maybe I do object to how he does it, too: the unspoken (on the air, anyway) conceit that he’s giving the audience what they “need,” not what they want. If you’re finding that the audience “needs” the exact same narrative gimmick in everything you write, maybe it’s time to reevaluate their needs.

Of course, that’s sort of neither here nor there with Dollhouse, and one reason that maybe I wasn’t so bothered by the lack of immediately likable characters: if more characters are sort of creepy or blank or not particularly adorable, maybe there won’t be room for this particular device.

Maybe the most important: bad pilots!
Well, OK, not bad, per se. The Buffy pilot certainly puts the pieces together. But hell, the entire first season of Buffy is more like a warm-up to the awesomeness of later seasons. Worse is the pilot to Firefly, which I don’t think I’ve actually seen all the way through. I tried several times, and began to think that maybe I didn’t much like this boring, confusing show. When I skipped to the second episode, it actually became less confusing, and also less boring, and within a few more episodes I really dug the hell out of it. I hate to say it, but I completely understand why Fox didn’t air that pilot first. I’m sure the series builds on it, but I did fine — better, really — without it.

So maybe that’s the deal with the much-maligned, much-futzed-with Dollhouse opener. Maybe Joss just needs to get stuff out of the way before his shows can be awesome, and then he can go about tweaking his strengths and weaknesses, his mix of the familiar and the alien. Carp as I might about Whedon techniques in general and/or Dollhouse in particular, the dude has certainly earned my trust.

1 Comment

  • 1. wojtek  |  February 20th, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    Ahhhh thank you for verbalizing what was nagging me about the pilot (crazytalk). I kind of have blinders on when it comes to Whedon stuff, but that’s something I always find annoying – and therefore never bother to pay any attention to it and decipher the “hidden message within”.

    Aside from that – I basically agree with everything you wrote. Though to be honest I’m kind of hoping for a gradual shift from stand-alones to at least plot arcs. And there was enough random stuff in the first episode to give me hope.


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