Dollhouse tonight (third)

The third espisode of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse airs tonight on Fox at 10:00. 

The numbers for the second episode continue a downward trend, and this is very worrying.

I think it's clear by this time that Whedon is not going back to Buffy.  Of course, we would like him to.  But it's just time to move on.  He has.  We must.  As media consumers, we are that most contrary of creature: we want Whedon to do something completely fresh and completely familiar.  What is wrong with us?

In a post-Buffy spirit, then, here are a couple of things I like about Dollhouse.

1. Dollhouse is a great metaphor for Hollywood.  This industry assigns identities for brief durations, wipes them clean, and insist that the actor start again.  Very Dollhouse.  So we may amuse ourselves this evening by watching for parallels and Whedonesque commentary.  (The story within the story: Whedon is a third generation TV writer, so he knows a thing or two about the industry.  Furthermore, he's had a rocky relationship with this industry.  So he might have a thing or two to say.)  I leave it to you to map out who in Dollhouse is what in Hollywood.

2. Dollhouse is a great metaphor for the actor.  In Friday's episode, Echo (Eliza Dushku) is showing distressing signs of independence.  The crucial moment, when she refuses the secret code word that is supposed to reassure her.  Hollywood actors must often feel like their autonomy is in peril.  They have so many masters: studios, agents, producers, directors, writers, and fans that the temptation to embrace independence must be very strong.  (The alternative might be outbursts of the kind delivered recently by Christian Bale.  There must come a moment when you' ve just had enough of being obliged to deliver note-perfect emotions on command…and while someone moves a light stand behind you.)  

3.  Dollhouse is a great metaphor for the contemporary individual.  In episode 2, Echo is picking up stray signals ("shoulder to the wheel!") and now that many of us live an "expansionary individualism," now that many of us act as "complex adaptive systems," so perhaps do the rest of us.  Indeed, this must be how trends get started.  The early adopters can "just hear something" in the wind.  They adopt it and if others follow suit, Gladwell's tipping point is not far off.  Cultural change almost always starts as stray signals and Echo is perhaps a chance to contemplate how stray signals start. 

post script: Zsa Zsa and Vivian join the McCracken Decesare household this evening. They are Siamese kittens, sisters, 14 weeks old, and by all accounts complete chatter boxes. Molly, as some of you know, is the cat incumbent.  She is 4 years old and it remains to be seen how she will regard the newcomers.


For more on expansionary individualism, see my Transformations: identity construction in a contemporary culture.  For more on "complex adaptive systems," see my Flock and Flow.  Forgive the self citing.  It saves time.

McCracken, Grant. 2008. Transformations: Identity Construction in Contemporary Culture. Indiana University Press.

McCracken, Grant. 2006. Flock and Flow: Predicting and Managing Change in a Dynamic Marketplace. Indiana University Press.

6 thoughts on “Dollhouse tonight (third)

  1. PeterNBiddle

    I wrote the plot synopsis for ep1 on IMDB when no one else did because I was still excited about the show. After that ep, I was hopeful, not for another Buffy, but for a winner. Firefly and Serenity aren’t Buffy, but I liked them, too.

    After the second episode I was a bit bummed out. I didn’t bother writing another synopsis… I was most bummed out to realize that the dollhouse as it works today is really just a whorehouse, in all the worst connotations of the word. The women have been rendered incapable of objecting to total enslavement… they seem to be rented out almost entirely as very expensive but cheerful escorts.

    I still hope, but it’s dwindling fast.

    (Eliza, on the other hand, is doing a much better job of acting than I would ever have given her credit for being able to pull off. Really first rate.)

  2. srp

    It doesn’t really make sense to get bummed out because the Dollhouse is also a whorehouse. The Dollhouse is supposed to be evil, or mostly evil. The people running it are still human, but they are engaged in a project that is intended to creep us out on every level. The plot question is whether our girl can somehow recover her identity (and what terrible thing did she do that put her in position to “volunteer” for this outfit?).

    The show Dollhouse reminds me of most is La Femme Nikita (evil-though-perhaps-necessary Section One uses and abuses an army of the damned to fight terrorism; heroine pretends to be many different people and struggles to retain her humanity amidst the horror; office politics are deadly). They even have a similar interior decor sensibility (glass walls, sterile spaces, large computer displays).

  3. Bram

    (Long-time lurker, first-time commenter)

    Just watching the first minutes of Dollhouse now … I’m a late convert to Joss Whedon; nothing against Buffy, but I never felt the need to follow along. I got caught up by his run on Astonishing X-Men and by Firefly.

    And what impressed me most about his work was the characters — the stories and premises are clever and he introduced some great ideas, but what brings me back are the way the characters interact. It’s all character development through dialog — I tuned in to just watch what they would do — and I think he’s got an amazing understanding of how we humans interact and how to make that interesting. Problem is, Dollhouse, by its very nature, doesn’t play to those strengths.

    Though that line about “scowly babies”? Maybe we’re on to something … signing off now to watch.

  4. Scott Ellington

    The long (eleven-minute) pre-Titles teaser to the initial episode (which isn’t the pilot) opens on video of a “confidential conversation” between Echo and Ms DeWitt. A recorded confidential conversation is kind of an oxymoron. The two women are seated at a negotiating table where they discuss, like Locke and Hobbes (I think), the tabula rasa of human personality and responsibility with/without consequences and the relative merits (possibility) of “the natural condition”.
    It’s not a tremendous imaginary stretch to envision the recent confidential negotiations of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers with the Writers Guild of America taking place under similar conditons, essentializing to a similar lack of resolution.
    In “Ghost”, that initial episode, Ms DeWitt emphasizes to her client, Mr. Christejo, that the success of the engagement for which he’s contracted with Dollhouse may hinge on his contractual obligation to avoid slipping out of character with the “active”, Echo. It’s an explicit reference to the implicit contract between the audience and the television production NOT to confuse reality with fiction.
    These first three episodes are liberally laced with topical, historical, industry, and philosophical/ethical references which will probably delight scholars and students through the remainder of this decade. There are also juicy continuity glitches (like the hostage-house door that [sometimes] has been blown off one or two of its hinges [– sometimes not so much]) and references to “fans”, “conscience”, “soul” and “competence” that are provocatively characteristic of the very maverick Mutant Enemy brand of surreality television. I’m still waiting for “crickets”.
    Paraphrasing Ballard…the very first and primary purpose to which new and revolutionary technology is applied is invariably to control, intimidate and manipulate other humans; it’s human nature.
    Dollhouse is a very stimulating television show. I like to believe Murrow would love it.

  5. whiskey

    The problem with Dollhouse is that people don’t like actors or actresses.

    Who are spoiled divas, with huge amounts of money, entourages, and so on. Nor do they care about TV and movie writers, who make gobs of money for total junk.

    while the show as a metaphor may have appealed to both Whedon and Dushku, that is PRECISELY the problem. It’s inside Showbiz and shows their social and cultural isolation.

    No one, and particularly in a recession, wants to see/hear spoiled actresses and writer-producers rail against the man when they are in fact, the man. Much less about “evil” corporations and such when they just want to keep their job, as corporations keel over.

    Moreover, the ability of Whedon to extract a lot of money from a few hipster guys and lots feminist/bad boy obsessed women and young girls is at an end. THAT market, and the wealth that went with it, is just not there, with declining wages/incomes, drastically during the recession, and declining birth rates making each replacement cohort smaller, except for Mexican origin kids who don’t care about that stuff because they are watching well, Telenovelas in Spanish Language TV.

    Dramatically, the show is crap. Series TV demands a strong, likeable lead character viewers care enough about, and who is consisent in action and behavior, to tune in week after week. Too many characters, too little characterization, too much pseudo-intellectualism, too much upper income Yuppie status mongering.

    Far superior, is the Columbo revival “the Mentalist” or the Jessie Stone movies, or “Chuck,” or “Life” or even “NCIS.”

    It’s the easiest thing in the world, and by now at least a 40 year old cliche. to “shock the bourgeoisie” and play the sneering hipster. It’s a LOT harder to play it straight, no chaser, and on the up and up. Delivering a traditional show, in a traditional manner, with no tricks, gimmicks, partially clad lead actress and other stuff. A long lingering shot of Tom Selleck’s weathered, experienced face and mature, macho manner, or Simon Baker’s cocky sureness masking boiling anger, or Damien Lewis’s wacked out Zen version of the Count of Monte Christo, requires real skill in writing and directing and acting.

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