Transformations and the fate of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse

Dollhouse Robert Seidman thinks Joss Whedon's Dollhouse (Fridays on Fox) will not survive.  It is, he says, unmistakeably done for. 

I think I know why.  Ours is a transformational world, and to that extent Dollhouse should speak to us. 

But there are two kinds of transformation: involuntary and voluntary.  We hate the former.  We love the latter even more.

Which transformation is Dollhouse about?  It's about a woman (Eliza Dushku, pictured) trapped in an endless series of involuntary transformations. A mysterious corporation wipes her soul, inserts a new persona, and hires her out.  This is the stuff of our worst realities and dreams.

The trouble is not that we can not identify with "Echo."  The problem is we can identify too well.  We too have  been the captives of forced transformations, and it gives us no comfort to see someone else endure this horrible condition. 

I hate to be a know-it-all, especially with someone as smart and culture shifting as Whedon, but I told you so.  (Specifically see pages  253-273 of Transformations for an account of how voluntary transformation works and pages 236-253 for an account of involuntary transformation.)

I can't help feeling that if Fox had had a Chief Culture Officer it might well have spared Wheedon and itself this unhappy end. 


McCracken, Grant.  2008.  Transformations: managing identity in contemporary culture.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Seidman, Robert.  2009.  Say Goodbye to Dollhouse, part II: The DVR number won't matter.  October 3, 2009.  here.

21 thoughts on “Transformations and the fate of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse

  1. christine huang

    While I agree, I think Whedon’s mistake might have been in unveiling Echo/The Dollhouse’s larger arc/transformation too slowly. It was my impression that Echo (and maybe all the dolls) is meant to overcome her involuntary transformations – that this is the major evolution we are anticipating, and that her episode-to-episode morphing is what helps her get to this end. The audience is waiting for the dolls to have their revelations of consciousness – and to use this cobbled-together awareness to rise up against the system that has enslaved them. The potential for the larger voluntary transformation to triumph over the involuntary is what makes the series, in my opinion, so great. Perhaps Whedon made a mistake by not elevating this part of the story (or, perhaps it wasn’t as large a part of his vision as I’m assuming).

  2. Mary Schmidt

    I’ve got to disagree. It’s not so much the subject matter (geeks love to think about such things…) It’s the marketing or lack thereof. I’m grateful for the miracle of a second season – on Fox, in a deathly time slot, after a totally different show.

    The BIGGER mistake Whedon has made is not doing deals with A&E, AMC, or Showtime for his truly original series.

  3. Grant McCracken

    Christine, yes, thats what I had been hoping for, and there was that wildnessness scene which might it look like an awakening was in the works.  Its just talking too long, and from time to time threatens never too happen at all?  Its not that TV audiences are not up for tragic scenarios (TSCC) but not when transformation is on offer.  Thanks, Grant

  4. Rick Liebling

    My two cents (worth even less in Canada I believe):

    I think people are ok with involuntary transformatins (wasn’t that the deal on Quantum Leap – never watched the show). I’ve never watched Dollhouse, but based on his track record, I’m assuming Whedon has done a decent job. Is it possible that people just aren’t that interested in Eliza Dushku?

    Nothing against her, I’m sure she’s a lovely person, she’s certainly attractive and she may even be a good actress. But maybe it’s a simple as she just doesn’t connect with the audience.

    Grant, I always appreciate your analysis, but maybe it’s simpler in this case.

  5. Ben

    I greatly enjoy this blog, but I don’t think that adding a Chief Culture Officer to every organization is the solution to many of the problems you’ve identified.

    It seems strange to me that you would assume that any Chief Culture Officer would agree with your assertion about the unattractiveness of the “forced transformation” premise. Is there some kind of research to back up this idea, or are you just relying on how “plugged in” and knowledgable you are personally?

    You wrote, “…and it gives us no comfort to see someone else endure this horrible condition.” Using this same line of reasoning, I could “predict” that “The Office” would fail. I’d be wrong. A little closer to the bone might be “Quantam Leap” which was also a hit.

  6. K

    I’m gonna go another way with this one. I’m a long-time fan of Whedon’s work and have enjoyed Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Dr. Horrible very much. I hoped I’d feel the same about Dollhouse. While I do like it and watch every week, I’m often left feeling cold.

    Here are the positives:
    *Strong cast (mostly).
    *Witty dialogue.
    *Great episodic format tied into long-term arc.
    *A mostly original concept (though there’s some similarity with Dark City).

    Here are the negatives:
    *It feels synthetic.
    *The subtext of sexual exploitation has become actual text.
    *While I’m guided into feeling that sexual exploitation is terrible, I’m simultaneously watching Eliza Dushku in various states of undress for the entire hour (intentional hypocrisy? forcing audience to do self-examination?).
    *Feels like a vanity project for Eliza Dushku.
    *Themes of extreme wealth and manipulating helpless women are overdone.
    *Paul Ballard… the great savior of Caroline actually uses November/Melly for sex? Ugh.

  7. ossip81

    I’m a huge Whedon fan, own everything he’s ever done, but I hate this show. This sooner it’s cancelled, the better. The idea that even great artists cannot stumble, and stumble hard, is just ludicrous.

  8. John Carter

    The show’s major problem is the plot is being forced to make Whedon’s points. For example, the idea that a man wouldn’t hire a nanny or that people around him wouldn’t notice a new woman in his life purporting to be his son’s mother is just insulting to the viewers’ intelligence.

    With that sort of lack of thought given to the plot, it’s no wonder that despite the mostly good cast (TP aside), people are turning off in droves. Once again, Whedon is sacrificing plot continuity and especially logic in favour of his points.

    Acker’s unfortunate disappearance and the dissolution of the Boyd\Echo relationship (the show’s sole humanising point) don’t help.

  9. julesk

    “I can’t help feeling that if ABC had had a Chief Culture Officer it might well have spared Wheedon and itself this unhappy end.”

    Do you think that part of the problem may be that even the people who bother to write articles about the show don’t know which network airs it?

  10. Taylor Cassidy

    “Feels like a vanity project for Eliza Dushku.”

    Now *this* is the reason it’s not connecting with me. I have not been impressed with her acting last season or this season, and I enjoy the other characters much more. (Amy Acker’s tortured “Whiskey” or Miracle Laurie as “Melly” come to mind).

    Last season didn’t pick up until the standalone “Echo goes on a mission and gets in trouble” episodes stopped, and so far, Season Two has gone back to that same formula.

    There are good actors and good opportunities here; they’re just being missed.

  11. April

    More Amy Acker!! I agree with many of you in saying that Dollhouse feels like the Eliza Dushku show. The less Dollhouse focuses on Echo/Caroline the more I like the show. Also, last week’s episode was insulting.As John Carter said, the idea that a man wouldn’t hire a nanny or that people around him wouldn’t notice a new woman in his life purporting to be his son’s mother is just insulting to the viewers’ intelligence.

  12. Donovan Twaddle

    Here’s something nobody’s mentioned yet.

    What if people are turned off by the lack of connection with Dushku’s character? She’s someone different every week. It’s pretty hard to identify with a character who has no development throughout the course of the series. What made Buffy so endearing to me was growing with the characters and their personalities as they changed, grew, and matured. Of course, there are other characters who do have some development, but Eliza Dushku is the heart of the show. And as the main character, she has no personality that people can grasp onto and relate with. That might weaken all the other aspects of the show.

    Seems to me the problem with Dollhouse is that by its very design, it puts the audience in an uncomfortable spot because the main figure is so inaccessible. On paper, this show is great, but it lacks the soul that Buffy and Angel had.

    I’d love to see the show succeed, but I don’t know if it’s gonna happen at this point.

  13. Ed Carter

    I think the show IS about a woman trapped in an endless series of involuntary transformations… but who is/will be fighting for voluntary transformation by slowly integrating a new personality from her experiences–something we all do every day. By the involuntary/voluntary logic, the show’s arc should speak to those who do see that much coming. Christine’s analysis about the mistaken pace of the arc may be as much about the audience as it is about the show: some people dropped out after a single episode. I admit that it’s a tough arc for a TV series, but I’m finding plenty to watch in the other characters while Echo evolves. Every week I get some kind of “whoa” moment about the implications of the show’s premise–sometimes cool, sometimes creepy, but I haven’t been bored by the big people with the big flaws. Ultimately, I’ll be satisfied if Whedon makes the show he wants to make (or as close to that as he thinks they can get away with) and lets other folks catch up later. Even if the series ends up shorter than it would have been otherwise.

  14. Boris

    “This is the stuff of our worst realities and dreams…. The trouble is not that we can not [sic] identify with ‘Echo.’ The problem is we can identify too well.”

    “Our”? “We”? If one wants to needlessly complicate things, rather than projection, there’s always the possibility that the Whepistemological “issue” of identity isn’t all that deep, particularly when the show is obviously coming from a nearly animist position in the first place. Similarly, the Whethics are a foregone conclusion, and if there is some Whetaphysics floating around, I haven’t caught sight of it.

    Occam’s razor would seem to suggest a closer look at the possibility, say, that the writing is excruciatingly dull. And in this case, the voluntary transformation is as simple as can be.

  15. Grant McCracken

    April, this is a great point, and there are so many talented actresses on TV at the moment, its hard to believe that Dushku should be allowed to commandeer the show, if thats whats that happened.  Thx, Grant

  16. ElsieSoul428

    I loved the end of season 1 of Dollhouse. And the reason being was that we actually got to see the other ‘Dolls’ and their stories. All the mini-stories are too Echo centered. The best stories (in my opinion) are the ones that feature the other characters.

    Also, I do believe that they jumped ahead in the plot. Not sure, if they jumped the gun thinking that the show wasn’t going to make a season 2 so they tried to give some closure…but that’s kinda how it felt.

    I hope that they can rework it so that the audience can actually connect with the whole cast and enjoy the plots thicken!

  17. bunnyv

    “Feels like a vanity project for Eliza Dushku.”

    K, this is exactly my problem with the show. The weakest part of it is Eliza, and nothing can really be done about it because she was the one with the deal with FOX! I also think that Joss has a serious, and kind of sad, crush on her and it skews his judgment. Also, since she is an executive producer, he nor anyone else tells her “no”. I saw an interview where he was saying that she sends texts about what types of imprints she wants based on really lame personal experiences that she has on the fly. The example of her being at a bar then texting him “burlesque dancer” was mentioned, and my eyes rolled so far back into my head, I was afraid they would stay there. ED’s acting has gotten better in these 2 new eps, but I still find my self not caring about her. And, as much as I have a total chick b*ner over Tahmoh, he just doesn’t seem to work here either. The two main characters, and I find everyone else interesting except for them!! Le sigh.

    (apologize for any bad grammar, very tired)

  18. K

    What’s interesting is that I loved Tahmoh so much on BSG in a similar character type, but it feels so hollow here.

    I think the opening sequence (nothing but Eliza looking sexy, no sight of the rest of the cast) sums up a lot of the problems. I’ve actually been impressed by her acting (she’s better than I realized), but I never connected with ‘Echo’ or ‘Caroline’ as much as I connect with her imprints, which are gone in a flash.

    The supporting characters (with the exception of the cardboard cut-out of Paul, who puts me in mind of Riley Finn) are much more interesting.

  19. srp

    I was a huge Buffy fan, but that series had large runs full of annoying plot holes and characters that didn’t work for me–the arrival of Buffy’s younger sister being the single biggest case in point. Dollhouse is chilly in tone and lacks that family feeling found in Serenity and Buffy, but I find that interesting if less engaging. As I’ve said before, this show is more like La Femme Nikita than it is like Whedon’s previous work.

  20. Shae

    I have watched all episodes to date, and am just not in love with the show. I watched at the start because I am a JW fan, and expected another show on the level of Buffy, Angel or Firefly greatness. This show just isn’t at that level for me.

    I don’t watch the popular shows that routinely hit above 10 million viewers a week. I just am not interested in the mainstream procedurals and most of the reality tv shows, and prefer some of the sci-fi or speculative fantasy type shows instead.

    I don’t hate “Dollhouse”, and do find moments in each episode that I really love. There are just more moments that don’t work for me than moments I enjoy, and I am to the point where I may just stop watching. The show might not last much longer based on all I read online, so will have to see which comes first.

    The mystery of what the Dollhouses are all about, and the technology being utilized is appealing, but the answers to those questions is slow in coming.

    If you think back at all of the characters Eliza has portrayed, and all of her outfits, and the way she comes across on screen, I do agree with the posts about this maybe being a vanity project.

    Either that or JW is just enjoying having her play out all kinds of male fantasies on screen rather than really jump starting this show, and getting it going.

    The way both women and men are used by their clients is on the smarmy side, and that is one of the things I dislike watching.

    Also, I just do not like the Topher character at all. That character is so obnoxious to me it takes me out of the show whenever he is onscreen.

    If the show lasts, I hope it gets better, because we could use more shows that don’t fall under the category of medical, legal or police procedurals on network TV.

  21. jane

    I find Dollhouse difficult to watch because it holds a mirror up to the parts of ourselves we’d just as soon not see. Sex, death, money, power… this is the stuff that is taboo, not polite dinner conversation – even veiled by double-meanings.

    Dushku is perfectly cast as Echo. She’s able to exhibit a self-knowing emptiness that distinguishes herself from the other Dolls. It’s unnerving, partly because her reactions are so unpredictable – she’s not like the other Dolls. Becoming familiar with her “essence”, which is mythic and can’t be wiped away, Dushku’s performance is positively stellar. Her Echo is constantly changing, and this is as it should be for a soul that saves.

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