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Dollhouse: (Briefly) The Best Show on Television

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Monday, Jan 18, 2010
Despite a slow beginning Dollhouse has become an absolutely brilliant series

Suddenly, though not entirely unexpectedly, Dollhouse has become the best show on TV.  


Let me repeat that: Dollhouse is—albeit briefly—the best show on TV.


This assertion comes with a couple of qualifiers. First, this factors in the end of Season Three of Mad Men and considers only the last half of Season Two of Dollhouse. But is it becoming clear that the postmortem of Dollhouse will show that this was a series that took a long time to get underway—not least because of meddling by Fox in the initial concept of the show—but that when it finally did, it became something truly magnificent. Sadly, of the 26 episodes that will comprise the entire series, its full potential was shown only in the remarkable DVD-only Season One episode “Epitaph One” and the final seven episodes of Season Two.
  
Ironically, Dollhouse only became the most exciting show on the air after its cancellation was announced by Fox. Many fans are angry at Fox, citing this as just one more instance of the network’s stupidity, canceling one more splendid show, adding to the almost ludicrous number of great or promising shows that they have canceled over the past couple of decades. Fox has shown itself to be the best of the four major networks at creating interesting and innovative new shows, but has remained exceptionally poor at demonstrating the patience or ability to develop them. Although the network’s cancellation frenzy has abated somewhat with Kevin Reilly joining the network (he gave Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles several opportunities to succeed before canceling it), Fox still shows itself to be spectacularly inept at promoting its shows, with the lone and lamentable exception of American Idol. In the case of Dollhouse, most of the fault with Fox’s failure stems from the interference with the beginning of the show. Whedon initially wanted to start the series more or less where Season One ended, with Echo gaining an ongoing self-awareness and memories, but he was persuaded (i.e., coerced) to embark instead on a string of standalone episodes where Echo completely changed personalities each week, with no ongoing self-identity. The problem was that it made it almost impossible for a viewer to empathize with Echo. She was not a real person, not someone we could identify with or pull for. We could, perhaps, feel sorry for her, but she fell short of someone we could care about.


So, Fox’s primary responsibility for the failure show lies in interfering with the initial premise of the show, delaying the emergence of a sympathetic lead character. It bears secondary responsibility for placing the show in the Friday night death slot. In roughly 20 years, Fox has had only one real Friday night success and that was The X-Files. It is simply impossible for any show placed in the death slot to build a large audience. Dollhouse‘s fate was probably sealed when Fox replaced it with reruns of shows like Bones and House during the November sweeps. The reruns pulled in a larger audience share than any episode of Dollhouse had, mainly because all those shows had been allowed to build their audiences during prime time (and Fridays cannot be considered prime time, no more than Saturday nights can be). Given the show’s low ratings, Fox had no choice except to cancel it, but it also has to bear a large share of the blame for the low ratings. In short, Fox done them no good. No good at all.


Dollhouse has never actually been a bad show, but far too often it has not come up to the level of Whedon’s previous efforts like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, or Firefly.  There were individual episodes that showed that he and his remarkable team of writers had not lost their touch, but only occasionally was the show up to his own very high standards. While there were moments that showed that the series had potential, it was not until Echo started remembering who she was that the show reached the level of Whedon’s earlier masterpieces. The show’s ascendance to excellence coincided precisely with Echo’s emergence as a legitimate superhero. After the episode “Meet Jane Doe”, Echo was able to access all of her previous programming without losing her sense of self-awareness, pulling up any skill set needed for any task at hand. The one great tragedy of the series ending so soon is that we will not get to see much of Super Echo. I would also have loved to see the evolution of the various ways that Echo could have deployed her powers. I would have loved to see Echo and Caroline being introduced to one another and see how they negotiated being present in the same body. Dollhouse will end with almost limitless untapped narrative potential. The lone consolation is that Joss Whedon and his writers had time to write a proper end to the series.


Episodes like the recent “Getting Closer” are why I watch television. DeWitt and her team had decided that it was time to reunite Echo and her various imprinted personalities with her real personality, Caroline, who was the only person to have met with the head of Rossum (homage to Karel Čapek’s classic play R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots—the play that introduced the word robot).  Without giving any spoilers, the episode introduced one game-changing shocker after another, each one topping the previous one, so that by the end of the episode everything you imagined you knew about the world of Rossum and the Dollhouse had changed. And since this is a Joss Whedon show—the person who refined the idea of the Body Count on television—there is an absolutely shocking death; in fact, one of the most unexpected and sudden in all of Whedon’s shows. This was without question the most thrilling, exciting episode that I’ve seen of any show in the 2009-2010 season.


My belief is that Dollhouse is a show that will be rediscovered on DVD and Blu-Ray by people who either have not seen it or gave up on it early on. This has turned out to be a rich, complex, and fascinating successor to Buffy and Firefly. Joss Whedon’s problem has always been that his shows are too intelligent, too challenging for broadcast TV. There will never be more than a limited audience for his shows because there are simply not enough Americans who value intelligent TV. This was not an issue when he was making shows for the WB, where four million weekly viewers could sustain a series for years.  Dollhouse unfortunately does not even get four million viewers, but it certainly would have on any other night of the week.  But the truth is that Dollhouse, like every series more intellectually demanding than Lost and Fringe (both shows that I watch and love), is probably doomed if it isn’t shown on cable (I believe that Abrams’s shows could be used as a criterion for what will or will not have a chance for success on broadcast television:


The J. J. Abrams Line could and should be used by network and studio execs to determine what shows should be shown on broadcast TV and which should be relegated to cable; those above the J. J. Abrams Line—like Mad Men and Pushing Daisies and The Wire and Six Feet Under and Slings and Arrows and Arrested Development and Dollhouse—will fail on broadcast TV, though they might flourish on cable, while shows below The J. J. Abrams Line

—like NCIS and CSI and House and Grey’s Anatomy and Two and a Half Men and Law and Order and the apparently endless number of reality and talent shows—have a shot at success on broadcast TV).


I can’t wait for Joss Whedon’s next television series—right now the only two of Whedon’s projects that are definite are his and Drew Goddard’s horror film Cabin in the Woods (in the can, but moved to a 2011 release reputedly so it can be converted to 3D) and the second installment in the Dr. Horrible saga. He is also slated to direct an episode of Glee. Perhaps having some down time will allow Whedon and Summer Glau to do the ballet film that they have talked of making. But I pray to the television gods that Whedon will soon do another series on broadcast television. One of his shows would be absolutely perfect for SyFy or AMC, or perhaps even HBO or Showtime. All of his future projects should be for cable, the Internet, and film. But one thing is certain—and the last half of Season Two of Dollhouse confirms this—the man definitely needs to create more shows.

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