[13 May 2009]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
We won’t know for a few more days whether the door to the “Dollhouse” has been closed permanently. Certainly last Friday’s finale gave mixed signals whether Fox might renew the latest series from “Buffy” creator Joss Whedon.
On the one hand, the response from critics and fans of all things Whedon — which had been muted or negative in the show’s opening weeks — has warmed considerably in recent weeks.
On the other hand, scaring up an audience on Fridays is as daunting a task as ever. Since its debut, “Dollhouse” has lost half of its audience in the key 18-to-49-year-old demographic that Fox wanted to see growth in, not decline. In a year when another weird sci-fi show from another A-list producer, “Fringe” (J.J. Abrams), is growing in audience and acclaim on the same network, that’s not good.
The ratings number for “Dollhouse” bumps up 30 percent when people come home from wherever they were Friday night and watch “Dollhouse” on their DVRs. And it hasn’t had a decent lead-in all season.
Still, industry reports suggest the only way the show can come back is through “creative financing” — like the deal with satellite service DirecTV that helped keep “Friday Night Lights” on the air at NBC.
Fox had earlier announced that Friday’s “Dollhouse” episode, “Omega,” would be the 12th and final hour aired this spring. A 13th episode was filmed.
In “Omega,” we learned that Echo, the programmable sweetheart played by Eliza Dushku, was capable of amazing recall and feats of strength once she was given access to her backup tape, which contained memories of Caroline, the person she was before the dollhouse.
We also learned why the series baddie, Alpha (Alan Tudyk) was so violently off-kilter — he was a cyber-Frankenstein with the personalities of 48 different people fighting for control of his brain.
And “Omega” produced a tantalizing story line for next season — if there is a next season — with the hiring of FBI agent Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) as a house detective inside the dollhouse he’d been keeping his eyes on from the outside until now.
Over the weekend I spoke with co-executive producers Liz Craft and Sarah Fain. They’re a writing team who have known each other since high school in Kansas City. Their 2008 young-adult novel, “Footfree and Fancyloose,” just came out in paperback.
Q. You said to me in January that your job as co-executive producers wasn’t so much to be showrunners as to help Joss carry out his vision. How successful do you think you were?
Liz Craft: Well, it was the whole team, the whole staff, and it was really a process of “finding the show,” as most first seasons of shows are. I felt that in the first few episodes we all figured out, “OK, this is what ‘Dollhouse’ is, these are the sweet spots,” and then we kind of got there.
Sarah Fain: Also, the first half of the season was negotiating with the network about what the show was. After those first five episodes is where Joss’s vision got to come through.
Q. So “Gray Hour” (episode four), which was one of the episodes you two wrote, was a product of the conversation you were having with the network, whereas “Echoes” (episode seven) happens after that is done and you’re all on the same creative page together.
Craft: Yes. And what we like about “Echoes” and what the network liked is that it showed Echo as herself — as Caroline. She has flashbacks to Caroline and we get little hints of who she was before the dollhouse, and that helped anchor her character. I think going forward we’ll do more of that.
Q. I notice Alpha gets away at the end of the “Omega” episode, and it seems to me that’s always what happens to the bad guy at the end of the season.
Liz Craft: Alpha will be out there, but we’ll have someone else in season two, I’m sure. We always wanted him to get away.
Q. Why? Because he was the alpha product?
Sarah Fain: Well, on a practical level Alan Tudyk is fantastic and you don’t want to use him up too fast. (laughs) And on a storytelling level it took just so long to get to Alpha. We didn’t get to him until the end of the season so it’s worth it just to carry him over.
Liz Craft: We talked about him a lot, but he was only in two episodes.
Q. I was kind of surprised at how Echo ended the season. We know that she has some awareness of being Caroline, but it seems a pretty risky move to present Echo as superficially very much like the Echo we saw at the beginning of the season.
Liz Craft: I would say the key word there is “superficially.”
Sarah Fain: Yes.
Liz Craft: I think it will be very satisfying to fans how it plays out in the future. It’s funny because we have another episode that was done after this ...
Q. “Epitaph One”?
Liz Craft: Yes. So to us, we don’t think of this as the last episode of the season even though it technically is, because this other episode gets into — well, I don’t want to say too much about it.
Q. Was that the busted pilot?
Liz Craft: No, no, it’s a whole different episode, it’s a really fun, out-there ...
Sarah Fain: Not only is it “out of the box” but a “broke the box and stomped on it” episode.
Liz Craft: Hopefully if we get a season two, we’ll show that episode. It’ll definitely be on the DVD.
Q. I think my favorite line from Friday’s show was when Topher (Fran Kranz) screams, “I’m smarter than anyone in this room, but less scary!” I imagine it’s difficult to do a drama that is this intense and still give the fans their quota of Whedonisms.
Liz Craft: Well, that’s been all over the message board. Many people complain that “Dollhouse” isn’t ...
Sarah Fain: “-nesque” enough?
Liz Craft: Yeah, “-nesque.” It’s a different show. You don’t want to do the same show over and over. But as the show really kicked in to what it really is, people became more interested in that and less about how it wasn’t “Buffy” or “Angel” or “Firefly.” And keep the humor.
Q. Ballard, to me, is the most interesting character because inside the “Dollhouse,” he’s like the sanest man in the room, but outside of it he’s a total lunatic. It’s kind of natural that he would be invited inside and given employment.
Liz Craft: That was always Joss’s plan. We worked toward that the whole season.
Sarah Fain: To me that’s one of the richest things to explore in a second season. What happens when he finds the girl? What happens when that same guy gets into the dollhouse? Does he gets corrupted? That’s just fascinating to me.
Aaron Barnhart has written about “Dollhouse” more than once at TVBarn.com.