TV

Joss Whedon 101: Dollhouse

Ian Mathers

Dollhouse is in many ways Joss Whedon's most challenging and most cutting edge show, trying to deal with issues that are rarely or never addressed on television. With low ratings making a third season unlikely, Joss Whedon and his writers packed the second and final season with several seasons' worth of story arcs, resulting in one of the richer narrative arcs found on TV.

As painful as it was the time, getting cancelled (and more importantly, knowing that the end was almost certainly coming) was the best thing that ever happened to Dollhouse. Whereas Firefly was pretty clearly nipped in the bud and became a classic example of network-squandered potential, Dollhouse got that second season. That still only brings the total number of episodes for the show to 26, but given the pretty horrible ratings the show had to begin with and Whedon's perennial refusal to compromise on quality, once that second season began Whedon and company knew they had to move fast.

Dollhouse is the hardest to synopsize of any of Whedon's shows; normally I'd direct you to the Wikipedia entry for a brief refresher, but the description there is so filled with spoilers, and so much of the joy of watching the show live with friends (particularly once Fox switched to two episodes a week when burning off episodes the end of the second season, which is when it REALLY became must-watch TV) was having the densely packed and often surprising revelations that the show launched at us steadily blow our minds. The gist is that the Rossum corporation has developed technology that allows them to treat human personalities like computer programs. Sit in their chair and they can back you up to disk, erase you, even outfit you with a whole new set of memories, mannerisms, and skills (in a neat wrinkle, these personalities aren't pick-and-mix; your hostage-negotiation skills, for example, might come with poor vision).

What they choose to do with this technology is like a skeevier version of Philip K. Dick's short story "Paycheck": You go to sleep one day, and then you wake up and it's five years later. You get paid a lot of money. And for those five years, your body has been an "Active," kept in a, well, doll-like state between assignments and regularly sent to perform tasks from assassination to prostitution to simple companionship. More importantly, when you're an Active, you're sent to live a life; it's technology that lets you see your wife one last time, or solve your own murder, or find out where that serial killer in a coma on the other side of the room put his latest intended victims. Not only do "you" (your personality) have utterly no idea that these things are happening, "you" (your body) really IS whatever it's been programmed to be, with utterly sincere emotions and reactions and no inkling that you're anything other than a real, normal person.

As you can imagine just from that sketch, it's a very rich setting, probably the headiest, densest science fiction premise seen on network TV in years (not that many people noticed), and as you might expect from Whedon, the show refuses to back away from any of the difficult, sometimes disturbing ramifications of the ideas that Dollhouse is based around. It's just that these issues and this setting are overlaid with the typical Whedon mix of snappy patter, romantic angst, and plot whiplash.

It's not that I'd want Dollhouse to be more serious-minded or something; the show is commendably dark and serious when it's called for (as with all of Whedon's shows, the tonal and emotional range here puts most network TV to shame), and the chances that it takes in terms of plot, theme, even character are usually commendably well-done. And once the show's awareness that it didn't have long to live meshed with the accelerated airing schedule required by low ratings, Dollhouse hit a truly gonzo high, seemingly rushing to get out five or six years of serialized TV in just a few episodes.

The infamous, not-aired-in-the-US "Epitaph One" that ends the first season was ample notice that Whedon wasn't relying on Lost-like longevity to get his whole story out, and while everyone I know who's watched the show can pick out a few moments that just register as goofy (albeit usually different moments for each person), that's a small price to pay for one of the few genre shows to go down with the ship, so to speak; to stick with its thorny premise to the (literally) bitter end, to take the kind of potentially apocalyptic shift that serialized TV usually just pussyfoots around with and have it lead to... well, apocalypse; to push these characters until some of them snap, and to show what happens then...

Dear reader:

Joss Whedon’s importance in contemporary pop culture can hardly be overstated, but there has never been a book providing a comprehensive survey and analysis of his career as a whole -- until now. Published to coincide with Whedon’s blockbuster movie The Avengers, Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters (May 2012) covers every aspect of his work, through insightful essays and in-depth interviews with key figures in the ‘Whedonverse’. This article, along with previously unpublished material, can be read in its entirety in this book.

Place your order for Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters, published with Titan Books, here.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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