Television

'Dollhouse', Fox Television, and Cultural Fragmentation

Rana Emerson

In an age of a deeply fragmented television audience, did Fox Television make a mistake in trying to market Joss Whedon's Dollhouse to a general audience instead of the niche audience that represents Whedon's fanbase?

It’s possible that Joss Whedon’s fans who started the preemptive “hype this show” campaign on DollhouseForums.com had the right idea after all. The Fox television network had cancelled Whedon’s earlier television show, Firefly, after less than one season in 2002. In the minds of Whedon fans, Fox was the ultimate Big Bad and Dollhouse being on that network did not bode well for the future of the series. Dollhouse may not have a chance out of the starting gate with or without hype, but that very act of collective action to support a new show by their beloved creator, demonstrates what a special breed Whedonites are.

It is also an excellent example of the ways that cultural fragmentation works in today’s media and entertainment culture. Also known as fractured culture, it describes the ways that American culture has become split up into so very many specific pieces that a group that consumes one type of culture can be completely unaware of what is consumed by another. As former Wired editor Chris Anderson explains in The Long Tail, this means that the future of media and entertainment is no longer based upon a large, general, mass audience, but many small, specific, niche audiences. Profit will come not from appealing generally to everyone and creating “water-cooler conversation”, like NBC was able to do with The Cosby Show in the 1980s, but instead developing programming that speaks to many small, specific groups, like working women, teens, or people who enjoy a combination of quirky dialogue, philosophical themes, SF/fantasy, and angst.

Ironically, Dollhouse’s success was hindered by Fox’s simultaneous attempt to take advantage of the specific niche of genre culture that Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy’s work represented while also forcing the program to appeal to a more mainstream demographic beyond its niche audience.

My first glimpse of Dollhouse happened at an exemplar of cultural fragmentation, the 2009 New York Comic Con. I had waited patiently in line for hours at the Jacob Javitz Center with hundreds (thousands, even) of my fellow Whedonites to see and hear him introduce the show on the Sunday before it was to premiere on Fox. Along with series star (and former Battlestar Galactica cast member) Tahmoh Penikett, Whedon screened an extended scene from the pilot, “Ghost” (1.1). After the lights went down following Joss’s typically wry introduction, onscreen we followed two racing motorcycles on Los Angeles streets that led us to a party scene featuring series star, Eliza Dushku, dancing to a remix of Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” with a handsome man. After much flirtatious banter, she abruptly walks out of the party and approaches a van occupied by Harry Lennnix. We then hear what we come to know as the signature Active/Handler phrase: “Are you ready for your treatment?” Then the house lights went up.

Upon viewing the rest of the episode, the audience learns that Eliza Dushku’s character, Echo, is an “active” who lives in the mysterious underground compound called the Dollhouse run by the multi-national conglomerate Rossum Corporation, and populated by people who, like Echo, are blank slates that can have their personalities customized according to the whims of customers who pay for specialized “engagements.”

The anticipation for Dollhouse after the online success of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog was high, and the complex, unusual premise of the show promised to deliver the key qualities that audiences have come to expect from Joss Whedon’s shows: a combination of female protagonist of superhero-like proportions, SF/fantasy, multi-layered mythology, some procedural structure, social critique, and philosophical contemplation blended with witty dialogue and the potential for emotional pathos.

It’s not clear that Fox had the same expectations for the show. The production of Dollhouse was apparently troubled early on. The episode from which a segment was shown at New York Comic Con was taken from the second version of the show’s pilot. The original pilot episode, “Echo,” was scrapped by Whedon and his production team because of problems in tone and concept, and reshot resulting in “Ghost.” Fox and Whedon and the production team did not agree on the direction of the show, namely the balance between philosophical elements and action, causing production to be halted after many rewrites and reshoots early in the shooting of the first episodes. As Whedon said in Rolling Stone about the relationship with the network, “It went well at first, then it went not so well. And the not-so-well is about them going, ‘You know, we don’t really have room for these kinder, more contemplative stories.’”...

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.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.

Music

ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.

Film

Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.

Music

Rush's 'Permanent Waves' Endures with Faultless Commercial Complexity

Forty years later, Rush's ability to strike a nearly perfect balance between mainstream invitingness and exclusory complexity is even more evident and remarkable. The progressive rock classic, Permanent Waves, is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Music

Drum Machines? Samples? Brendan Benson Gets Contemporary with 'Dear Life'

Powerpop overlord and part-time Raconteur, Brendan Benson, grafts hip-hop beats to guitar pop on his seventh solo album, Dear Life.

Music

'Sell You Everything' Brings to Light Buzzcocks '1991 Demo LP' That Passed Under-the-Radar

Cherry Red Records' new box-set issued in memory of Pete Shelley gathers together the entire post-reunion output of the legendary Buzzcocks. Across the next week, PopMatters explores the set album-by-album. First up is The 1991 Demo LP.

Music

10 Key Tracks From the British Synthpop Boom of 1980

It's 40 years since the first explosion of electronic songs revitalized the UK charts with futuristic subject matter, DIY aesthetics, and occasionally pompous lyrics. To celebrate, here's a chronological list of those Moog-infused tracks of 1980 that had the biggest impact.

Reading Pandemics

Poe, Pandemic, and Underlying Conditions

To read Edgar Allan Poe in the time of pandemic, we need to appreciate a very different aspect of his perspective—not that of a mimetic artist but of the political economist.

Books

'Yours, Jean' Is a Perfect Mixture of Tragedy, Repressed Desire, and Poor Impulse Control

Lee Martin's Yours, Jean is a perfectly balanced and heartbreaking mix of true crime narrative and literary fiction.

Music

The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Will COVID-19 Kill Movie Theaters?

Streaming services and large TV screens have really hurt movie theaters and now the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered multiplexes and arthouses. The author of The Perils of Moviegoing in America, however, is optimistic.

Gary D. Rhodes, Ph.D
Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.