TV

'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.’”...

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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.

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