Friday, October 9, 2009

Why Others Don't Watch Dollhouse

This originally started as a post over at Whedonesque, but at the last minute I decided to put it over here instead, cuz it got too long. I left a bit of this over there, but I wanted to get into more detail so I moved most of it here.

Dollhouse flies without a net. It's got limitations built into it that Buffy and the other shows didn't have. Dollhouse is more down to Earth which you'd think would make it more relatable to a wider audience, but it's more in your face about things without using metaphors like vampires or reavers to talk about uncomfortable subject matter.

That is for me its strength. It may also be what keeps some away. Dollhouse cuts very close to the bone in regards to the fragile nature of humanity. Many don't like to accept the fact that we are ultimately just conditioned animals with a vague sense of self-awareness. If we are conditioned properly, we'll see reality not as it is, but as whatever conditions us wants us to see it.

It's why we still believe in gods. The naked truth is far too painful.

Please let me preface this by saying I love Dollhouse. I plan to stay with it come hell or high water cuz I'm seeing it as an unique experiment in television storytelling. Something that I haven't seen before and I fear may never come again. Grey Hour. True Believer. Man On The Street. Epitaph One! How can these be episodes of the same show? They're different shows with a remarkably different feel to each of them, but under the same umbrella.

I hope Dollhouse stays with us a long time. I fear I may know why it won't. I also fear I may know why so many fans of Whedon's previous efforts seem to not warm up as quickly to his latest effort.

What makes Dollhouse better than any of Whedon's previous efforts (Yeah you heard me right. Better than Buffy) is that he's got no crutch. With Buffy and Angel he had magic mumbo jumbo to fall back on to explain stuff that shouldn't do what it does. With Firefly he used some technobabble but mostly it was just "it's the future. in space. by now we'll figure out how to do X" Gravity on a starship for example. Or how terraforming multiple moons made everything look like east Texas.

With Dollhouse there's very little of that. Granted "the chair" is a little technobabbley, but when you accept the concept that the human brain is just another computer, you're done. All the other pieces fall into place, at least for the first season. The scifi tech of the show isn't a crutch. It's not far fetched enough to be a crutch (as is evident when they add to it things like remote sensing causing blindness in Echo, or the silly lactating thing). It's more like a widget that helps set up the story but you can't put a lot of weight on the scifi tech of the series cuz it'll easily break. We're talking about technologies not as far fetched as one might think. We understand a lot more about how the human brain works than we did even a decade ago, and there's already tools that can rudimentarily allow direct control from brain to computer. We may be twenty years from being able to let a computer tell a body what to do. Maybe less than that. Concepts like hypnosis, brainwashing, conditioning, and voluntary (or not so voluntary) submission have been with us for awhile. The audience doesn't have to jump as far to get on board, unlike his previous work.

But along with a premise a wee bit closer to home comes limitations. Joss Whedon can't suddenly turn Echo into a rat or give her the powers of a god without upsetting the delicate world he's already fabricated. The rules of Dollhouse are more restrictive, and it's far easier for writers to paint themselves into corners where they can't get out.

It's more difficult for audiences to relate to characters whose personalities can go away never to come back in less time than a commercial break. I enjoy Amy Acker's work on Dollhouse, but I'm concerned it's all for naught. And the fact it's not by now all for naught has me concerned. Why didn't Topher wipe Whiskey before she left? Dr. Claire Saunders' is obviously glitching. She's figured out that she's not the original Dr. Saunders, but she's no longer just an Active named Whiskey. And she's got no idea who Whiskey was before she became Whiskey. So she doesn't even know what she is but she's self-aware, so Topher's torn about whether or not to deactivate her - wipe her and start fresh.

But last season it was established that Topher has no real moral compass. So the fact he's not 'fixing' Whiskey doesn't make sense within the confines of the structure that Dollhouse has already built around itself. This is just one of many little things about Dollhouse that I fear makes it difficult for some old viewers to ride out, and new viewers to jump on board.

Even a show as absurd and over the top as Doctor Who has within it very specific rules that it doesn't break. There's ways that the laws of physics work in that show which while crazy have an internal logic, a method to the madness. Buffy had that. Angel had that. I fear Firefly really didn't but there's not enough episodes really to prove that one way or the other (how many planets? how many stars? moons? where were they in relation to one another? the astrogation of Firefly is completely unrealistic. and don't get me started on the very concept of planet terraforming. or ship propulsion.)

I question whether or not the internal logic built early on in Dollhouse's first season is being kept consistent, or if its being thrown out in favor of making Echo lactate. Cuz each week we need something startling to keep the audience guessing. I question whether or not Dollhouse can hold up to its own scrutiny, and stick to its own inner logic.

If Dollhouse can't be true to itself, audiences can smell that, and like a dog can smell fear or sharks can smell blood, the end result of that gut reaction to a TV series lying to itself is.. well, it's never pretty.

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