Monday, December 21, 2009

Stradivarius Stratocaster Revisited

Friends, Actives, Mutantites, lend me your eyes. I come not to bury Dollhouse, but to cut it up into tiny bits and feed it to you as sushi. We must do this now, while the meat remains fresh. It is what we fear most, and that's the only way out of here... Alright the metaphor is getting mangy. Let me try carving into this a different way.

Tom Lehrer once made famous the song "Masochism Tango." Spike Jones once made famous the phrase "we always hurt the ones we love." I can't help but think about these songs in this moment, as I type these words into this blog. I'm gonna regret doing this in ways I can't even fathom now. And to those who have read my previous ramblings about this show, and Whedon or Dushku in general, I may be traversing again over similar territory but I'm trying to put it all in one place for the sake of posterity. In the past I was examining a body of work in motion. Today, I'm performing an autopsy.

There is a part of me that hesitates to commit the following thoughts to the Web because they will not be popular among those I hope may see them: fans of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse. The body's not even cold. The cast and crew of the television series just had their Wrap Party this past weekend. Yet here I find myself performing a virtual autopsy on this corpse, trying to figure out what went wrong.

It's easy to blame the Fox Network. Far too easy. They've made it easy. Fox purposefully removed Dollhouse from November Sweeps so that it wouldn't show up in the ratings for this quarter. One could argue that's a mercy killing. There's no illusion that its ratings would suddenly improve. They were going down. Fox could have been doing Mutant Enemy and we the fans a huge favor. The pessimist in me doubt it, but any attempt to describe what I think really happened leads to more speculation than on the streets of Dealy Plaza any lazy Saturday afternoon.

I have a working theory that Whedon's ideas simply don't gibe with the mindsets of people very high on Fox Television's corporate food chain. I'm sure there are some people in the trenches of the network and its subsidiaries are in Whedon's camp, and some of them may be more fanboyish than myself. However, Fox is also the entity that brings us "Faux News" and insists that senators praying for guidance is newsworthy. So there's people with brains and people without brains, and the zombies have long since stormed that particular castle. There's a disconnect here. The Left Hand... as it were. However, I've no proof. Nor do I have the capacity to get such proof. I merely have my own scruples & idiosyncracies and prejudices against anyone who "goes a little Brummel." Like corporate executives.

The bigger picture is the audience. Word had gotten out amongst the mainstream audience that Dollhouse was a lost cause and no one was going to give it a try, except those of us who had already seen Man On The Street, Briar Rose, & Epitaph One. There's a Potential in Dollhouse that's never fully been realized, even as Whedon's forces pulled all the stops to end season two with a megaton bang. That potential can be sensed in episodes like True Believer and Haunted. This series had the chance to be a different show every episode, taking us more places and doing more things than even Sam & Al could have explored in Quantum Leap's best moments. We've seen glimpses of this, but it couldn't get out from behind impending doom long enough to wallow in the izness of its bizness. It didn't hit the ground running. It flailed and walked like a pony that just plooped out of its mother's womb, and the network and the audience were expecting it to win the Kentucky Derby seconds after its birth. It was never given a chance to fail before it could succeed. Most television shows have had similar problems, which is why TV pilots have such a high mortality rate. Too many are too desperate to demand a quick return on their investment, and they're too hasty to cut their losses and whine about lost profits when had they held out longer the investment would have been paid back over time.

I mean okay. The series had a rocky start. Dollhouse's first (broadcast) episode opens with Eliza Dushku riding onto a dance floor with a motorcycle. When I saw that the first time I was like What the Fuck? Really? You're gonna OPEN with this, Whedon? You've got to be kidding me. There's no scenario realistically where this would ever happen anywhere on the planet without the guy who owns the place running onto the dance floor screaming at the top of his lungs how much damage those tires are causing to hardwood floors and who's gonna pay for all this? It was completely illogical, and set the tone (for me at least) that Whedon just wasn't taking this thing as seriously as I'd like him to take it.

And that's what brings me back to writing these very thoughts down somewhere. I don't want to make these incisions on this corpse. I don't want anyone to, but someone must. What really killed Dollhouse? Why is it on this slab? Why, in the months to come, will people be mourning yet another great Whedon series, and forever speak about it in the past tense as we now do so for Buffy and Angel and Firefly? Could something have been done to save it, or was it doomed from the start. Perhaps it's best to not open the ribcage. Do we really need to know?

I fear I do know, and no one's going to like it. I think what killed Dollhouse ultimately is the very entity at the heart of its life essence. I think the reason Dollhouse failed is Eliza Dushku. Please don't take this the wrong way. I can see the torches and pitchforks outside my window already. Hear me out.

Eliza Dushku is a hardworking performer. She's been at this most of her life. She's a vibrant woman with an infectious and voracious appetite for life. This exudes all she does. She illuminates a room when she enters it. She loves the camera and the camera loves her and this is an ongoing love affair. It's so easy to fall into a complacency that she can do no wrong.

We diehard fans have heard the tale told many times. How did Dollhouse come to be? Eliza Dushku had a contract with Fox. She needed another pilot to fulfill that contract and she wanted it to be a successful one but didn't have a story idea, so she went to the one man in her life with the most uniquely qualified skills to deliver the goods. She took Joss Whedon out for pizza.
I invited Joss Whedon to lunch after I did the business deal and decided that Fox, we'd had a cool relationship in the past and I wanted to do something else and I wanted to get back into a television show. I had him on the brain for sure but I hadn't called him yet, but I sort of took a leap of faith and set things up with Fox and then called Joss. We went to a four-hour lunch where I just sort of used my womanly wiles. No, we've become such good friends, kind of like brother and sister and kind of like he was my watcher, my handler from when I first moved out to L.A. when I was 17 and I was a little bit of a wild child. He's watched me and helped me and taught me over the years. I told him how bad I wanted and needed him back and he accepted and here we are.
She laid it out for him on the table. He knew what she needed and what she didn't have. They talked not only about her requirements to fulfill the contract, but also what she needed herself as a talent and an artist. By the end of that meal Joss understood fully where Eliza was coming from and what she required. More importantly, he knew what he'd seen inside Eliza since the first time she auditioned for the part of Faith back during the production of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Eliza Dushku is more than just an actress. She's an humanitarian. She's a risk seeker. She's athletic. She wants to help make the world a better place. She wants to experience life like a child experiences a watermelon the first time. I mean maybe we're all like that, but she actually goes out there and does it. More importantly she's something far more important than the actress you and I take so for granted: she's her mother's daughter.

She's the daughter of a Suffolk professor named Judith Dushku, who goes around the world speading peace and shining a glaring light on infringements of women's rights, human suffering, and government excess. Although she doesn't seem to advertise this boldly for personal gain, Eliza has been known to assist her mother in these efforts, and also use her celebrity status in sensible ways to help bring attention to these global atrocities. In that way, she's a true hero in a sense that Echo or Faith can never be. I imagine Eliza would be quick to point out that her mom's the real hero, having laid her own reputation and career on the line repeatedly for a cause that's far bigger and more important than herself.

So please do not think me a hater or an asshole when I say what I'm about to say about Eliza Dushku. I respect her greatly as an actress, a humanitarian, and as a partying babe. I hope to buy her a drink some day. Although this blog post will probably make that even less a possibility than before. Eliza Dushku is a woman who is many things to many different people. She has to wear a lot of hats in her life. We all do. You are a different person to your boss than you are to your family. The you that you present yourself as when you hang with your mom or your dad is a different you than the you that you present to a complete stranger at a bar, or the lady at the Dept of Motor Vehicles when you renew your license. We all wear different hats. However, Eliza Dushku wears different hats all over the freaking planet. She may not be alone in that, but she is unique in the hats she wears and how she chooses to wear them. So it's with this approach to her day to day life that she came to her approach to the character of Echo, and all the hats that Echo wears.

Joss Whedon looked across the table at Eliza that day at the pizzaria. He excused himself and went to the bathroom. We assume he washed his hands. Then he returned and told her what eventually became The Dollhouse. We know this story. It's an adorable story.

What we don't know is that Joss Whedon came up with The Dollhouse based on what he believed Eliza Dushku could do as an actress. He'd seen her potential with his own eyes and anyone who's seen her work on Buffy can attest that Whedon was right. The woman's daring. As an actress she's bold and brash and the camera just gobbles her up like bubble gum & she's always got more at her disposal. However, he's too close to her to properly direct her. He loves her too much as a friend and like a brother to be able to say to her what needs to be said to really get what he needed from her to make Echo work. The role he invented for her was going to need something more than Dushku can provide. It was going to need an Eliza Dushku that could stop being Eliza Dushku.

As much as I despise Meryl Streep's acting style (again she's a great person don't get me wrong but unlike Dushku I can't watch Streep w/o wincing - it'd take far too long to explain and it's not important) I have to admit that when Streep delves into a role, The Meryl Streep simply disappears. Even with her celebrity status, there comes a point where you forget she's Meryl Streep and you accept that she's whoever the hell she's portraying. Sophie. Silkwood. That weird lady in Lemony Snicket. Streep stops being Streep when on stage or in front of the camera and instead she embodies the character itself. When it comes to acting, Meryl Streep uses her body like a musician would use a Stradivarius. It's a very versatile instrument that can either be a wistful longing melancholy in a folk song, a disturbing cadence of fear and disillusionment in a horror movie soundtrack, or it can carry the lion's share of urgency in a great classical symphony.

Streep is a Stradivarius. Comparatively, Eliza Dushku is a fender stratocaster.

I think I've said this before elsewhere but I hope to more successfully explain myself so that no one gets the wrong idea. Jimi Hendrix once performed The Star Spangled Banner on a fender stratocaster, and it kicked some major mother fucking ass. Even to this day, it still stands out as one of the greatest accomplishments of 20th century music. However, there's no denying that it's an electric guitar. Hendrix was performing a song that had never before been heard in that manner. You could still recognize the melody, but he created something entirely new and different by taking the sound of an electric guitar and putting it to such a traditional piece. An electric guitar is also a versatile instrument. However, unlike the violin, it can't hide. It can't become something new. No matter where you put an electric guitar, you're gonna know it's an electric guitar. It doesn't make you forget it's an electric guitar. It can't let you. A violin can get out from behind its own reputation and keep you in the moment, feeling the emotion and the overall flow of the music as part of an ensemble. A guitar wants to do all that, but it can't help being so mother fucking cool.

So this brings us to Echo, who is a character that the audience of Dollhouse has to believe at times is a clean slate, and at other times has to believe she's got over forty different people inside her. This is a role Joss Whedon tailor made for Eliza Dushku because he knows she has the chops for it. And she does. However, she's like an electric guitar inside a classical symphonic orchestra. She can hit all the notes, but only crazy people like you or me are gonna like it.

An electric guitar inside a classical symphonic orchestra would be awesome. It IS awesome. It's a great idea! It probably has been done before. I wish it'd be done so I could experience it cuz just thinking about it makes my eyes all wide and puts a stupid smile on my face. However, you're never gonna get a mainstream audience to accept an electric guitar inside a classical symphonic orchestra and that's actually a damn shame cuz I think it'd kick some major ass. Mainstream America sucks.

There was ONE time during the course of Dollhouse when I think I saw Eliza Dushku stop being Eliza Dushku and just start being who she needed to be to pull off the role. There's some moments in the second season episode "Instinct" where Echo thinks she's the mother of a baby and she feels the baby is in jeopardy. In those moments, I forgot she was Eliza Dushku, and after it happened I was taken aback. I had to remind myself to breathe. I had been looking for Dushku to pull that off for a season and a half and she actually did it. I was flabbergasted. But then at the end of the episode there's a moment where she's talking to Boyd and that moment was gone. Dushku was back. She was Dushku doing Echo looking at all these people in her head. Echo didn't have her own identity beyond the actress. Now you might think I'm expecting too much of her, and you may be right, but Alan Tudyk is able to successfully pull off a composite personality, and then show us distinct personalities when the script calls for it. We don't see that from Dushku. Things are not cut & dried for her and perhaps that's a direction mistake. Perhaps she CAN better telegraph Penn to an audience as opposed to Taffy or Esther, but in those moments when that's needed, I don't see it. Even separating the Active from the Actual, we see Enver Gjokaj do this most exquisitely in practically every episode in which he appears. Victor is unique as an Active. Though he's a clean slate, you can see from the blank face to simplistic mannerisms and childlike grace that he's Victor. Then Gjokaj does Topher or that dancing chick or that Russian dude or in The Attic he does the character's actual self Tony and there's such a subtle and yet brilliant difference. The audience needs to be informed that a new person inhabits the body and the other actors do it very well. I could waft eloquent for paragraphs about how well Dichen Lachman creates a distinct new persona for every character the writers throw at her. I must admit reluctantly that Miracle Laurie didn't exactly do this with November's actual persona Madeline Costly. I don't see much difference between Madeline and Mellie. This pains me because of all the actresses on the show, I must admit Miracle Laurie's the most sexy. So I've been star struck by her throughout the series but objectively speaking I have to admit she has a similar problem to Eliza Dushku - her "performer toolbox" is ill-equipped to portray this many distinct characters. Seems she pretty much just portrays herself. Which is great. Tom Hanks does that. Most actors do that actually, but it's not what The Dollhouse needed to be successful.

And that's what it all really boils down to when you really think about it. I think perhaps the mainstream audience would have embraced this series had there been more violins in its virtual orchestra, but a couple electric guitars in the mix just didn't ring true. That's okay for me. I prefer to see Shakespeare performed by punks in modern day costumes as opposed to the stereotypical classical way with the fancy Elizabethan costuming and melodramatic approach to the poetic dialogue. I like my theater a little uncouth. I prefer my orchestras w/electric guitars in them. Unfortunately, I'm not most of the world. Mainstream America simply isn't that daring.


Stephanie said...

I think you completely missed the whole point of Eliza Dushku portraying Echo in this essay. How many times do Joss and Eliza have to say that Echo was never supposed to be completely different in every persona she was imprinted with? The whole point of Echo was that there was a thruline running through her personas, that there was a sameness and that Echo was still Echo in spite of the imprints. Joss said something in an interview along the lines of, "You can't shut off the Eliza" even though he believes that Eliza is a versatile actress. He explained that it's the same for Echo. You can't shut off the Echo, even if there's a new person in her head. So in that respect, I think Eliza couldn't have been more perfect for the job. There is a little Eliza in everything she does, but she's also shown great versatility in the role. It wasn't required for her to disappear into it because Echo doesn't ever completely disappear. I think everyone who reviews the show and criticizes Eliza for not completely disappearing into the role is forgetting that facet of the show and the character.

I've seen Eliza completely change her voice and mannerisms for certain roles in Dollhouse. Just look at Echo in Grey Hour when she gets wiped while in the safe. Eliza completely changed everything about herself in that scene. Same thing with blind Esther in True Believer, Rebecca Minor, the hillbilly chick in Briar Rose/Omega, the mommy in Instinct, and Kiki. Hell, the only times I think Eliza has been weak on the show have been in either badly written characters/episodes or when she had to portray nothing but passive confusion like in Echoes when she's Alice trying to remember. That was painful to watch, but I really can't blame Eliza. Her lines were painful even on paper and I can't really imagine any actor being able to make constant confusion engaging, interesting, or like a defined personality. Maybe Enver could or Meryl Streep because they are exceptional, but I don't know that most actors could.

I do agree that Joss is too close to Eliza to properly criticize/direct her. There are some things that Eliza does that I think could easily be changed if someone just said, "Hey Eliza, every time you portray this emotion, you use this gesture." Just listen to the commentary in Ghost. Eliza is criticizing her Eleanor Penn, saying how difficult it was, while Joss is praising her to high heaven and thinks her Eleanor Penn is just perfect!

Stephanie said...

Another thing about the roles Eliza has had to portray in comparison to the other cast members -- many of hers have been written similarly while most of Dichen Lachman's roles have been more stereotyped, over-the-top caricatures that are of course going to make her look like she has more range than Dushku. I believe Eliza to be far superior to Dichen, though not as good as Alan and Enver, it's just that Sierra gets to be British and a geek and ruthless assassin while Echo is playing people with less extreme personality traits who are more like every day people you'd meet on the street... or see as the main character in another TV show. You couldn't really write a whole TV series based on many of Sierra's personalities because they've been so left field, but Echo's have been more of the average person type you see as main characters on TV.

One last thing -- I don't believe that the main character of a TV show can make or break it. There are plenty of successful TV shows on air right now where the main character is the least liked one. I watch a lot of TV and read a lot of forums and it seems to be a huge trend that the lead actress is hated upon. I've read countless boards bashing the lead actress's acting abilities along with much whining that the supporting cast is more interesting and they wished that the show had more about them. It almost seems like a rule on TV that the main character has to be the most bland one while the supporting characters are the ones who get to have all the risk.

Why did Dollhouse fail? My money is more on Fox than any of the acting or the writing that went into the show that people found to be less than stellar. As revealed recently by Joss, Fox wanted to back out of Dollhouse five minutes after they bought the show. Fox pretty much did everything they could to insure that Dollhouse would debut to a tiny audience and they did nothing to keep that audience around. If anything, the only reason that Dollhouse got a season 2 at all was so Fox could get on Joss's good side so he could possibly develop other shows for them in the future that were less racy and controversial than Dollhouse was in its concepts. Fox wanted Dollhouse to die, and so it did. I just think that Fox were hoping that despite whether or not they were comfortable with it, that they could do nothing to support the show and maybe, just maybe, there'd be a miracle and millions would buy the DVD like they did Firefly and Dollhouse would become a modest hit without them spending a single cent extra on a show they stopped wanting to make the moment it sunk in that Dollhouse is a show about more than just Eliza Dushku being hot and kicking ass.

ZachsMind said...

Very thought provoking response. I appreciate your slices of mind, don't get me wrong. It's a rare and precious thing when someone reads my rambling and takes the time to respond in kind.

With that said, I can't repeatedly just blame the network every time this happens to Joss. It's very easy to just lay the blame on FOX repeatedly without more evidence. I like to believe Joss Whedon can do no wrong, but objectively the series had a rocky start and didn't really get its sea legs until halfway thru the first season and by then FOX realized it would never get a mainstream audience no matter what they did. Without an audience, there's no advertisers.

Presuming FOX got Buyer's Remorse five minutes after they signed the contracts is idealistic but not sound. FOX couldn't keep their doors open if all they do is make bad business decisions. There's a method to their madness. It boils down to money, and FOX was unable to sell the Whedon/Dushku property properly. Whedon couldn't deliver what they needed to sell.

That might have more to do with the underlying message Dollhouse was making than anything else. When you make corporate greed the bad guy (while not impossible) it's very difficult to sell that to greedy corporations. They prefer to think of themselves as the good guys. Don't ask me why.