Dollhouse—Entertaining the End
Now that all is said and done, and the dust has begun to settle, it's time for a bit of introspection. At about this time last year I first heard that Joss Whedon, creative mastermind behind two of the greatest television shows to ever exist, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, was coming back to television. Not only this, but he was having Eliza Dushku as his lead star, an actress I'd loved for years as I watched her portray Faith from Buffy and then the lead role on Tru Calling. Excitedly, I tuned in for the pilot episode on February 13th, 2009.
I'll thank the Fox Network for being completely unprepared for the reality of Dollhouse. With virtually no promotion of the show and no knowledge of the internet chatter surrounding the show's troubled beginnings, the only thing I'd seen of Dollhouse was two truly cringe-inducing TV promos featuring Eliza Dushku and Summer Glau (of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) trying to make Fox's Friday-night lineup sound like nothing more than hot women stripping down in the name of science fiction. Needless to say, I was less than prepared for a show with substance.
What is Dollhouse? Dollhouse is a show about a beautiful young woman first introduced only as “Echo,” an Active housed within the secretive Los Angeles Dollhouse. An Active, or doll, has had their memories and personalities erased, leaving them childlike blank slates wandering around a sleek, gorgeous spa-like environment. When a client hires an Active for an engagement, the Active is imprinted with a complete personality and skill set to suit the client's needs: dream date, thief, assassin...After the engagement is complete, the Active returns to the Dollhouse where their minds are again wiped clean, protecting the client's secrets and leaving them, for all intents and purposes, vegetables once more. Things take a unique turn, however, when Echo begins to show signs of self-awareness between engagements, and she slowly begins to build a personality for herself, in effect, being reborn as an individual.
A fascinating concept, but a dark and disturbing one, as well. Dollhouse was practically designed to make viewers uncomfortable over the questions that it raised. All of the Actives are ostensibly volunteers—but can one ever volunteer to be a slave? If the technology exists to literally wipe someone's personality from them, what is the truth? If an Active is programmed to love the client that they are with on a romantic engagement, is it still rape and/or prostitution? Is it even morally right for such technology to exist? These questions and more swirl around the Dollhouse...or at least, they tried.
According to several interviews and, indeed, the news swirling around Dollhouse since its inception, Fox quickly backed away from how dark Dollhouse could become, and instead insisted on a new, formulaic approach to the story. In the original pilot episode, “Echo,” we are introduced to a dark and fascinating world where nothing is what it appears to be. Echo is born as an individual, and a storm begins to descend on the Dollhouse itself, a house which is a disturbing mirror of Hollywood today. Fox scrapped this pilot and insisted on a “five-pilot” approach, wherein Echo would be sent on an “engagement of the week” with little room for plot development. They then scheduled Dollhouse for the dreaded Fox Network “Friday Night Death Slot” at 9:00, and then failed to promote the show whatsoever.
In the first five episodes, Echo was not a person, and neither was anyone at the Dollhouse. Aside from brief moments of self-actualization achieved by Echo at the end of each episode, there was little to no plot development occurring at all during any of these “pilots,” each one designed so that a viewer could jump right into the show and not have missed anything important the week before. Therefore, the audience was presented with a concept that was disturbing, a main character they cared nothing about, an unlikeable cast of supporting characters, and five self-contained episodes that did nothing for overall plot development. By the end of the fifth week, the ratings had plunged, and by the time the sixth episode returned the show to the heights reached by “Echo,” the total viewership for Dollhouse was nearly completely lost, and it was never regained.
The critics, however, were another story.
The first five episodes were criticized for their lack of plot development, for their bland and uninteresting engagements – after all, it wasn't really Echo in danger, it was someone else who looked like her: what was there to care about? – and their concerns that Eliza Dushku didn't possess the acting abilities to become a new, different individual in each episode. Many wondered if Whedon hadn't “lost his touch.” The much-hyped sixth episode, “Man on the Street,” was said by both cast, crew and Whedon himself to be a game-changer. Critics and what viewing audience was left gamely tuned in to a fateful Friday that changed everything.
With a bang, Dollhouse became everything that it was meant to be: a dark and morally challenging show centered around a talented cast fighting their own battles with each other and themselves as Echo wakes up within herself and begins to fight back. Abandoning the lukewarm “engagement of the week” format, Dollhouse became serialized and intense, with each new installment hailed by critics as both a return to form and high drama television. The supporting cast was finally given a chance to shine and Dushku was praised as having a much more dramatic presence now that Echo was given a chance to be more than just a blankly staring face week in and week out.
Hurtling through the mysteries of the Rossum Corporation – the force behind the Dollhouse (named as a literary allusion to the Eastern drama “Rossum's Universal Robots”) – and the insane rogue Active known as Alpha, Dollhouse became as much a conspiracy thriller as a science-fiction, focusing on FBI agent Paul Ballard (portrayed by Tahmoh Penikett)'s obsessive interest in taking down the Dollhouse as well as the transient value of truth as characters were revealed in their darkest hours to be everything that they never thought they were. By the end of the first season, Time magazine had labeled Dollhouse a “haunting, cerebral and gorgeous” television show.
Paul Ballard was a fascinating character because he was first introduced as the hero of the tale, the dogged FBI agent who crusaded to free Echo and the other dolls from their gilded prison. In a classic Whedon twist, however, one of the Dollhouse's own clients (portrayed in a memorable guest spot by Patton Oswalt) forced us to see Paul Ballard for what he really is: a human being, perhaps even more flawed than we are. As his world is turned upside down and he's forced to see what he really is, Tahmoh Penikett (“Helo” from Battlestar Galactica) turns a masterful role as a human being tossed into an impossible situation as he falls dangerously in love with the idea of freeing Caroline, the woman Echo was before she was brought to the Dollhouse.
The season wrapped with a finale that was as thoughtful as it was a tense thrill ride, bringing the season full circle as a final trauma forced Echo to wake up as an individual within the strange prison that was the Dollhouse. It was here that Fox struck again. Aware that the ratings were tanking, Whedon and his team of writers had shot an episode on a shoestring budget to prove that they needed less money. This episode, titled “Epitaph One,” was set ten years in the future, and featured a fascinating post-apocalyptic world that had been devastated by the technology of the Dollhouse, which had been weaponized and wiped half of the world into blank dolls and turned the other half into mindless killing machines. Hailed by critics as one of the best hours of science-fiction television of 2009, Fox chose to not air the episode as “Echo” technically fulfilled their 13-episode order.
It was here, however, in the show's seeming darkest hour, that something unexpected and amazing happened. In the digital age, a new invention was released years ago that has become an advertiser's bane: DVR. While Dollhouse had low overnight ratings, Fox chose to look at the DVR numbers. Combined with the overnights, the next-day viewings (DVR, Hulu.com, Amazon.com, and iTunes) of Dollhouse literally more than doubled the ratings. After releasing the first season on DVD, complete with both “Echo” and “Epitaph One,” Fox watched with something like amazement as the first season DVD set sold more than 60,000 copies on the first week alone. In one week, Fox had made more than $1,000,000 – nearly enough to begin regaining their investment in Dollhouse. In a surprise move, Fox chose to renew Dollhouse for a second season.
Here, Dollhouse changed, and it changed forever.
Although the first three episodes featured individual engagements, these opening sequences were nothing like the timid, lukewarm stories told in season one. Echo was awake and aware of the dangers around her, and there were consequences for that awareness. After an explosive premiere, Echo found a friend and an ally in Paul Ballard as he joined the Dollhouse to help her, and they both vowed to restore the dolls to their selves and free themselves from their technological prison.
Premiering once more on the Friday night death slot, with a continued lack of advertisement, Whedon changed the entire game for the second season. Each episode propelled the plot further as he telescoped five years of television he'd planned for Dollhouse into the second season. Heavy on celebrated science fiction and “Whedonverse” alumni, the second season of Dollhouse saw Echo confronting the Rossum Corporation.
When Fox chose to pull Dollhouse completely from the November sweeps schedule, it came as no surprise to anyone when Dollhouse was canceled. Again, however, Fox surprised the intensely loyal cult following the show had developed: the network gave Whedon and his crew months of advance notice, the opportunity to actually finish the show, and their promise that they would air all thirteen episodes of season two, no matter what.
With an eye toward providing closure for the series, Dollhouse bloomed by necessity into everything it could and would be. Beginning with the haunting and tragic episode “Belonging,” Dollhouse began to ask even more questions – for instance, what would happen to Echo if she were restored to Caroline? As Caroline was revealed to not quite be the angel people believed her to be, a new question was introduced: would it be murder to get rid of Echo in favor of Caroline? How much of Caroline is Echo? These questions and more heightened the emotional tension in a roller-coaster ride of humanistic probing. The second season also gave room for the three newest discoveries in a powerful stable of actors – Enver Gjokaj (“Victor”), who gave an eerie performance as a perfect copy of Topher Brink; Dichen Lachman (“Sierra”), who brought sympathy to television's most tragic heroine; and Fran Kranz, who began as the amoral sociopath Topher Brink, the scientist with a god complex of the first season brought to a stunning mental breakdown as the guilt of his actions finally caught him.
With the characters of season two moving into a fascinating build-up toward tragedy, Dollhouse moved into the realm of conspiracy thriller with action-packed episodes full of stunning revelations and unexpected secrets, revealing the Rossum Corporation as a powerful entity with an eye toward grooming the next President of the United States. In a risky move, Dollhouse unleashed Echo into the world with no memory and forced her to live on her own, training to take down the Dollhouse.
The work payed off beautifully as Echo was entrapped once more within the Dollhouse, only this time sent to that vague threat of season one: The Attic. In a beautifully rendered episode directed by a comic book artist, Dollhouse entered a surreal world of dreamlike quality, a move that led to even more revelations, some more shocking than others. Featuring fan-favorite guest stars like Summer Glau (of Firefly and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), Alexis Denisof (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel), Jamie Bamber (Battlestar Galactica), and introducing Miracle Laurie as the tragic doll November, the second season of Dollhouse led to a taut, emotionally supercharged finale as tearful as it was explosive, ending the second season.
Here, however, lay Whedon's true gift to the devoted fans of Dollhouse. No longer concerned with ratings, Whedon and his team were free to tell the story directly to the fans of the show, and moved the show in a stupendous direction toward that oft-celebrated, post-apocalyptic dystopian world first glimpsed in the DVD-only “Epitaph One.” After “The Hollow Men,” the finale of the second season, Dollhouse again moved a decade into the future, picking up where “Epitaph One” left off to deliver another celebrated episode and a closure-bringing series finale in “Epitaph Two: Return.”
In thirteen episodes, it was impossible to wrap up every storyline, but Dollhouse tried its hardest and succeeded in nearly all cases. And in that, there was a success: Dollhouse had an end, a truly satisfying end, that brought the characters full circle and presented a new world for them to live in, a world that fans could explore on their own.
In the end, what could one take away from Dollhouse? Over the course of its two seasons, Dollhouse was a show that raised questions – morally, philosophically, ethically. In watching Echo carve out a self within her blank state, she became a hero to all of us as she became an individual, rather than a supernaturally empowered action-hero. Topher Brink (portrayed by Fran Kranz) started as the amoral and gleeful sociopath behind the Dollhouse's technology, and by show's end had grown a conscience and something like a soul – he started as us when given the technology to play with people like a god playing with ants. At the very least, Dollhouse was stimulating. It made us uneasy, it made us think, it made us question, and it made us care. In the world of today's endless stream of reality shows and sex-themed sitcoms, that was enough to stand out in the world of television.
So, really, perhaps it was good that Dollhouse only lasted for two seasons: it stayed fresh and it went out on a truly high note in one of the stranger TV swan songs seen for quite some time. And while Joss Whedon has said that he has no plans to continue Dollhouse in another format like he has done with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel and Firefly, perhaps he can again give the advice he gave to Buffy and Angel fans after their respective ends: “Write lots and lots of fanfiction.”
While I certainly have sang enough praises of Dollhouse over the course of this interview, I would hope that I was suitably scathing enough of the "five-pilot" introduction; while some of the badness can and should be blamed on the Fox network for insisting on these episodes in the first place, one simply cannot excuse bad writing, on one episode in particular. Hailsed by science-fiction critic/fan website io9 as literally one of "the worst sci-fi moments of 2009," the episode "Stage Fright" (season one, episode three) was simply awful from start to finish, except for the scenes that were cannibalized from "Echo," the unaired pilot. It's my personal preference to watch "Echo" rather than "Stage Fright" at this juncture when viewing the DVD, as "Echo" makes sense in that slot and is such a vastly superior episode.
Also, while watching "Epitaph One" before viewing season two gives the second season an added gravity, the show itself makes far more sense if one watches each set of twelve episodes as a complete season and then watches the two "Epitaph" episodes as a sort of TV movie that finishes off the series.