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February 28 2009

Thinking Out Loud on "Dollhouse". io9's Graeme McMillan contemplates whether or not "Dollhouse" is truly a suitable idea for television. critically reviews Friday's episode and raises some interesting questions about the persons per assignment ratio.

Hmm, not CJA (she wrote the review), it's a Graeme McMillan piece.

[ edited by moley75 on 2009-03-01 02:37 ]
I can understand his criticism of the idea not being suitable for a tv show, and honestly, these are issues that concern me about the series, or at the very least the first half of season one.

That said, I do love this show (already), and I do have faith that Joss will subvert our expectations and take us to some pretty awesome places once it reaches its stride, but in the meantime I worry that it won't be able to hold onto its broader audience with the "weekly missions."

Nice to read a thoughtful critical review that doesn't resort to bashing Eliza and her looks for once.
Whether a show is organized around a sustainable premise is a fair question and I don't mind reading the opinion of someone who thinks that Dollhouse's premise isn't sustainable.

But I reject the premise of the piece, which is that what we're seeing in these first episodes is a formula that has to work as a TV show, i.e., a structure to be repeated every week for however long. I think it is a failure of imagination to assume that what we are seeing here as the basic setup of the show is what we'll be getting down the road. I do not think that were Dollhouse to be renewed, the second season would be 22 episodes of Echo being sent out on assignments (all the while incrementally self-realizing) and Paul Ballard still looking for her. I think that our expectations about what this show is and who these people are will be upended - probably radically and probably more than once. This is probably true even in the 13 episodes that have been shot and may (god forbid) be the only ones ever shot.

Edited to add: yeah, what other said. I neglected to say that I think that Dollhouse is not stuck between a rock (stay the same and wither) and a hard place (change and die, because the show dies with change). I didn't word what I wanted to say very well. I think that the show will change radically and my basic assumption is that this is not a problem. This is a good thing.

[ edited by phlebotinin on 2009-03-01 03:19 ]
I'm a little bit leery of the philosophy espoused by this piece. Why? Because what it essentially boils down to is "change is bad in television." And yet this is manifestly untrue. Television is a serial medium, intended to be maintained indefinitely or until it gets cancelled. Now there are two ways of doing this. The first way is to ensure that nothing changes. But to make sure that nothing changes, you have to make sure that nothing happens, and you end up with static shows like sitcoms and cartoons that are about as meaningful as the word "antidisestablishmentarianism". They tend to gain huge followings, but they also tend to be absolutely horrible.

But the second way is to ensure that nothing stays the same. To maintain the fiction over a period of time by making people want to see what happens next. In the end, that is the ONLY way to create meaningful serial fiction. To claim that something built on this premise would be better as a movie is patently absurd. This premise is fundamentally serial in nature, whereas a movie is not.

In short, Dollhouse makes a good TV series for exactly the same reason this person is saying it doesn't.
Yeah, especially when you consider Joss's other work. Angel, of course, changed radically over the course of its series. Even non-Joss work. Season 1 of LOST versus now.

I'm also not really sure why a change in Dollhouse's set-up means that we'd no longer be watching Dollhouse. This quote in particular seems to indicate to me that the author is thinking in somewhat old-fashioned terms of TV:

The problem is, the only somewhere it can go that could be satisfying for the audience involves Echo remembering/realizing who and what she is and doing something about it, and in the most important sense - no matter what the outcome of that may be - that finishes the story. Yes, the series can continue, obviously, whether Echo suddenly has self-awareness and can access all these different personalities, or whether she gets reset, or the series shifts onto other characters... but the story we're all watching now will be finished.

Er, yes? More recently--though I admit, this is what the majority of shows do--it has become okay to change a television series significantly. No, not too significantly; Dollhouse shouldn't become a show about Echo, freed from the Dollhouse, trying to adapt to life in Nowheresville, Kansas with her hilariously and stereotypically uneducated foster family. But saying that a shift to other characters, or even a personality wipe (though my least favorite option, probably even including the Kansas scenario), renders it a different story... I dunno. I guess that just seems to me to be the point of changes like this.

I don't know if any of that made sense!

ETA that if my post makes no sense, go ahead and read Maratanos's. It says everything I wanted to, but with logic behind the words.

[ edited by Jobo on 2009-03-01 03:00 ]
Television should change (thanks, Maratanos). Think about the innovators from the past, sort of "out there" shows I loved growing up, like The Prisoner. A man is imprisoned in a little village, assigned a number, and every time he tries to escape, a giant, rubbery ball chases him down. Only lasted one full season. Suitable? Who cares. I have no idea how McGoohan got it made but I for one, am grateful it existed. Twin Peaks? Tim Minear's show Wonderfalls? Brilliant premises, all. Not being mainstream has always been iffy and Dollhouse is no exception.
Well, this seems to me to be a bit of defensiveness over someone's comments that does not like the show as it is presented. But these comments are real concerns. Though my suspicion is that they are also going to be moot, since I do not see DH going beyond this first year so the questions raised by this commentary are likely not going to be operational. Maratanos, I have to vehemently disagree with your statement "In the end, that is the ONLY way to create meaningful serial fiction." There are many ways to invest viewers in what you write, and making wholesale change just for change's sake is only one, and not necessarily the most effective way to do this. I will tell you that In Treatment, a show just over not long ago, had me caring deeply about a character that was in only 9 out of 45 eps. Her story is over now, and when S2 comes she will be gone. But if the story here is about Echo- and this is an ED vehicle- then where does it go when Echo's tale is ended? You think ED will just walk out of the show she created so that the focus can shift to, I dunno, Sierra (if she manages to survive S1, which I highly doubt, since her death is the only one that would resonate, except maybe for Harry Lennix's character)? What change would allow this to continue if Echo is no longer the driver? Given the lack of real other characters to carry the tale?
I watched Lost S1. I stopped in S2 and never went back. I could not care about any of the characters, and to this day, I still don't. DH has structural problems, and this article here only points out some of them.
I'm not sure that Tony J's, Jobo's, Maratanos's, etc. comments are "a bit of defensiveness." Is there no way to thoughtfully disagree with a negative assessment of Dollhouse without having one's thoughts dismissed as "a bit of defensiveness?" So only those who think that Dollhouse has big problems is thinking clearly and without defensiveness? Huh?

I also fail to see how falling out of love with "Lost" after Season One has any relevance to a discussion of Dollhouse's putative structural or character problems. Lost Season One had, what, 24 hours? Dollhouse has had three so far. Three. As for not finding characters to root for, some viewers have by now, some haven't. Some think that the show has structural problems, some don't. I'm not sure what defensiveness has to do with expressing either side of that debate.
The premise and ideas aren't bad for television, it's been the bad writing, crummy plotting, barely sketched out ideas and over all poor execution. This could have been an excellent show.
Why paint a bison when it's dead... why did you choose the color red?
This article makes me wonder if this person has watched television at all recently. Did BSG end when Galactica escaped at the end of the miniseries? Now you could argue that there was still a lot of the Battlestar universe unexplored. To which I would respond: yeah, exactly.

We've only seen the tiniest fraction of the Dollhouse universe. What if, after recovering her real identity, Echo joins the fight against the Dollhouse and the people who run it? What if she decides it's not such a bad idea after all and decides to work for them? What if the governement takes over the Dollhouse, or the shadwoy entity that runs the Dollhouse has some hidden agenda? What if the government is the shadowy entity? What if there is more than one Dollhouse? What if someone else gets access to the technology and does terrible things with it? What if the government gets access to the technology and does terrible things with it?

And those are just off the top of my not very Joss-shaped head.
(SPOILERS for aired DH episodes and a near book length comment to follow...)

I don't know, but I think it is too soon to call this. People have been announcing the death of this show since it was a twinkle in Joss's eye. I disagree with the article author's premise, however, at least for now. I think there are tons of places it could go. And, in my opinion, Joss is a master of "changing the game". He will have you thinking it is going to go one way, then it goes off in a completely different direction. And when you look back on it later, you will think to yourself, "Of course, that's the only way it could have gone." And kick yourself heartily for not having thought of it to begin with. :)

I have TONS of questions. How many Dollhouses are there? For that matter, how many Actives are there? It doesn't seem like a place like this could take in enough money with just 5 Actives... no matter how many rich old farts are hot for their bods. If Echo's sleeping area is just one pod, or one floor of a building, how many other pods are there? (Just as an aside: If they are pulling in so much money, why can't or won't they get a plastic surgeon to fix Amy's face?) Staff do not seem to be very valued in the Dollhouse... I wonder why that is?

And, while we are on the subject of staff, wouldn't it be a good idea if the staff that ran the Dollhouse(s) were, in fact, a sort of long term Active? At the end of their term, or in the event of being apprehended by the authorities, they could be wiped- thus saving their owners/investors/whatever the pain of prosecution. For that matter, I think if these people have harnessed (however tenuously) the ability to use computers to wipe a human brain, they might not have so much of a problem erasing fingerprints from a database, deleting digitized files of Echo's image at a crime scene, etc. Comparatively speaking, it's not rocket science.

And, how many people have become self-aware and/or escaped from a Dollhouse? I'm assuming Alpha is, in fact, a former Active that has become self aware and is going after the people who work in, or are part of, the Dollhouse. Why did he spare Echo? Did she imprint on him in some way? Sort of like the way Sierra seems to have when Echo walked in on her initial programming? What happens if there is more than just Alpha out there waging a war on an almost infinitely powerful foe- the owners of the Dollhouse(s)? Let's say that Echo becomes fully self aware, has a compositing event, or whatever... if she gets out and joins forces with Alpha (who may or may not be completely psycho or obsessed with her) what happens then? Could Ballard help? Would he even want to if he has a run in with Echo in an "unfriendly state of mind"? Would Alpha even let him help if he offered?

What is "the Attic"? Why does Queen Bitch (I can't think of her name right now) look sickened/terrified when it is even mentioned? Does she know something about her own fate should she fail in her job?

Why in some of Echo's mind wipes are there images not at all related to her previous mission? A woman leaning over a crib, a childhood home, etc. If these are Echo's real memories, from her life before, why are they still in there? And if they are just now getting sucked out, what does this say about the Dollhouse staffs' ability to return Echo to herself fully at the end of her contract term? Not one whole heck of a lot if that information is being deleted at the end of each engagement when Topher takes it over to the other machine. Is the Attic the final resting place for *all* Actives? Does anyone really get their life back? Does anyone ever really find freedom?

Look, in the end as I see it, this is a show that asks big questions about identity. What it means to be who you are. And whether or not you can *be* who you are when everything and everyone you know might not be what you think. There are few things in the world as malleable as identity. You are not only the person who shows up to your childhood home to have Thanksgiving dinner. For most people, identity shifts and changes with their surroundings on almost a minute by minute basis. How does life change when this technology is in the world? And how does a single life, that of Echo, change when she is in the world?

There are loads of places for this story to go. I'm sure there is a whole bunch of crap I haven't even thought of yet. Yeah, it's surface stuff right now. Oh look, Eliza with a bow... Eliza can really sing. Boy, there sure is a lot of skin showing, and a whole bunch of sex and bootie shaking going on. That's just FOX. We don't even know if we are seeing this stuff in the right (originally intended) order. Just wait.

And for heaven's sake, have a little faith. Joss is a great writer. He is a great world builder. None of us would be perusing this site if we didn't, at least at one time, think that. What would hold our interest otherwise? I'm not saying don't criticize. I'm not even saying don't voice your concerns. I'm just saying have some faith.

Because the big questions in life are rarely easy to ask. We have to work our way up to them. When confronted only with a rock, one might never understand the enormity of the mountain it came from without more knowledge.

Let the man show you a rock for a little while. The mountain will come.
A critical or even negative review is one thing, but stating categorically that the premise of a show isn't a "suitable" idea for TV, then going on to explain the only way the show could possibly play out, is pretty ridiculous. (Wow, I wish I had that kind of psychic access to Joss's brain).

I thoroughly enjoy well thought out pieces by critics, whether I agree or disagree. But this kind on nonsense gives the whole realm of entertainment criticism a bad name.

Not "suitable", indeed. *huumph*
I don't know if any of Joss's prior series had quite the intense early analysis that Dollhouse is getting, because I wasn't paying attention to this sort of thing when they were new. But the early episodes of each could hardly have seemed perfect gems at the time...many of them gain resonance on re-watching after later episodes.

For me, it's the complexity of the characters and themes over time that make them exceptional, and worthy of personal and critical attention.

So I'm inclined to let the improbabilities go, and focus on the interesting stuff and see where it goes. On a pure entertainment/viewing level, I'm interested in Boyd, the Doc, Adelle and Topher, and Paul's neighbor, for well as who's after Echo that's not Alpha, and any number of other things- which is a lot, for three episodes. Most series don't even have that many characters who can be distinguished from one another in any meaningful way after a whole season.

I guess with the Buffy/Angel world, in particular, the premise was so much further from the real that it didn't occur to folks to complain about lack of realism in the set-up.
I'm okay with it being consistent in it's own terms, and time will tell about that. If it gets the time. I'm far from being worried about whether Joss has enough ideas for multiple seasons!

I'm just hoping the show will last long enough for us to find out. The mechanics of ratings and growing a mainstream audience are beyond me, in the end. But I do think there are some pretty clear signals that episode 6 is where we start getting what Joss wanted us to get. I'm looking forward to it.

And, BTW, I'm having a hunch that there's an obscured Jossian "family" building here somewhere.

[ edited by toast on 2009-03-01 15:11 ]
Tarae, great comment. To address one point you brought up, I believe the "non-engagement" images in Echo's mind-wipes are the false memories implanted by Topher (the ones that make up her personality) getting wiped out. Remember, from "her" perspective, there is no difference between the real memories from the engagement and the fake ones put in her head beforehand.
I wondered how 24 would sustain itself. They found a way, apparently.
The article voiced many of my concerns about "Dollhouse." To me, the basic problem is this: How can an audience get emotionally involved with a character who displays no personality? Sure, each week's "assignment" brings a new personality, but how do you care about Echo's original personality, whatever it may be? I'm going to keep watching, but I see some real problems ahead.
How can an audience get emotionally involved with a character who displays no personality?

I see Echo as an adult imprisoned as a helpless child. A child who needs to be protected and then eventually break free from her mental prison. So that in respect I am getting emotionally involved with the character.
Do people really have the "how can the audience relate to the dolls if their minds are wiped?" issue? It seems to me that the show has addressed that question pretty directly: echo is quickly (re)gaining her personality.
There are loads of places for this story to go. I'm sure there is a whole bunch of crap I haven't even thought of yet.

I totally agree. We do not even know what happens to the Dolls once they have fulfilled their terms of service or been sent to "The Attic". So how does this critic know where the story is headed based on 3 episodes.

I remember when The Babylon 5 Spin off Crusade got canceled because critics thought it was just going to be about them searching for a cure for 5 years and doing planet of the week episodes. But Straczynski said he was going to take us in a totally new direction just halfway through the first season had it not been canceled.

If Dollhouse does continue I have faith that Joss can change things up a bit. He might have already done so and we just haven't seen it yet. We are only at the end of the first chapter of the overall story. It is too soon to say that we are stuck in the Dollhouse.

Even "Smallville" stopped being about "Smallville" about 3 seasons ago.
I have trouble understanding the constant argument against the premise because "people would be able to get an actual person to do the job they would hire a doll for" The thing is- if you hire a doll, you have a person who is unequivocally bound in thought, deed and spirit to do what you want them to do. If you want love/sex isn't it better to have a weekend with someone who really truly loves you or a highly paid prostitute who is really good at acting like it? Or a body guard– hire all those strong guys who are really good at what they do, or someone who instinctually will lay down their life in protection of you. It's the feeling and emotion that is true and pure that is put into the doll- that is more valuable than anything else. No double cross, no cavalier attitude, no "I don't feel like doing this anymore"- just pure honest committment to the job you hired them for. I know, it's creepy. Of course it is. That is the whole point.
How can an audience get emotionally involved with a character who displays no personality?

I'd submit, rilynil, that (and I'll reserve capitulation to the notion that Echo is regaining Caroline this soon in the game, for now) it's easy to care about Echo, particularly, and the other Dolls, generally, because it's my perception that Caroline is responsible for helping Echo think outside the box (and the other Dolls may have that ability as well), but I don't believe that means she's returning to herself in leaps and bounds. Even in the third episode, Boyd has come to the realization she's special: Echo took the mission parameter and made it better. She seems to have the ability to think outside of the pieces that we give her and create.

At least in my little world of analyzation, the Dollhouse can't completely wipe away who a person was; i.e. their method isn't foolproof, and that makes the executive staff stressed out and paranoid. The more I hear about dire solutions like the attic for those who what? don't perform well, defective, don't stay on task, the more concern I feel for the actives who gave up their well-being to these people. And if you're special like Echo/Caroline, and like Sierra might be, are they that much closer to the ultimate punishment? Someone brought up the contract over in the third-episode topic, why even talk about them in the show if the actives have no control over their situation. That question brings up for me these thoughts:

  • I wonder if there's a failsafe for each one of them. Someone else in the world that knows of the five years they've conscripted for, say for instance, Dominic goes off the rails and orders one of them executed (relegated to the attic).
  • And if there isn't a failsafe, then that makes this world even more high-stakes and high-risk.
  • Why would a person willingly trust their lives to people who talks about them as though they are utterly expendable.

    I think these are powerful reasons to care because throughout history, evil, man's inhumanity to man, has prevailed too often despite man's/woman's basic nature, which I believe is loving and compassionate. And Caroline must have that within her full force to want to help/survive/strive outside of her programming.

    [ edited by Tonya J on 2009-03-01 23:04 ]
  • Or a body guard– hire all those strong guys who are really good at what they do, or someone who instinctually will lay down their life in protection of you. It's the feeling and emotion that is true and pure that is put into the doll- that is more valuable than anything else. No double cross, no cavalier attitude, no "I don't feel like doing this anymore"- just pure honest committment to the job you hired them for. I know, it's creepy. Of course it is. That is the whole point.

    Let me preface this comment by saying that I love Dollhouse, I'm completely hooked, and I'll be with it for the as long a haul as it's capable of giving us.

    That said, I think the mere fact that people keep saying "why would they bother" means that it's not self-evidently obvious that they would. If I had someone threatening to kill me, I'd hire a really good security company, and I'd also inform the police, who would take precautions not available to a private company. I would have no interest at all in hiring an "Active."

    I don't think this is a problem with the show because there's not a single genre TV I've enjoyed that hasn't asked me to swallow bigger "this wouldn't happen in real life" problems than that.
    That said, I think the mere fact that people keep saying "why would they bother" means that it's not self-evidently obvious that they would. If I had someone threatening to kill me, I'd hire a really good security company, and I'd also inform the police, who would take precautions not available to a private company. I would have no interest at all in hiring an "Active."

    you're probably right. I wouldn't either- I totally see your point. I would think that being super rich or super desperate, you might feel differently. I guess I am just saying that I get it- the concept has never been hard to suspend my disbelief.

    I probably should know how to not italicize but I don't :( sorry

    [ edited by marymary on 2009-03-02 01:21 ]
    It's just a matter of adding a "/" before the i, marymary i.e. the same thing you did to open the italics, but with a forward slash inserted, at the end of the passage you want to italicize.
    I'm really liking the show so far. I don't have a problem with the premise -- the last two episodes have really sold me on the idea of the Dollhouse's services. It's the "true emotion" thing that's appealing, and even more so to the type of people who can afford this. The main complaint we always hear from the rich and famous is that once you are rich or famous, you don't know who your friends are anymore -- everyone wants something from you. The appeal of a person who really loves you, even if they are, ironically, themselves a purchase... I don't see how one could resist, if one could afford it.

    I related to Echo immediately in the second episode, and I think it would have been actually easier to connect without any glimpse of Caroline in the pilot (much like another show I loved that Fox had on before Firefly, strangely, John Doe). I see the actives as children, innocents. We know nothing of infants' personalities when they are born, but a part of us instinctively wants to protect them. I have a very paternal side, and I feel like I'm watching an orphanage run by horrible caretakers, and everytime Echo goes off-script, I feel like Oliver Twist is planning his escape. The head-shake at the end of this episode nearly made me tear up with squee.

    Every other story problem I see coming down to the Fox alterations to the original pacing -- Victor's reveal and betrayal were in the original pilot, as well as Echo and Paul meeting, which has now been pushed to ep 6. That being said, I'm liking each episode exponentially better, not because of the engagements but because the ongoing story and the underlying idea is so intriguing to me that these missions are nothing but setup for that premise, and I think setup of a status that will very shortly be not quo. They're false security in my opinion, and I can't wait for Echo to break the mission of the show like it's an engagement.
    Oh, stop, Tabz, you're only making everybody miz - don't you know this is just the biz? of fandom, that iz...

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