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April 25 2009

Daily Kos Analyzes Dollhouse as Metafiction. Minor spoilers for Dollhouse Ep. 10.

Excellent. I had drawn some parallels between Dollhouse and the film industry, but this is a well-worded analysis.

I always saw Buffy as being about "high school and college."
Angel was about going out into the world and making something of yourself. The "work environment," I guess.
And while both Buffy and Angel had characters with a strong sense of family, it was Firefly that really cemented itself as being a show about how "family is what you make it."
What Dollhouse tells us is that, like the customers of the titular facility, both television producers and television viewers are generally ready to settle for shallow self-gratification. They want characters that mirror their own desires.

But, especially in the last two episodes, Whedon has dropped non-too-subtle hints that there are better things you can do, both with a brain washing machine and with a TV show. Characters you can assemble that have more meaning than a Chatty Cathy sex doll.

True. The life-after-death thing was especially cool.

But I suspect that there's still a lot of folks who think the point of this show is watching Dushku in her underwear. I think -- I hope -- they're going to be shocked.

True too, but it's hard to blame the underwear-camp for being confused by fanboy-f***toy fantasy marketing.
It's not that surprising that the show is a reflection of the way TV works given that Joss thought of it while discussing Eliza's career with her, how she had to be a different character every week, how she had to adapt to each director's or network producer's notes and so on.
The difference between Fox and The Dollhouse is that DH clients are the ones pulling the shots, deciding what the Active should be, while in TVland it's Fox making the decisions, deciding what we should have.
In many ways that is for the best. Just as Hannibal Lecter is a fantastic character to watch but you really wouldn't want to have lunch with him so characters and storylines on TV should give us what we need and not what we want, as Joss has said before.
No one wanted Tara or Joyce to die but it made a better story.

I wonder if we will see Adelle or Topher making any decisions like this, overriding the clients wishes because they think they know what's best? The nearest we've had to that is the kill switch in Needs but they were the client anyway.
Isn't the premise pretty condescending? "Dollhouse"'s ratings are bad because the uncooth are too stupid to use their escapism time on things that will make them spend time in deep moral and philosophical reflection? I like me some deep moral and philosophical reflection, but it's as if the author just doesn't think a reasonable person could justify preferring to watch good guys beat bad guys.
I didn't get that vibe KingofCretins, they were clearly saying that they hadn't got it for ages. Had they said "Why don't people get this? It's soooo obvious!" then maybe.
I haven't seen the meta themes in Dollhouse discussed that much. I don't agree with the posted article that that is the whole point of the show, but those themes are definitely there. I remember when the show was first announced I immediately thought "Oh, right, so this is gonna be Joss's Vertigo."
Joss's Vertigo? I really don't see the connection.
Vertigo: morally ambiguous central character dresses up woman, remaking her into his fantasy, mirrors director's history of creating fantasy out of actresses before.

Dollhouse: morally ambiguous characters "dress up" men and women to fulfill fantasies, arguably mirrors writer/director's role in the same.
Thanks, WilliamTheB. I never thought of Vertigo that way before.
Heh, thanks WilliamTheB, I couldn't have put it better myself, that was exactly my point.
Also, it should be said, probably the best, most self-conscious, most insightful Hitchcock movie. Indeed, Dollhouse has that potential, in my mind.
Excellent article. And equally excellent comparison with Vertigo, dzr via WilliamTheB.

And I didn't think the article was condescending. Quite frankly, most TV viewers, even those not addicted to reality shows and procedurals, are interested in being entertained, and are not particularly analytical. I don't think that is a slight on their intelligence; it's just their preference. Not everybody has to be analytical. My father loved Hitchcock films, but he thought anybody who analyzed them was working too hard. For my tastes, he was missing half the fun, but he just wasn't interested. And he was an intelligent man.

I do think, though, that Fox never figured out how to promote this series, what little promotion they actually have done.
In Vertigo, the makeover ;* in Dollhouse, the writer/director keeps rooting for her to rebel against the makeover and remake herself. Not just a metaphor for the problem, but a metaphor for the ongoing, evolving, emergent, never-quite-finished solution. For added awe.

*Invisibled in case you, to your enduring woe, have never watched Vertigo, in which case I recommend finding a big screen, mebbe on a college campus.

[ edited by Pointy on 2009-04-26 20:30 ]
Vertigo is indeed a masterpiece, and I think it is Hitchcock's greatest work (although North by Northwest is my favourite). For me it not only is the deepest exploration of the psychological themes that were his perennial subject, it is also his most technically accomplished film; most importantly it is the perfect fusion of those two things, where every camera angle, every reflection, every innovation (the vertiginous zoom), is in perfect service of the psychological themes. Note how whenever you see James Stewart driving he is always driving downhill, always spiralling downwards. But it is also his most autobiographical film, his most confessional, mirroring his own obsessive relation to the icy blond that he sculpted his leading ladies into.

I don't think it is a stretch to think that Dollhouse explores similar territory, with Mutant Enemy as the Dollhouse, the actors and actresses as the Dolls, and us as the clients. But as Pointy says above, it's not necessarily coming at it in the same way. And I believe that Joss is a huge Hitchcock fan, so I wouldn't be in the least surprised if there isn't even an element of homage to it. Especially given that the idea of the show itself was apparently a direct consequence of a conversation with Eliza about her experiences as an actress.
Oh, and just wanted to add, in the fine new Whedonesque tradition of finding everything predictable, I called it:

(Though, I should admit that, as my search revealed, many others called it ahead of time as well.)
A few years ago I watched Vertigo for the third time or so on a big screen in a lecture hall--alone, in the middle of the night. It was a mite bit spooky.

And yes I recall the link being made before; was it you who mentioned it in terms of Paul/Mellie? Anyway it's good stuff.

I agree that Vertigo is probably hitch's best...but then, I've only seen Notorious once and I remember really liking it. Probably Vertigo and Rear Window are the two I've rewatched the most.
229: But I suspect that there's still a lot of folks who think the point of this show is watching Dushku in her underwear.

Because clearly they don't see the obvious meta-theme, right?

Palehorse: I'm a film/TV geek who loves to analyze the stuff. I just happen to be one who is just not that into Dollhouse.

I'm with King Of Cretins -- it's patronizing and condescending as hell. Oh wait -- it's DailyKos...
Good article, although I'll admit I'm one of those analytical types who's always enjoyed looking below the surface of what's on screen to see what the writers or creators might actually be trying to get across.

So-called "mindless entertainment" exists for a good reason, I guess, but it's never appealed to me personally. I tend to prefer drama to comedy* (unless it's Joss's unique mixture of both), and I don't enjoy turning my mind off when I watch TV. Unless I'm getting something deeper from a show than mere distraction, I come away from the experience invariably disappointed and with the depressing sense that I've wasted valuable time I can't get back. Teasing apart the text and subtext later, appreciating good storytelling and intelligent dialogue, and niggling over some intriguing plot or character detail for sometimes days (okay, weeks) at a time has always been a major part of the fun for me.

I understand the perspective of using TV as a purely recreational pastime, but c'mon, it's the 21st century -- we have drugs for that now. ;)

Especially given that the idea of the show itself was apparently a direct consequence of a conversation with Eliza about her experiences as an actress.

Reading all the comments that followed the article, I ran across one poster who mentions being an actor who played "a substantial role" in an episode of DH. The post makes an interesting claim about the origin of the DH concept which, if true, makes Joss's involvement with the show on that network more understandable for me. I've often wondered why he continues to return to FOX, somewhat like a partner in an uncomfortably dysfunctional relationship. Now I can see how this is an explicit way of attacking the problem of corporate media corruption and network complicity in the exploitation of women directly, as he sees it, at the roots; he keeps chopping away at it, fail or no fail, confident he's leaving some kind of lasting, positive mark.

It's tempting to think that if Rupert Murdock worked at ABC, we'd all be finding a different set of alphabet letters to villify. The reality is that all the networks do it; it's just FOX that represents the most visible, culturally influential and egregiously exploitative example.

*Not that I hate comedy! I'm Joss's age almost exactly, and I ingested enough "I Love Lucy", "Gilligan's Island", "Bewitched", "I Dream of Jeannie", etc. by early childhood to be quite televisually well-rounded. It's just that when I stumbled on drama (original "Star Trek", "Twilight Zone", "Outer Limits", "Dark Shadows), I realized a profound difference in what grabbed my attention and provoked interesting thoughts that seemed to help me in navigating the actual issues of daily life. Substance won out. I love "The Office" these days precisely because the humor is so sharp and resonant. Pain is funny, who knew?

[Edited b/c mixed metaphors, even implied, drive me batty.]

[ edited by Wiseblood on 2009-04-27 07:35 ]
I always thought that the Wes/Illyria storyline on Angel was Joss's Vertigo, only with that Whedon-esque twist. Dollhouse does reverberate with the same themes, but not Echo's story because none of her customers have loved her. The point of the story is obsession, and only Patton Oswalt's character has touched on the theme of obsessive love -- love that transcends death. Paul and Mellie are definitely working the Vertigo themes though. He's in an obsessive relationship with a woman who doesn't, precisely, exist. That is so Scottie.

-- also, I adore Vertigo. It's not only my favorite Hitchcock movie, it's one of my favorite movies ever. Notorious is my second favorite Hitchcock, though! Then it's probably North by Northwest or Psycho.
Excellent article. I'm glad that this "meta-ness" is starting to get more press. It's why I love the show, and when I look at Dollhouse through meta-colored-glasses, the whole series improves in strength by a LOT. :)

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