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May 11 2009

Go all in or go home. In a look back at Dollhouse's season, that's the advice James Poniewozik (TIME's TV critic) gives to networks who want to work with Joss.

Agree completely with the article. Rather than shoehorn generic stories ("procedural action drama") into this 'verse, tell the stories that could only be done with these characters, in this specific setting.

I understand that studios don't want to let the show producers get out of control (some constraints good), but at some point if they hire an expert to do the job, they should let them do the job.
Deleted for irrelevance. Basically I was complaining about the Friday night scheduling (surprise!).

[ edited by jkalderash on 2009-05-11 17:53 ]
I think in the main he's talking creatively, not scheduling.
Yeah, I just had been thinking about the scheduling and wanted to talk about it somewhere... sorry if it was off-topic, I can delete.
I agree with b!x. I don't think that this has much to do with the Friday night death slot.

Or, to put it another way, I think that if they wanted to maximize the chances of jkalderash's outcome #3, then giving Joss more creative control is the way to do that.

Scheduling it on Friday indicated, to me, that Fox was willing to let this be a slow-burning, slow-growing genre show, with relatively anemic numbers. But, the creative directions that the show took (and I do lay those more at the feet of Fox than at Joss et al's feet, despite what people like gossi might say), indicated differently going for, as the article put it, "a TV executive's idea of what a broadcast audience could reasonably deal with in a sci-fi show: a procedural action drama about a good-looking woman kicking ass and rocking hot outfits."

That combination just wasn't going to work. You can't schedule it as a niche/genre show and then try to turn it into a mainstream procedural, and you can't do the opposite either (schedule it as a mainstream show and then produce a niche/genre show). They should have done one or the other: go "all-in" with Joss creatively and kept it on Friday, or mainstreamed it and given it a strong mainstream lead-in like AI or something on a weeknight.

ETA: the article is actually quite good and seems to "get" what Dollhouse was about and what it could have been more about.

[ edited by Septimus on 2009-05-11 17:43 ]
I too agree with this article. If the networks want standalone episodes, fine. But Joss excels at long-term narratives. If they want Joss, and if they have greenlit the series, let him do what he does best, and don't hogtie him with other baggage.
There is another thread today concerning JJ Abrams, and one thing I considered from that thread is that, say what you will, Abrams' shows have generally done better in terms of ratings than Joss's shows have. Now, I say this not really liking any show Abrams has ever done- I did not watch Alias, or Felicity or Lost after S1. But there it is, and my suspicion is that as much as it seems that a lot of blame can be laid at Fox for early meddling, every show gets that kind of meddling so it is not unique to Joss. My also suspicion is that Fox knew they had a potential problem on their hands when they shifted the show to Friday- that was sort of a note that they felt something was not going to connect to huge numbers- and they were right, whether by their own design or by their own prescience. Even after the show shifted from stand alones to arc, it lost viewers, and this continued to the end of the season. Perhaps the driving conceit was confusing, perhaps it was a lack of investment, but for whatever reason, the show just did not connect.

[ edited by Dana5140 on 2009-05-11 17:56 ]

[ edited by Dana5140 on 2009-05-11 17:56 ]
Very nice article. It sums everything up perfectly. Now if we could just make the suits read this. Dollhouse may very well be a little too complex to have a large following (ratings) in the vein of fluffier Alias type fair but I think that another season is not without potential. I think it does connect, maybe not with everyone obviously, but speaking for myself I have really enjoyed it overall. (Not without its problems or lesser episodes but overall it worked.) And it was wonderful to watch a show that was entertaining and engaging and asked the big questions. After every episode a philosophical discussion followed - I thought DH raised very interesting questions and probably because of that it wasn't as accessible or 'easy viewing'. But not everyone is looking for lighter fare.

I still can't help but think though that if the show was allowed to do what it does and really hit its stride next season you might see a ratings increase... Or not, I don't know. All I do know is that I enjoy it muchly and it saddens me that so many quality shows are lost over silly things like business.;)
Abrams' shows have generally done better in terms of ratings than Joss's shows have.

But who still talks about Felicity and Alias?
Exactly, FOX made a huge mistake in dictating the first five episodes, there's no telling how many viewers that cost. It wasn't until "Man on the Street" that Joss finally had his free rein. 'Course, by then, it was too late.

I'm trying hard not to be bitter. After all, FOX did give Joss a showcase. I just wish they would've done things differently.
Another perspective: FOX's hands on approach lead to the highest ratings Dollhouse episodes. After they let control go, the show dropped off a cliff with audiences.

Obviously, what happened is more complicated than that. But it's food for thought. I think execs are absolutely essential to part of the process with creating something like this - you literally couldn't do it without them due to the cost of the thing. One thing I think they've probably learnt from this experience is to pay attention to the pitch. I'm not sure either FBC or Fox fully understood what Joss had in mind with Dollhouse, and considering they're footing the bill and selling the show, that's an issue.
I'm not convinced ratings would've been significantly better if FOX had been more hands-off for the first 5 episodes. I think I certainly would've liked the show more-- I liked it immediately but recognized a huge jump in the quality of the storytelling as of "Man On The Street." Things were still uneven after that, though. "Echoes" and "Haunted" were still kind of weird. I think if FOX had given the show more room to do its own thing from the beginning, it probably would have been a better show from early on and wouldn't have had its own weird identity issues. But it would probably have still been a show that found at best a strong niche audience. Maybe that would've been just enough to tip things toward renewal, but I don't think this was ever going to be a broadly appealing show. I don't think that's a bad thing. I realize it's not a good thing for network tv business.
Nice article. I agree with the "all in or go home", too. In my experience, though, that has not happened often. The only other instance I can rmemeber of a network getting out of the way and letting the creators create something new is Seinfeld. It also had a terribly slow start BTW.
Interesting article. I guess we're just going to have to see what the execs do next.
From the article: "Would the ratings have been any better if it committed to this from the get-go?"

We'll never know that will we? Cuz FOX couldn't keep its grubby hands to itself and ruined dinner for itself by insisting on too many cookies after lunch!

I've never understood why, when people order food at a fancy restaurant, some go into excruciating detail how they want everything prepared and what they want on it and what they don't want on it. I go to a restaurant to let someone else cook, because I don't wanna. I don't know if lobster goes good with chili. I haven't gone to school to figure that out. If someone is so detailed about how they want their food prepared and presented to them, get in the kitchen yer own darn self. No one in their right mind would go to a gourmet chef and tell him how to cook your eggs. It's just unthinkable.

Dana 5140: "every show gets that kind of meddling so it is not unique to Joss."

Yes. You are absolutely right. Networks tell production companies all the time precisely what they think they want. This is not unlike children telling their parents that they want candy for dinner. They then get beets and broccoli. Why? Cuz candy will rot their teeth!

Some networks even have their own studios so they can prepare their own shows, just like you and I have our own kitchens so we can go in there and make whatever our little hearts desire. Anyone ever watch According To Jim? That's a 'meal' cooked internally by the network that broadcasts it. It tastes like crap, causes cancer, and may complicate pregnancy. People are having accidents over According To Jim. It's a scourge of humanity and must be stopped before it eats Manhattan and Tokyo!

If FOX goes up to THE Joss Whedon and asks him to deliver, then after he signs on the dotted line puts on his apron and starts slaving over the hot typewriter, FOX then has the gaul to take his spatula from him and tell him what to cook, and to make sure to use more ketchup on everything, FOX deserves whatever crap it gets on its plate when he's done.

I hope he touched your eggs, FOX. I hope he LICKED YOUR TOAST!
The decline in numbers after MoTS could be because Fox really does know better. But I think a plausible argument can be made that having whittled the audience down to those who like procedurals in the first five episodes, it's not surprising that a bunch of them took a hike when the show stopped being mostly a procedural.

Still, this is never going to be a huge commercial hit. The question is whether it could get a loyal enough base to keep it marginally profitable. If there's a business model that says in princple the latter is possible, I think a good argument could be made for giving the show another shot. Much improved critical review + DVD release + at least a temporary suspension of cancellation talk could give the show time and space to find its audience.

Even at it's best the show was uneven in spots. But there's so much that really was great and so much potential it'd be a shame to see it go now.

For those who don't get the lobster/chili thing above:

I like lobster.

I like chili.

Shouldn't lobster go good with chili?

This is why FOX shoulda taken off its apron, and let Joss Whedon cook. This is why Joss don't need a backseat driver, or to be put in a sitch where he's second guessing himself, which was exactly what was going on with the first DH pilot.


Okay I'll shut up. ..maybe *smirk*
Fox drove away everyone interested in "thinking" with the first five, and are now surprised that their non-thinking audience didn't hang around when the show demanded thinking? Probably true.

There's a certain level of -- let me call it "honesty" -- that's needed to form a connection between the show and the audience. I got that in the very first episode aired: people were not necessarily who they seemed to be, they might be dolls, indeed, anyone might be a doll. There's lots of stories to be told in that universe. Then we started telling "Echo is sexy hero" stories, and both of us were disappointed. We felt that the show was not living up to the premise.
Uh, ordering a show is not like ordering at a restaurant. For starters, you don't expect to be able to sell your meal to someone else for more money. Fox let 12 episodes of Dollhouse air, and invested a considerable amount of money in the show. I don't think they handled the situation perfectly, but I don't believe for a second that we can reduce the situation to "Fox evil." And I'm frankly tired of hearing that sentiment.

I think one lesson for Fox is that they should have had Joss do a pilot before giving him the greenlight. This might not have solved all of the problems with the show's concept, but it seems like the requests for changes came way too late in the process.
But who still talks about Felicity and Alias?


I think the ratings were higher at the first because people expected a new Buffy.

They didn't get that, nor did they even get an empowered woman. They got women victims in sexy, minimalist outfits (yes, they got male victims, too, but you get my point, I hope). By episode three, they got Stage Fright.

I'm not certain the numbers would have remained higher if the mythology had kicked in earlier -- as said above, we'll never know -- but there was also nothing to "hook" a general audience, either. There was not enough "mythology," or at least a release from the victimization, to let a general audience understand the ways in which the show was going to subvert what it was showing on the surface. By the time the mythology kicked in, many people had already lost interest, or they had heard that it was a doomed show, or they had other excuses for letting it die. The problem was still the first episodes, despite their higher stats.
I like the cooking metaphor exceptionally well.
Another perspective: FOX's hands on approach lead to the highest ratings Dollhouse episodes. After they let control go, the show dropped off a cliff with audiences.

Actually, Gossi, if you take a closer look, Dollhouse didn't 'drop off a cliff' until after the week off for the Prison Break season premier coupled with having Prison Break for its lead-in. It recovered from its episode 4 nose dive, but never recovered from the Prison Break nose dive.
And I don't, much. Zachsmind says "Cuz FOX couldn't keep its grubby hands to itself and ruined dinner for itself by insisting on too many cookies after lunch!" But think for a minute. What you are suggesting is that the studio go ahead and invest millions of its dollars in a show, and then not do its best to ensure it gets its investment back. That's just wrong, and you should know better. Life is not that simple, and if there were one correct formula for TV success, everyone would use it. The point a number of us have been trying to make is that it is easy to simply sit here and blame Fox but it is not that simple. There is little question that there are many reasons Dh did not do as well as hoped, some involving the network and some involving the show and its conceit. Over the course of the past 4 months, reading the many threads devoted to DH it should be apparent that even people who love Joss' work did not connect with this show- is that Fox's fault?

"If FOX goes up to THE Joss Whedon and asks him to deliver, then after he signs on the dotted line puts on his apron and starts slaving over the hot typewriter, FOX then has the gaul to take his spatula from him and tell him what to cook, and to make sure to use more ketchup on everything, FOX deserves whatever crap it gets on its plate when he's done." Oh, this is just silly, again. Who is THE Joss Whedon? Someone who is so wonderful that we all genuflect before him? C'mon- past success is no guarantee of future success, and never was. Every new show has to undergo testing, development, planning and so on, and there is no guarantee that the next Stephen Bochco program will connect- like Cop Rock never did, for example. Did anyone foresee that The Mentalist would end up the most successful new show of the season? Y'know, it seems to me that if you attach the name Jerry Bruckheimer to a show, it succeeds. Because he follows a formula. And that is what none of us wish Joss to do- and in that wish, we end up with risk, and with risk you sometime end up with failure. But that is okay, you know? So long as you learn.

[ edited by Dana5140 on 2009-05-11 20:23 ]
But who still talks about Felicity and Alias?

Okay, let's talk about Fringe.

(Well, actually let's not, but you get my point...)

((Wah, you meant long-term success. Ah, well. Nevermind. :))

It is true that the ratings dropped significantly after TSCC was gone, but after MotS, a hyped and promoted episode (something "Haunted" can't claim for itself) they also dropped, while the fandom on the other side went berserk. After "Echoes", which the fandom didn't like that much, they went up again. The first half of the season (up until and including MotS) averaged a 1.65 demo rating. The second half a 1.26. I don't know and don't want to claim the reason for that, but to say their "letting go of control" stabilized the ratings is just wrong.
If you "go all in" in poker, you can lose everything you've got (if you don't win the hand). Fox is getting back some or all or more of the money, whether they do or don't renew. So right there it's not a perfect metaphor. But I think the author, though he didn't quite articulate it as such, it talking about the possiblity of creating an entity like Buffy, that can cross media, survive whatever happens with the media shifts. Something like that has to be more valuable, long term, than a show that is not such an entity. Which is almost all of them.
jkalderash: "Uh, ordering a show is not like ordering at a restaurant."

Alright I can amend my metaphor so maybe you see it more clearly. You and I are sitting in a fancy restaurant. I'm buying so you can have whatever you want, and thank you for joining me here at the FOX gourmet restaurant where Joss Whedon is the world renowned gourmet chef extraordinaire. I hate going to these grand openings alone.

Joss Whedon is the cook.

FOX will be our waiter this lovely Friday evening.

WE are table three.

We came to this restaurant because Joss is the chef, and not because it's called the Fox restaurant. Why the waiter's name is on the building and not the cook I have no comprehension, but there you go. Apparently the waiter is someone's nephew or something.

Maybe YOU told the waiter to tell the cook to hold the onions or whatever. I would not be so bold as to tell the chef how to prepare his meals for us. I just pointed at the menu and told the waiter "I WANT DAT. IT SAYS RIGHT DERE DAT JOSS IS COOKIN DAT! I WANT DAT! I DON'T WANT NUTHIN' ELSE. GIMME WHUT JOSS IS COOKIN! AND KEEP YER GRUBBY PAWS OFF! I'M WATCHIN YOO!"

The waiter (FOX) goes to the kitchen and tells Joss NOT exactly what we want, but what FOX the waiter THINKS we want. MAYBE the waiter listened to us taking our order, but somewhere between table three and Joss' kitchen, the waiter either acquired information, or made it up, that tells the waiter what he thinks we really want whether we know we want it or not. So the waiter tells the cook an order close to but not precisely what we ordered.

Whedon the cook does his best to fulfill said order, making his own enlightened opinion based on years in the kitchen what works and what doesn't. He makes the plates with expert precision and tries to telepathically deduce precisely what we do want but failing that, he hands the best plates he can make under the circumstances to the waiter.

The waiter thanks the cook, looks over the plate, and then says that something is "wrong." The cook does a double take and resists the urge to rip the waiter's mustache off and put it in the soup.

Now understand, the waiter hasn't studied for years to be in the kitchen. At best he's a backseat driver. If he DID spend years in the kitchen, he'd be in the kitchen now, and Joss would be the waiter. So the waiter has no place telling the cook how to make our food, beyond conveying to the cook what we told him we want. Yet here we are with the waiter telling the cook how to do his job.

Meanwhile you and I are sitting at table three twiddling our thumbs and our stomachs are growling.

The cook and the waiter argue over our plates for awhile. They come to some understanding, and eventually the plates are picked up and delivered to our table. Perhaps along the way the waiter does one or two "little things" to the plates to make them "even better" than the cook made them, like pouring salt on the potatoes, or ketchup on the linguini. Whatever.

By the time it gets to our table, the food is cold, not what we ordered, and we have since left the table and gone and ordered PIZZA. And the waiter then turns to the cook and blames it all on Joss!

Does that metaphor work for ya, jkalderash?
As thought out as that metaphor was, hasn't Joss repeatedly said that Fox didn't do that?
That's the reason every time I tell anyone I'm vegetarian they ask me if I eat fish or chicken. Fox is everywhere.
patxshand: "As thought out as that metaphor was, hasn't Joss repeatedly said that Fox didn't do that?"

There's what Joss said about that to alleviate people's concerns, and then there's the past four months or so since the series came out, which have a LOT of painful similarities to something that happened back in 2003.

Maybe he ditched the first pilot without their insistence this time, because he KNEW they were gonna tell him to do that anyway. Why'd he know the waiter was gonna diss his plate? Cuz he's been down this road before with that waiter.

Dana5140, Eliza Dushku went to Joss Whedon because he's the best at what he does that she knows. The network seemed to concur that he was the best cook for her souffle.

I'm just sayin' there's too many cooks in this kitchen. If they didn't want Joss to cook, they shouldn't have allowed Eliza to invite him over. If FOX thought it could cook something better for Eliza, why'd Joss even enter the picture?

I don't go up to Tony Hawks and tell him how to use a skateboard. I assume he knows already, which is why when it comes to extreme sports, he's a respected name. If I hopped on Tony Hawks' skateboard while he was trying to do some stunts, we'd both end up breaking our necks.

If FOX don't want Joss Whedon to cook what he knows how to cook, they shoulda ordered takeout instead.

All this is now academic. Hopefully wherever Joss goes cooking next, it'll be where we won't have to worry about the waiter.
Why would he want to alleviate our concerns, after he was so open about what happened with Firefly? I don't really think that's the case at all. Joss seemed utterly happy with the second half of the season, and blamed no one but himself for the first half (which I also found to be fantastic, despite Joss's own reservations).
ZM, there is one problem with that analogy. (Or is it a metaphor?)
In this scenario, Fox the waiter is the one paying the bill, and letting us eat for free.

If you pay the bill, you have the right to have your say.

If I hire a decorator to do my house I don't care how good, experienced and talented he is, I want my house done the way I like it. And damn right I will tell him to make changes if I want them.
If Joss had been left to his own devices, the Dollhouse would be more fantastical than science fiction, since it'd be the Confessional, and not Topher, constructing these personalities. The nitpicks people have now about the technobabble would look quaint in that scenario. There'd be only one Dollhouse, in LA, and it would be doing very good things using its sketchy Dollhouse money.

FOX may have messed up some things, but they also made some of them better.
I want my house done the way I like it. And damn right I will tell him to make changes if I want them.

Yeah (which I mentioned in the first post), but to extend the metaphor j-u-s-t a bit further... This would be like ordering an earthquake-proof house, and then telling the builder to use an inadequate foundation. Doesn't matter how good the house is constructed when the base collapses.

I can understand Fox Network wanting the show to be less arc-heavy to make it more accessable, but not if it compromises the show itself. And I don't think Marketing was on the same page with either the network or the show producers. (I think the image of Eliza surrounded by white mannequins is a beautiful image, and should have been used instead of the naked/covered by city images.)
FOX wanted an episodic structure, but Joss also had something to do with that. It was his idea to put "Haunted" in there right as the mythology got cranking along, for example.
Sunfire, I'm not disagreeing that some constraints are good (as I've already said). In particular, I think the Firefly pilot was better with the action opener instead of the original battle-aftermath scene. (It showed us how far Mal had fallen, instead of making us wonder if he was that sullen even before Serenity Valley.) And Joss has publicly agreed with zz9 & others, about his obligation to make what the bill-payer wants.

I keep thinking about the commentary for the movie "Say Anything", where at one point the execs asked Crowe to make the father innocent, so that everyone can be happy. Thank goodness that particular request was retracted, as that would have gutted the heart from that story.
If we did 'Post of the week', Zachsmind just won.
I'd just like to remind everyone that both 'Alias' & 'Felicity' were cancelled, and Alias did struggle in the ratings. In fact, it's final season was "tell more standalone episodes oh wait we're gonna cancel you anyway". The monster hit Lost was co-created by JJ Abrams but seems mostly to be run by Lindelof & Cuse. So no, Abrams is not some TV god. (And frankly, I feel his story-telling does better when limited to movie length, and runs out of steam in the longer series. Why, yes, I *am* still bitter about the ending of Alias. :P )

Genre TV struggles. I think this show was a particularly hard one for *anyone* to get a grip on - from writers to executives to, from the threads here & elsewhere, fans. It needed room to grow, and current tv doesn't give that. So there was probably over-meddling from the network, but probably also some over-meddling from the writers themselves. Sort of like if the waiter comes back with that messed-up order & the chef, who already doesn't *quite* have the recipe right, goes a bit overboard in the fixings. Now seems that's all normal & would sort itself out quickly in a Season 2 - but by now the restaurant's gone belly-up.
Yeah, Caroline. I don't completely agree with Zachsmind's point (although I'm sitting this particular discussion out for once), but that post managed to make me laugh out loud while disagreeing, which is, like, even harder ;). Kudos, ZM!
I think there are possibly two separate problems here. One is that an uncertainty about what the show is, both with Fox and with Joss, meant the first half of the season was really patchy. The second is that arc-based storytelling exploring challenging and uncomfortable ideas isn't as popular as formulaic, upbeat storytelling with simple morality.

That is, I think *I* would have preferred Dollhouse with less network interference, but I don't think I can extrapolate from that that it would have rated better. I suspect it wouldn't have. I suspect, shown on mainstream TV, The Wire would have bombed, as would Deadwood and even, probably, Mad Men. (I can just see an exec note: "Don Draper isn't likeable enough."). Cable networks go after a section of viewers, and offer a smaller budget to cater to them.

That's not because I think most people are stupid, it's just about exhaustion, and having hard lives, and using TV to get reassurance that everything is ok, and good guys win. Or something.

And' y'know, gossi is right about network execs being necessary now for expensive shows. But so much of it is about what objectives they are trying to meet: ratings in the right demos; and keeping advertisers happy. The ABC in Australia, which I have some stuff to do with, takes more risks in its programming because imperatives are different. It's produced some truly terrible shows, but also masterpieces like the Chaser, and Chris Lilley's stable of shows, that would never have been able to develop in a commercial environment.

Me, I'd like to see some different models for producing TV. Dreamt up by smarter people than me.
Should this maybe have a spoiler tag?

Finale was only three days ago - and I almost got horribly spoiled for it the moment I clicked on the article.
I don't really know how to respond to that post... hooray for everyone being amused! FYI, ZachsMind, I did not actually need clarification on the metaphor; I was quite clear on the concept, thanks. But it is intriguing to observe how your brain works!
Yeah, Caroline. I don't completely agree with Zachsmind's point (although I'm sitting this particular discussion out for once), but that post managed to make me laugh out loud while disagreeing, which is, like, even harder ;). Kudos, ZM!

I second that!

I'm looking forward to my rewatch. I'm fairly sure the buzzed distinction between The First Five and that miraculously arc-y second half will completely collapse in my head, knowing of Whiskey, knowing of Alpha's plan and knowing of Paul's journey.

Thanks for havin' dinner with me. You don't have to agree. Just nice to have the company. =)
After all the debate and entertaining metaphor, I have to agree with the elegantly stated point of the article .... If you want to work with Joss, go all in or go home. Because he's proven with every show he's ever done that, given enough creative freedom, her will deliver something totally unique and unlike anything else on TV.

Problem is, the nets prefer paint by the numbers (yawn).

Memo to Joss: please, please, next time you ave such a brilliant idea, pitch it to a cable net. I know, Eliza/Fox contract, yadayadayada. Just don't get sucked into a network project again, not even for a dear friend and admired colleague.

In the meantime, we have 12 eps (+1, eventually) of unique brilliance. It's just not enough.

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