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August 25 2009

Dollhouse and the Metastory Trap. Interesting article that challenges the conventional wisdom regarding the first season of Dollhouse. Was the fandom too impatient in wanting the show to get to the overlapping plot arcs?

John Seavey has also written some very good essays about Buffy and Angel and Firefly.

Was the fandom too impatient in wanting the show to get to the overlapping plot arcs?

I appreciate the sentiment, but there's a very good reason the fandom wants a grand story arc and not just a load of oneshots.
I very much agree with this analysis, and I really like the parallel it draws:

But the fans are saying, "We were promised that this was about Echo regaining her memories and personality! We were promised that this was about an FBI agent trying to crack open the secrets of the Dollhouse! We were promised Alpha, dangit!" And those stories are designed to simmer under the surface slowly over the course of the run of the entire series, not boil over in the first six weeks. (Just imagine if someone told you that Season Two of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' was "about" Angel going bad and Buffy having to fight him. You'd be absolutely out of your mind with boredom by Episode Eleven. "...the heck? Ted Ritter as a killer robot? Boy, talk about your lame Monster of the Week series!")

I always had the feeling that this show got more fan-backlash than it deserved. But I agree that it's a weird mixture of fan's expectations in A Joss Whedon Thing and (mostly questionable) marketing-moves that lead to this sort of confusion. (I'm also starting to think that this show was basically not marketable in the first season, since studio, network and producers were all not so much sure what the show was about. So, it's not all "Stupid Marketing!" for me.)

And the idea of "Epitaph One" being the counter-argument to that inmarketability, to the lack of overall direction, theme and arcyness? Very nicely put.
I'm not sure it was all marketing. It was our expectation, based on years of watching Joss's shows on DVD, that his series would get really good when he got to the arcy stuff. The point is, he thought that as well, which is why he originally wrote Echo. But (and I know I'm alone in this, but I think that's a product of the fact that people saw Echo after the fact) you can't just throw all of that at people, you have to earn it. I think the structure of the first season as it was reworked is much more successful in going "this is the TV show" before pushing everyone's boundaries and altering their expectations.
What flugufrelsarinn said. (a.k.a. You're not alone in this ;)
I especially like the fact upon rewatching the first five episodes that they play like a standard procedural, just with some creepy undertones. Since part of the objective of Dollhouse is a commentary on TV, I think having it like that before blowing it out of the water at episode 6 (and again at 8,12,13...) really works.
Of course, Joss himself, at the humanism event, said that there are episodes of Dollhouse that don't say anything, and that he's ashamed of that. It's unlikely he's referring to the much-vaunted (by him, by us, by critics) second half of the season. So, I don't think the issue can be laid at the feet of the viewers/fans, since the fans weren't the ones clamoring for scrapping the original pilot and writing five or six stand-alone episodes instead.

The fact that the series started with a sudden and unexpected stand-alone mandate is hardly anyone rushing to get into the arc. If anything, the arc could have rolled out more smoothly without that stand-alone mandate.

Remember, it was the stand-alones that were causing so many people such consternation. Then, when in essence that mandate went away and FOX did their "we're just going to leave Joss alone now" thing, the writers only had half a 13-episode season left to tell a story -- and possibly the final chance they'd even have to tell a Dollhouse story at all.

None of that is the fault of fandom.

[ edited by The One True b!X on 2009-08-25 18:47 ]
The fact that the series started with a sudden and unexpected stand-alone mandate is hardly anyone rushing to get into the arc. If anything, the arc could have rolled out more smoothly without that stand-alone mandate.

I agree with you, though I think the standalone episodes could have worked. If Joss et al had gone the 'ruthless corporate efficiency' route, showing five flawless engagements. Instead, as far as I recall, at least two of the first five dealt with flawed imprints, etc and I saw a lot of style 'Why would anyone pay for something that has this high a failure rate?' complaints on the 'net, etc. Those episodes could have gone to servicing two larger ideas, first, the power of the dollhouse and second being why one would pay for their services. It's not surprising that 'Man on the Street', the first episode to truly attempt to answer either, was also the first re-watch worthy episode of Season 1.

And, really, the standalone episodes we got like 'Stage Fright' were perceived as poorly written and not particularly entertaining. Whether that was a result of Fox intervention, I don't know. But, I think fan discontent can be traced more to a perceived lack of quality than anything else.

[ edited by Dirk on 2009-08-25 19:04 ]
Of course, Joss himself, at the humanism event, said that there are episodes of Dollhouse that don't say anything, and that he's ashamed of that.

Yeah, that's the problem with some defences of (some people's) issues with the first 5 episodes - when you watch 'Echo' and listen to Joss/Tim Minear/etc. now, that metafictional commentary on television and the nature of the industry or deliberately playing with plot conventions or with how we relate to characters just doesn't seem to be what they were trying to do. Rather, if they'd had their druthers, we'd (apparently*) have connected with the characters much earlier, the arc would've appeared much earlier, Echo herself would've appeared much earlier and more fully (rather than what I originally thought was the well-handled deliberately gradual emergence we actually saw), fewer standalones etc.

Or maybe they're really screwing with us and even these comments are all part of some intricate and beautifully twisted long game (nah, me neither ;).

* I say apparently cos it's dodgy watching 'Echo' and extrapolating from there to an entire season, for all we know everything that was clearly stated and set up in the pilot might've been entirely subverted in episode 2 (it might even have been so clearly stated because it was going to be subverted in upcoming episodes).
I certainly don't have a problem with standalone episodes, and in fact I rather enjoy the opportunity to enjoy mini-stories within a season. But, as others said above, I like it when my standalones actually say something. "Ted," brought up as an example of a standalone episode, actually had a lot to say, even if it wasn't relevant to the overarching plot arc of the season.

I'm not sure that it's necessarily the fault of a fandom when fans complain, not about standalone episodes, but about standalone episodes which don't seem to contribute much of value.
Any show can have standalone episodes that are good and "mythology" episodes that are bad -- X-Files is a perfect case in point. For my money, all of the best standalones are better than all of the best mythology episodes.

Now, I realize those aren't exactly the same as story arcs in the Whedonesque sense. While X-Files bounced in and out of mythology episodes, dropping in standalones in a chaotic fashion, Whedon shows have (almost) always done an excellent job at furthering the "overall" story even in "standalones." This is exactly why I like Whedon shows so much.

....And it's exactly why so much of Dollhouse has been so frustrating. I don't blame this all on Joss -- the network deserves its fair share of blame -- but I haven't felt the same organic process of interweaving one-episode stories with storylines that bridge several episodes.

Ultimately, that wouldn't be a huge issue if the standalones were all really, really good. They weren't. Face it, the first half of the re-shot first episode is a total WTF experience, as if it's some insane parody of a cheesy Fox action show. And "Stage Fright," while it did have a few good moments, overall seemed like a ridiculous waste of this talented cast and crew.

But re-watching the episodes on DVD also reminds me of what a great job Whedon and his staff did steering this semitrailer back onto the highway without jackknifing. This rapidly went from being a very questionable show on a very shaky foundation to being something that -- at times -- approaches the best stuff Mutant Enemy has produced. "Briar Rose" is as entertaining an hour of TV as I've seen in a long time.

But the general notion that Whedon fans -demand- a over-arching storyline, and that it could be a bad thing, strikes me as off-point.

I think we want to see great stories, great writing and great writing. We want to watch sexy people we care about kick the shit out of each other, emotionally and physically. We want people to not say the obvious thing, not do the obvious thing, and not be the obvious someone.

That's what I think Dollhouse S1 really lacked in its first half. And that's what Dollhouse S1 really started providing in its second half. And that's why I'm looking forward to Sept. 25.
Personally my disappointment with the earlier episodes wasn't a lack of arcsomeness, it's just that they, well, didn't seem that good. I absolutely thought that it made sense to start with standalone episodes to build up the concept, before starting to deconstruct it. But Stage Fright is still Stage Fright.
Wow. He's basically saying exactly what I've been thinking lately - just in a really, really well-expressed way.

(And flugufrelsarinn, you're definitely not alone.)

[ edited by deird on 2009-08-25 21:01 ]
Yup, actually not too bothered by the presence of standalone episodes. My favourite Buffy episodes are just that - The Wish, The Zeppo (do people not like The Zeppo???! Craziness!), Restless, OMWF, Hush etc.

Dollhouse had a couple of great standalones. I loved Needs and Echoes. The problem with the early episodes was more that they weren't terribly good. The fandom seemed to decide that this was because they were standalones rather than arcs, but it was actually just because they were a bit pants.
Technically speaking, "Needs" and "Echoes" aren't really what people refer to when talking about the stand-alones. Those stories are very much about the Dollhouse and its active themselves, not about an engagement. It's the engagement stories that people refer to by "stand-alone".
I thought you might pick me up on that. Any bonus points for the use of pants as an adjective?
Doesn't everyone use pants as an adjective?
Bonus points only for swinging your pants.

"Meta engagements" which are actually about the dollhouse maybe count less ('Needs' doesn't have an engagement at all - or kind of doesn't anyway, in 'Echoes' it's not about the engagement after about the first 5 minutes, "Man on the Street" has a nice mix in that it's about the engagement but from the client's perspective and also a lot about the dollhouse too, "Spy in the House of Love" has two narratively central engagements but the episode itself isn't about them - you could actually make a case that only the first 5 are strict standalones and even then i'd hesitate over "Gray Hour". And not just because I keep wanting to spell it "wrong" ;).

But Stage Fright is still Stage Fright.

It's a bit ironic I think, given what Joss has said about his shame over some of the early episodes not saying anything, that the one episode most people seem (usual caveats) to agree wasn't great is 'Stage Fright', which says pretty much everything, having more or less every idea and theme the show's exploring crammed into it.

[ edited by Saje on 2009-08-25 21:42 ]
Ultimately my only real issue with "Stage Fright" is that I simply don't care about this rich whiny mega-star's problems enough to spend an entire episode with her. I don't really find the episode itself poorly written (although I do find it bafflingly pedestrian in its directing), I just find it to be a relatively weak choice of client to subject us to.
Yeah, she's not sympathetic but I think that's kind of the point - we may wonder what the hell she's moaning about (as we might with any celebrity) but if the episode had done its job then by the end of it we'd understand. She's the most controversial client I think because she's right at the heart of the complicit/exploited conundrum in modern society (what with being both, on a couple of levels) so it should've been where the show really took the ball and ran. As you say though, the whole thing just felt a bit by the numbers and unsatisfying (I don't think it was particularly badly written but it also wasn't particularly well written either).
I'm thinking much of what has been said already; the first half of season 1 of Dollhouse was just not as good as it could have been. This is not the result of a false dilemma between 'episodic' vs. 'serial'.
Ultimately I don't care whose 'fault' it was so much as I care that it gets fixed.

Factual error department:
The article got something wrong. 'Ted Ritter as a killer robot?'
The actors name was John Ritter. Ted was the name of the character.
"Stage Fright" also had a lot of grunt work to shove into itself. The entire Ballard story in that episode is really nothing more than "we have to get him shot because that originally happened in the ditched pilot". (Like with many of the initial engagement-heavy stand-alone episodes, the best stuff in it is the Dollhouse staff parts.)
"Stage Fright" has that wonderful scene where Ballard and Lubov talk about the Dollhouse and Ballard's assumption that if the technology exists, it's being used to manipulate, control, and harm people because that's human nature. And the first of the unsettling Active reveals.

I like the fight scene there because it's the second bit of the reveal that Adelle's baited Ballard with a fake mafia connection but sent him to the real mafia. We see the bait and then the very real hook nearly kills him. It's elegant and terrible.

But yeah the diva/stalker thing was pretty bad. I don't mind missions of the week, these were just not very good missions. I'm skipping "Gray Hour" in my rewatch because it's just such a terrible caper that the episode centers on.
Not to mention the magical bullet-proof smoke ;). Plot issues aside, I like "Gray Hour" though, it's the first time I really connected with Echo on an emotional level (and I like the bait and switch at the start).

(as to that 'Stage Fright' scene with Lubov/Ballard, it's well enough written and nicely played but I haveta admit, as a sentiment it struck me as a bit obvious, facile even)
Loved the story about the apparantly quite famous gorilla experiment, hadn't heard of it before, but it's fun and it makes for a nice comparison (though I don't recognise myself in it).

My viewing experience was actually quite close to the opposite of the one the article describes. Based on the original trailer and the first released scene, I was expecting to love the engagements and dislike the ongoing stories containing Ballard and Echo's growing self awareness. I was so focussed on the stand-alone engagements that I wanted to be spectacular (because I agree with the writer of the article that the mechanism should be able to allow for some spectacular stories) that I paid only little attention to the very pleasently surprising arc stuff like the Alpha opening in The Target and all the scenes containing Ballard.

However I did not dislike the stand-alone stories in the first episodes because they weren't arc, but just because they weren't very creative or interesting, didn't sell me on the neccesity of the involvement of the Dollhouse, and were very repetitive: like dirk points out, they all seemed to center on Echo misfunctioning because the Dollhouse tech couldn't wipe her soul away.

(I was quite dissapointed by the lack of creativity and obedience to bad television cliches Joss showed when he commented on the "Echo" commentary about the fan complaints about the repetitiveness of a faulty engagement every episode, with something along the line of: what do you expect, it's TV (only then funny, cause he's still Joss :).))

And I strongly agree with dirkís suggestion that the show should have started with a couple of more or less flawless engagements, if only to mix it up a bit, though it also was important in selling the usefullness of the Dollhouse. The fact that it started with a series of succesfull (and fun to watch) engagements also is one of the main reasons I really liked "Echo" (that it contained more of the "real story" wasn't among them).
as a sentiment it struck me as a bit obvious, facile even

True but it's early in the series. Being more on the nose about some stuff like that doesn't bother me, as long as it's a starting point and things evolve as the story progresses. Plus there's that verbal playfulness going on to keep it interesting.
Very good points all: it wasn't the fact that these were standalones, it was that they weren't very good standalones.

I'd also add - like I have in previous threads on this subject - that there was a problem with the pilot. In previous Joss shows the first seasons are all pretty much heavy on the standalone episodes early on. Buffy S1, Angel S1 and Firefly all feature much more standalones than arc episodes and we've never heard anyone complain about those (maybe some comments in hindsight with Buffy and Angel's first seasons, but those were mostly background noise when airing I'd say. Although, of course, there probably wasn't much of a fandom yet during Buffy S1's original run ;)). So, obviously, something is different here.

The biggest differences I can see are twofold. First there's the fact that these episodes are dissapointing in the engagements themselves, like has been discussed. The second reason for the difference in perception is, imho, that we didn't get introduced to the characters, their motivations and their world very extensively. Welcome to the Hellmouth/The Harvest and Serenity were non-standalone starts to their standalone heavy seasons, taking time to introduce our main characters. 'City Of' was slightly less so (but still more so than 'Ghost'), but in that case we already knew most of the characters and their world because Angel was a spin-off show. With 'Ghost' none of this happened.

So I think that's the double whammy at the core of the problem with these early standalones. They just weren't up to the level we've come to expect from Joss - and like bix mentions, he himself has said so on record very clearly - and we were not introduced very effectively to the characters and world, although such an introduction ('Echo') was planned initially.
I think we need to remember that when we talk about the long arcs of Buffy, that is only because we can see them in retrospect; we did not necessarily see them as they were developing.

As to the question of fault, there is no fault. People like what they like. Some like DH and others do not. Is this the fault of Fox for altering the first show? Does it matter? I have not yet invested in this show; it does not move me like Buffy did and it raises questions it does not seem to know how to answer. But that's me.
"Stage Fright" has that wonderful scene where Ballard and Lubov talk about the Dollhouse and Ballard's assumption that if the technology exists, it's being used to manipulate, control, and harm people because that's human nature.

Although that was repurposed content from the ditched pilot. It's a great scene, but it's really only repurposed here in order to get Ballard shot, which they had to accomplish somehow.
I personally like "Ghost," "The Target," and "Gray Hour," so I really only skip "Stage Fright." And even then, the comments upthread about why the singer is a good story-choice of client are well-founded.

And there's definitely arc stuff in them, too. After all, who hired the fake client in "Target"? Who wiped Echo in "Gray Hour"? Without question, Alpha: so what was he up to there?

Also... of course the Dollhouse has to have glitches and problems. A show about something -- anything -- running perfectly smoothly will last exactly one episode. Conflict and problems is what all story relies on.

[ edited by ManEnoughToAdmitIt on 2009-08-25 23:55 ]
Conflict and problems is what all story relies on.

While true, that's not a get out of jail free card for failing at some point to explain why the setting of your series seems to suffer so many problems. Dollhouse does reasonably well in this regard, I feel. But it does irk me when Joss, or any other writer, just gives the glib "because otherwise there's no show" answer, because ultimately that's not good enough. The story should give some sort of hook -- and, really, it only has to be just enough of one -- to explain it.
I wonder if it would have been possible for Joss, Eliza and Fox to have sold Dollhouse from the start as "just" an Alias type show, and let us discover the mindwiping and everything else as we watched?

Just as Terminator II was clearly meant to keep the fact that Arnie is the good guy a secret until he and John Connor met up, but was totally spoilt by every interview and review, it would have been so much better to have been a surprise.
Problem is of course, that many people would have said "An Alias rip off? I won't bother watching"
I agree people were a bit impatient, but even as a big Dollhouse fan I can freely admit that many (not all) episodes simply weren't interesting enough to hold my attention on their own. I was honestly sitting there "waiting" for the arc segments because the stand-alone part was not working. Seriously, when you're resorting to "The Most Dangerous Game" by episode two, things just aren't going well creatively.

The thing is, because I watched all 5 back to back, it didn't bother me. But I can see where someone who watched them for the first time and had to wait one week for the next one could have gotten extremely annoyed.
I agree that the stand alone episodes should have been something special, but with a big emphasis on 'should.' He is totally right in saying that the show's premise allows it to have brilliant stand alones, but for some reason, the majority of those first few episodes were just no good. As a huge Whedon fan, I didn't enjoy some of those episodes. Do I remember correctly when I read that Joss actually sent some scripts back to the writers because he didn't like them, and they had to be fixed up? The writers and stars of shows should not have to say "we know the first half of the season is no good, but wait til you see the second half!" I know that not every episode is going to be gold, but the people involved should at least have faith that people will want to watch what they're making, without an incentive of future brilliance. I agree that the stand alone episodes of Dollhouse should be really fantastic, but unfortunatley a lot of them just aren't worth watching. That being said, I'm a huge fan, and will watch every episode that airs, stand alone or not :)
But it does irk me when Joss, or any other writer, just gives the glib "because otherwise there's no show" answer, because ultimately that's not good enough.

It'll only take you so far at least. To the question "Why is everyone not happy ?" yep, or in the extreme to "Why can we hear background music but not see any musicians ?" yep. But to the question "Why are the plots a bit hackneyed ?" or "Why does the episode hinge on an oft-stated genius being catastrophically wrong nearly every week ?" I don't think it's a good enough answer - you can have both those things but you have to carry it in the story. Otherwise, as Annie Wilkes might say, you're cheating.

And agreed with above that a couple of explicitly flawless engagements might've been a better way to start it. I was happy to accept why people would use the dollhouse (with sex engagements for instance it hinges - either in a sinister way or out of need - on the actives "genuinely" wanting to be there) but early on we weren't really shown why, it required a bit of suspension of disbelief (maybe they just felt they didn't have time with only 13 episodes).

(just to re-state BTW, all these criticisms aside, I still liked 1, most of 2, parts of 3, 4 and especially 5 so if Joss feels most of them didn't work then I just plain disagree with him. Let's not fall into the trap of calling the episodes bad when before they worked for us as a whole but had bad bits)
Problem is of course, that many people would have said "An Alias rip off? I won't bother watching"

Especially since I didn't enjoy and therefore didn't bother watching Alias: TOS beyond the first ten or so episodes. :-).

Building on that thought, I think it's possible some people knew too much about what was supposed to happen, and anticipation of what was going to be possibly tainted enjoyment of what was. Then again, I'm not sure that's really true - first, we all know that a Whedon show will have a solid arc, so we would have all been expecting *something*. Second, I managed to remain unspoiled to quite a degree by not reading any of your links or comments during the year (so I didn't know that Lubov or Mellie were actives, didn't know Tudyk would be Alpha, didn't have much idea about what the thrust of the season would be); and yet . . . I still didn't love it, for many of the reasons discussed above.

Nevertheless, there's a lot to like.
I think Dollhouse should have started with very successful misssions ,BECAUSE dolls don't have any soul,BECAUSE whores bring people happiness ,BECAUSE slavery is more liberating than free will, etc,etc(of course not so obvious). There must be other valid value systems, or so the staff may tell themselves, and let us question them later together with Echo.

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