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October 11 2009

Is Dollhouse the most intellectually engaging series on American tv? Do you believe you have a soul? Interesting analysis of how viewers approach Dollhouse and the type of questions Dollhouse brings up in the context of television over the last decade or so.

Saw this on a blog I follow online. It poses some interesting questions about why we watch and what Dollhouse means within the context the evolution of television over the last number of years.

From militantly devout atheists to eagerly martyred Islamic extremists, almost all of us believe in this kind of a soul


If this was a Wikipedia article, I'd flag that with a citation needed.

[Dollhouse] may be the most intellectually engaging television series in the history of American television.


Aaaand then it just goes off the deep end.

I don't see how Dollhouse is an "intellectual" show at all. It's an action show. The only thinking involved is by feminists arguing over whether or not it's rape. And the most intellectually engaging show in history? Based on what?

This is why people think Whedonites are crazy.
I think Dollhouse is a very intellectual show and has far more to say then just feminists arguing about itÖ that's a bit rich.

Wether or not it is the most intellectual show in history is a very subjective opinion. I havenít possibly seen enough TV to judge something like that but I can say itís one of the most original and thought-provoking shows Iíve watched in the last few years. That's good enough for me *shrugs*
An interesting read. My one little pet peeve is where he describes the Alliance as a "totalitarian government".

I think the Alliance was never shown to be some stereotypical evil dictatorship. The scary part was that it was just a government. Any government. One that thought it was doing the right thing and that maybe had a few overly zealous people within it. It was a government that we could easily have now, today, here, and most people would never notice.
I agree on the show's intellectual content, though "of all time" is a bit much; I also don't think the article makes much of an argument. Most of it is just talking about how the show calls into question the soul, but that in itself is hardly revolutionary. I did like a few points, such as the section: "But if our soul is on a hard drive and we have no say over the actions of our body from one moment to the next, then surely that is indentured servitude or even slavery, held morally reprehensible in Western societies for well over a century. Yet it looks a lot like capitalism, too; and in the spa-state of the Dollhouseís quarters, it looks just as much like dystopian communism. Can we sell our souls into slavery?"
I kinda agree with the article.

Dollhouse makes us think, and not think like "ooo I wonder what's going to happen to xxx in the next episode". It makes us think and examine what being a person truly means- it makes us ask some pretty poignant questions.
...can you say pretentious? Yikes!
I see your pretentious and raise you an overly long
Fun part is, I think the show works both ways.

If you really want to, you can read a lot into the show, see it as an indictment of objectifying in particular or capitalism in general... and if you want to, you can also see it as a show about pretty people doing exciting/interesting things.

I like them both.
I honestly dont get the hate for this well written, thoughtful article. A++++ regardless of some -overstatement.
I see your pretentious and raise you an overly long


Overly long pretentious sesquipedalian loquaciousness?

I call.
Well, speaking for the "devout atheists" I have to state. No, I don't believe in any kind of soul (in the classic sense). Using the physical brain we have, perfectly describes all the things we do.

Having said that, I would never try to convince anybody, that to be true. Sometimes a well seed lie merits more than the truth.
I find Dollhouse to be intellectual indeed, raising questions about both the nature of the soul, how we exploit and objectify everyone as well as the classic about consent. And it has action and hot chicks as well as great writing. Marvelous!

And speaking of intellectualism. Objects in Space must be one of the most thought through pieces of television ever. It still leaves me speechless in its beauty.

[ edited by Satai (with Punsch) on 2009-10-12 00:06 ]
I find Dollhouse to be intelectual indeed

:)
The way I see it, Dollhouse isnít that hugely concerned with the philosophical questions exemplified in this piece. Those questions, when they do show up, are there chiefly in the role of spanning an existential mental space around the viewer where it is more about inducing that feeling of void than it is an invitation to active contemplation. I find that when it works the show manages, from time to time, to dig really deep into what being human fundamentally is. The question if we have an immaterial soul or not isnít a very fundamental one.
Not sure about most. But as any well written entertainment, it offers many levels of reception. While one watches it for the hot chicks, or the fights, someone else may see the show as a comment on the moral dilemmas our modern society presents. There is lot more going on though, and the meta fiction aspect may be even more important to Joss than to try and define the soul.
Overly long pretentious sesquipedalian loquaciousness?
I call.
brinderwalt | October 11, 05:04 CET


I'll raise you a hyperbole (an hyperbole)? ;)

But he did raise some interesting issues.

While one watches it for the hot chicks, or the fights, someone else may see the show as a comment on the moral dilemmas our modern society presents.
Udo Schmitz | October 11, 09:44 CET


I'll go with that. In other words, it's a Joss show.
And hardly the most intellectually engaging show in the history of TV. Jut for starters there is West Wing, BTVS (which has, to my knowledge, more texts written about it than any show in the history of television, to turn a phrase), House (great studies in medical ethics), Mad Men, BSG, Star Trek various versions, but first best, All in the Family, Simpsons, South Park, and so on.

The questions in DH have been asked for years in cyberpunk novels, standard scifi, and movies, such as The Matrix. Nothing novel, even if interesting.

PS. I agree with Satai about Objects in Space, which is endlessly fascinating to me. I might also add Restless as another example of a episode that is rich and deep. Nothing on DH comes close to the beauty and depth of those 2 eps, imho.
@Dana5140: Yep, I heard a lot of this kind discussion when The Matrix first came out. And in terms of raising interesting questions about the nature of consciousness, identity, the soul...well, let's face it, it ain't the first time a movie or tv show has touched on those issues.

And anyone who has read anything on Plato's Forms, Descartes' arguments on dualism or Berkeley and Spinoza and so on - you know what I mean. The issues are incredibly complex.

Dollhouse, The Matrix, Dark City - all good, thought-provoking entertainment. But I will stick my neck out for a moment of hubris and speak for the creators of those works: They wanted to create a story, first and foremost. They are storytellers. That the product of their efforts not only entertains, but also provokes discussion and questions that engage the intellect - this elevates them far above the standard fare.

And regarding the fact that yes, weíve both been there and done that: I do think itís possible for Dollhouse to present some new angles to the philosophy of mind. I just donít think itís happened yet (and may never). Itíll be fun to see if Joss has anything new to add to the discipline. But even if he doesn't, shows like Dollhouse, Lost, The Twilight Zone, etc are always more enjoyable to me than, say, CSI.

I wonder if Joss has read any Searle or DennettÖ
I agree with those who say that Dollhouse isn't inherently more intellectual than any of Joss' other shows or a myriad of other shows in history.

'The West Wing', like mentioned before, is much more complex and is one of the few shows I probably would describe as intellectual, because it features actual discussions on issues, has conceptually complex dialog and plotting. In Dollhouse, most of these things are optional - if you want to reach for them, there's more than enough examples in the text to use to illustrate the issues and can be used as fuel for a debate, but they nearly never reach the show's surface or become inescapable for the viewer who choses not to. In the end, it's first and foremost an action show.

So, yes: the premise of this piece is very over-the-top. I wouldn't go saying 'Dollhouse is the most intellectual show in the history of television', when trying to get people to watch; I'd be too afraid to get laughed at.

Having said all this: I do like Dollhouse. And one of the reasons I like it, is because of its smart writing. Because while I wouldn't describe it as especially intellectual, it certainly is layered and intelligent, despite being an action show. That's just how Joss - and the ME staff - make television. But that's in no way exclusive to them or to Dollhouse (BSG, Veronica Mars, The Shield, The Wire, Six Feet Under, etcetera etcetera - these shows are all very smart).

And, on a final note... as an atheÔst myself I have to support others in this thread to say: 'no, I don't believe in the concept of the soul'. I'd say that's probably even a majority opinion in atheism, although I have no numbers to prove or support that.
I think there are many layers to Dollhouse and that it will take time for people to start peeling them back. For example, I see Dollhouse first and foremost as a show that questions the morality of military service. The parallels between actives and soldiers seem blatantly obvious to me, and Epitaph One clinched it, but I'm apparently in the minority.
I find that people (including myself) reach for superlatives far too quickly when watching Whedon's programming. Actors are either great or horrible. Plot is either brilliant or poorly thought out.

Dollhouse (with a few specific episode exceptions) always seems to have an intellectual discussion at its core and explores it with varying degrees of effectiveness. If you dig the show and you're intellectually intrigued by it... it is intellectual. If you're not intrigued by it, then honestly I'm not sure how you could enjoy the show anyway. Titillation, action, and comedy are all currently being done in much better ways on other shows that are complete with far more familial groups of characters.

Dana brought up the Simpsons and South Park which is actually a apt for the debate of "most intellectual" since satire is an intellectual exercise from start to finish. If I were the author, I would have amended it to "intellectual drama" and made the case that way. I would have also restricted the argument to "currently on television" which I honestly think you could make a case for.
GVH and others, I'm quite curious. "Soul," perhaps not, but do you believe we are more than the sum of our parts in any way? Or are we just neurons chatting with each other? Or are there other options?
I do find Dollhouse is the most intellectually gripping of Joss's work. I love his other work more, but for different reasons: I find BtVS and FF more emotionally complex and gripping, with better character development. But neither are as intellectually complex as Dollhouse.

Because for me, the entire show reads as a indictment of man's inhumanity to others, and how we justify it to ourselves in minute, daily ways. Exploitation of people, even people we feel affection for, is a layered thing, and when we ask how Adelle sleeps at night, the question extends to us all. And I'd argue that it's by far the most explicitly feminist text on television today, maybe perhaps ever.

Not to mention the problems with the soul/consciousness divide, which is rich cyberpunk territory. I'm eagerly awaiting Victor and Sierra's love story, which should be awesome-sauce in delving into the nature of what makes a man: his memories or his soul? Because if it's not your identity that falls in love, is it your soul?
I find it hard to, on one level, compare clever shows like Dollhouse and Buffy with shows like The Simpsons and South Park as the two last ones are satire and that is a wastly different animal. Not bad in any way though.

And I do agree with Dana5140, Restless is also an amazing episode even though that is somewhat of a more estetic experiense for me then the more existential Objects in Space.
This is how Whedon has always worked. All his shows are like this. Action AND questions. You can have both. You can have a thought-provoking adventure. He doesn't answer the questions necessarily. He just poses them and then lets the audience entertain itself with possible answers. This is why he's so good. This is why we come back for more. This is why some people don't "get it."

Look at the top rated tv shows currently on US Television. First you got glorified game shows like American Idol, Survivor Fiji, and Deal or No Deal. The questions posed here are essentially "what would you do for money?" That's so cerebral my head just exploded. Audiences on the whole are essentially mobs, and mob mentality gravitates to things that think for them. They're a little bison.

Then there's procedural dramas like Grey's Anatomy, House, CSI: Vegas, CSI: Miami, NCIS, and Criminal Minds. Usually Law & Order clones slip in here too. Questions are posed but then they're usually answered. Killing people is bad. Having cancer is bad. Getting addicted to vicadin cuz your leg hurts is bad. These are good shows, don't get me wrong, but except for House I don't watch them myself anymore. They got boring. They pretend to challenge their audience and the audience pretends to be challenged but it's safe. The questions are safe and the answers are a smile and a nod. House is a bit of an anomaly here, but even it plays it safe.

Cuz it doesn't go here: IS there a soul?

If you could control the mind and body of a person, would there be a third intangible something you can't control that would stop and say "wait a minute"? Whedon doesn't answer this question, but he does pose it. It's a good question. There isn't a definitive answer (yet), but it's fun trying to figure one out. That's why Whedon is so good, that's why we come back for more, and that's why American Idol is STILL in the top ten despite my purposefully NOT watching it. Some people just don't get it.

Is there a soul?

Some individuals do accept as a given that there is such a thing as a soul, without thinking twice about it. Joss Whedon is objectively asking this question as if the answer could be either yes or no. He did this back on Buffy too. And Angel. And Firefly (specifically w/River).

Angel once said to his friends: "If nothing that we do matters, then the only thing that matters is what we do." It is the most poignant moment in the entire series. Then if I remember correctly, they go out and bust some heads. Am I being pretentious by pointing this out? God, I hope so!

I don't think the majority of the audience out there wants to accept as a possibility that the answer could be no. This could be very subtle. It's not something you'll ever see in a Nielsen Ratings report, but maybe the reason why Joss Whedon's work is not accepted by the mainstream is because the mainstream is not ready to accept that maybe that answer is no. Humanity may be ready for Simon Cowell because he doesn't ask humanity to consider this, but it may not be ready for Joss Whedon, because he insists we do consider it.

It's a simple question. There are only two answers. Yes or no. What we believe to be the answer and what actually IS the answer can be two entirely different things, but the answer is not kumquat and it's not linguini. It's either yes or no. Joss Whedon shows us the door where that answer probably is, but he doesn't make us walk through it. That's up to you.

Apparently anyone in possession of a Nielsen box would rather watch Medium, in which that question is undeniably a yes.
A philosophical question which no one can answer yet spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about with or without subsequent pontification. Soul.
A music genre originating in the United States combining elements of gospel music and rhythm and blues.
zachsmind, I find this analysis troubling. For one, I see you effectively condemning people whose TV viewing differs from yours. I do not watch American Idol, but good friends of mine do and they are honest, hard working and intelligent. It is what floats their boat, and more power to them. I am not a better person than they are because I watch something else. You say "They pretend to challenge their audience and the audience pretends to be challenged but it's safe." How would you know whether someone else is challenged and by what? How would you know what "pretend" means here? This is precisely the kind of debate that ends up turning viewers against people like us. It's like, "we're better than you because we see deeper than you." Some want to analyze, and some want to escape, and so what? You are attaching a value to that, when I am not sure one exists.

Near as I can tell, "Some individuals do accept as a given that there is such a thing as a soul, without thinking twice about it. Joss Whedon is objectively asking this question as if the answer could be either yes or no" never really happened. Joss has not asked us to answer this; we have asked this question. Not Joss. This is your read on things, not Joss's.
GVH and others, I'm quite curious. "Soul," perhaps not, but do you believe we are more than the sum of our parts in any way? Or are we just neurons chatting with each other? Or are there other options?
ManEnoughToAdmitIt | October 11, 22:04 CET


Speaking as an atheist who doesn't believe in the concept of "souls", I would say that we're nothing more than our physical make-up. What others think of as souls is, to me, simply consciousness. This is a product of our intelligence, which is a product of our brains. I'd disagree with the author of the original piece, that we're set apart from animals. We are animals. I never get how anyone who accepts evolution can believe in souls - at what point did we suddenly pick them up?

On Dollhouse, I tend to think that the show is more intellectually interesting in theory than in practice. Little harsh perhaps, but I think there's a lot more to mine in the basic idea. A majority of the most interesting concepts were there as soon as you heard the premise of the show. Admittedly, everyone sitting around discussing ethics and souls isn't necessarily a ratings winner. ;)
The author is assuming there that someone who believes in a soul can not believe an animal has one. That's a leap however and it applies to specific groups of people. Not all Judeo-Christians would believe that. And any religion that believes in reincarnation couldn't believe that.
ManEnoughToAdmitIt, your summation question could be answered with the fairly easy experiment of first bisecting a human and then measuring how well the pieces perform, compared to the whole, using some appropriate metrics :)

I do believe we are much more than our neurons, despite (or, actually, thanks to) being an atheist and a subscriber of a purely materialistic world view. I do so because minds are not totally isolated from the outside world. Thereís a constant little exchange going in both directions. So, over time, we sort of spill out and the world leaks in, and we and what is around us become connected in complicated ways. The mathematical complexity of one individualís neural net is already terrifying. It becomes practically nonsensical to try to determine the product of the whole system.

What would justifiably be called a soul in that view of the mind? To me, nothing, but if one likes itís perhaps possible to talk about a context-free partition from the individualís viewpoint. Something that doesnít change in me during my lifetime, or if it does change, it changes in exactly the same way if I were regrown again and again under different circumstances. Itís a downright useless thing to think about as a soul. A bit more consoling is the notion of a context-free part from the worldís viewpoint. When parts of a person have leaked out into the world and into others that are still present when the person is gone. That shattered effect is not in itself sentient but it is a real thing even in the materialistic view.

[ edited by hence on 2009-10-12 08:12 ]
Zach, you're projecting an awful lot of ideology into why Whedon doesn't sell. Since everyone seems to be in love with stating their atheism so they can disagree with the author of the original article, so I'll state the fact that I'm a Christian in response to yours.

Whedon's questions about the nature of the soul are interesting and thought provoking. But at the same time, I also consider it a general waste of time because there's no prize or penalty for being right or wrong. I also think they are observations made by characters in a story he is telling. They are not always his viewpoints, and whether he believes them or not there is always validity in the way the argument is presented. And I'd argue that the morality and free-will vs. society (programming and unbeatable systems) questions are far more intriguing to Dollhouse than the nature of the soul will ever be. All that said, the question doesn't turn me off. Nor do I think it would turn anyone else off unless it was discussed in a didactic fashion.

Whedon's numbers problem is not the ideological payload. It is that he develops niche shows that deal in very specific mythologies, require regular viewing, and are unafraid to use big words regularly. He also tends to develop stories that require you to suspend disbelief at the starting point. And after you've done that, he uses references that not everyone gets or is patient enough to figure out. But that's EXACTLY why I love his shows. It's also the reason he'll never see Lost numbers. Why I love him IS the problem.

I was going to say why "we" love him, but some of us require a scoobie gang to enjoy a show, and since I don't I didn't want to speak for you. Besides, every hit show generally has scoobie equivilents, so I think that's actually a non-issue on why he doesn't do better in the ratings in general.

[ edited by azzers on 2009-10-12 04:35 ]
You can speak for me, azzers. Well, not about religion since I'm not a Christian - but about why I love Joss's work.

That was such a diplomatic, non-judgmental way of saying "not everyone gets Joss, and not everyone has the patience to try". ;)
Well done.
Oddly, for someone so apparently appreciative of Dollhouse, the author of the essay seems to miss an essential point that seems pretty clear in the show: the emerging premise is that the Dollhouse technology does NOT actually capture the "soul" but merely those characteristics that can be manipulated by the technology.
The show to this point clearly indicates that there is something else that cannot be reduced, an individual essence that exists even in the absence of memories or developed personality traits. Whether that "something else" is truly immaterial, like a soul, or whether that essence is simply a complexity of characteristics that the technology hasn't yet mastered (i.e. the glandular level of influence from ep 2-2), is not yet clear.
Whedonites know, of course, that Joss is skeptical about the ability of people, even with the best of intentions, trying to manipulate the behavior of people (Firefly/Serenity). Regardless of whether the essence of an individual resists manipulation because of its material complexity, or because it is immaterial in nature (a soul), that the essence remains somehow independent of the efforts of the Dollhouse to control it is (so far) a central theme of the show.
Taken in that sense, much of the speculation in the essay seems misplaced. I.e. those questions might be interesting questions, and one might be prompted to think about them by watching Dollhouse, but the show itself seems to be going in a different direction.

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