He settles the childless woman in her home as a happy mother of children. —Psalm 113:9

April 3, 2009

Dollhouse: a fixer-upper with plenty of potential

Fox's DollhouseI realized today that I haven't gotten around to weighing in on Dollhouse which, being the long-time Whedon groupie that I am, might just be a sign of apocalyptic significance. Well, maybe not for the universe. Maybe just for the show.

I hope not, though, because I'm in the minority (based on everything I've read) of actually liking it. Granted, I don't love it, and that is disappointing. When someone gives you a shiny jewel, again and again, you become spoiled, and you expect--even feel entitled--to keep getting them from that person. So when that person instead hands you an unpolished, flawed, uncut diamond, you feel as let down as if they'd handed you a lump of coal.

But I do think that Dollhouse is merely a diamond-in-the-rough, and not the coal in our stocking that so many critics are making it out to be. The last two episodes in particular have shown sparks of potential, and if tonight's episode lives up to its previews, then this show definitely has the makings of something truly spectacular, if it's given the time and attention it needs to cut away the flaws and bring out its true shine.

Okay, enough with the diamond analogy. Here's what I think in plain English. Is the premise icky? Yes. Is self-professed feminist Joss Whedon a lying liar who lies because he came up with such an icky premise? I don't believe so. Portraying ickiness is not the same thing as condoning it, and the last two episodes have shown that this show definitely doesn't celebrate its own moral depravity. The fact that the Dollhouse and those who run it are depraved is the point, and I don't hold a speck of doubt that there will be consequences. There already have been, at the hands of Alpha, and in Echo's tendency to retain trace memories of her programming causing problems for her abusers. I can't wait to see just how far and wide those consequences will reach, and I hope I'll be given the chance.

Overall, I think it's a fascinating study, of free will, of how we're all programmed to an extent by our culture, by societal expectations, by gender roles, by advertising, by corporations large and small. Are the Dolls stripped of their free will if they volunteered? If their programmed personas consent to questionable acts, and find them enjoyable, is that wrong? If you or I consent to go into debt for something we don't really need because the advertising media convinces us, practically programs us to believe otherwise, is the media evil? It comes down to agency, and how much each of us have. It appears that the Dolls have none, and that's what makes them victims; but as "Man on the Street" showed, Echo wanted to complete her mission to portray the rich widower's deceased wife. Is Echo a special case, or do each of the Dolls maintain a trace amount of self-awareness that provides them with some agency in what they do? I don't know, but I'm enjoying being made to think about these questions, and I'm interested in what the show still has to say about them.

The main problem with this show, as practically everyone else who has written about has already said, is the difficulty we have in connecting with any of the main characters. We can have empathy for the Dolls as they struggle through their situations, but we don't know them, and therefore aren't really invested in what happens to them. The characters who run and operate the Dollhouse, we're getting to know, but we can't really like them, because they're bad people. There have been hints of exceptions, but only hints, and we have yet to be given any reason to care what happens to them, either. The one big exception, for me, is Echo's handler. He's morally gray in his decision to work for the Dollhouse and accompany Echo on her assignments, but his primary concern is protecting Echo, and he takes it--and her--seriously. To Boyd, Echo is a person, and he never forgets that, even when his superiors would have him do so. It reminds me of the Watcher/Slayer relationship, and of how Giles went off book to treat and care for Buffy like a troubled teenage girl, and not merely a tool at his disposal for killing monsters. Of course, if the rest of the Watchers Council looked like mysoginistic, rationalizing slave-drivers even as their reason for existing was to save the world from evil, how much worse does the Rossum corporation seem in comparison? A whole lot worse, that's how much.

And then there's Paul. I think my main problem with Paul is my own inability to stop thinking of him as Helo, but he's beginning to grow on me. As much as I love Tamoh Penikett, though, he doesn't really have the charisma needed to carry the show as its moral center, the only character who is both basically good and has agency and the capability for growth. There was also Mellie, but now we know that she, too, is a Doll, and that her crush on Paul and their subsequent short-lived romance is a lie.

And so: it's hard to love a show if you don't love its characters, which I don't, yet. But all in all, I think for what it is, Dollhouse is well done and worth watching, and whether it has only 5 more episodes or 5 more years, I'll be seeing it through to the end.

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