A couple of weeks ago I found myself with an urge to step back in time 10 years and re-watch Joss Whedon’s short lived, Dollhouse.
I’m sure it’s a show many remember for being on the cancellation bubble from pretty much the moment it first aired on TV. With a concept as troubling as big budget people smuggling one has to wonder what FOX was thinking in picking up the show for pilot.
Whedon was yet to direct a Marvel Studios movie and was coming off the back of Buffy, Angel and the rapidly approaching cult status Firefly. The prospect of a new show with a central female lead was probably too tantalising to turn down.
In an interview with Chicago Tribune TV columnist Maureen Ryan, Whedon would later say “The problems that the show encountered weren’t standalone versus mythology [episodes]. Basically, the show didn’t really get off the ground because the network pretty much wanted to back away from the concept five minutes after they bought it.”
Binge-watching the whole series in two weeks has changed my perspective on the show’s concept versus its execution.
Conceptually I think there’s huge mileage in a series which challenges the perceptions of technological advancements and how these can be manipulated by large corporations. One could argue that the show would be even more relevant now in the age of artificial intelligence.
But on a more personal level the idea of feeling uncomfortable in our own skin and struggling to find an identity transcends generational borders and speaks to the entire audience.
There’s arguably an aspect of mental health and multiple personalities buried in the concept but it never felt as though this was something the show wanted to focus on. It could have been interesting to see Echo struggling with the multiple voices in her head had the show continued.
Added intrigue definitely comes from Rossum, the corporation behind the various dollhouses, who are actively seeking to do a lot more with the technology than capitalise on billionaires fantasies. Though in the show it came off as more of a faceless villain in the first season the writers really dived deep in season 2 much to the benefit of the storytelling.
Finally, the bookend episodes of both seasons are a fine way to keep the viewer interested by showing the consequences of when tech goes wrong. The show gave itself a chance to tell two completely different time periods in a way which was perhaps ahead of its time.
In actuality Dollhouse, at leat in season 1, is a much different entity to watch.
The pilot episode, the TV version at least, opens during a tense face-to-face standoff between Caroline and Adelle. This moment transpires to be the moment Caroline will become Echo and join the LA dollhouse. When I first saw this episode I remember thinking it really hyped up the tension between these two. Who was Caroline? What information did Adelle have to make her become an Active?
Watching the scene now it feels quite wooden. More so than anything else in the whole show. Given the chemistry that Dushku and Olivia Williams have in further episodes it’s clear that something was off in this moment.
For those not in the know there is an unaired pilot episode, called “Echo”, which features a storyline much more steeped in the series mythology. It takes a darker look at the world of Adelle DeWitt and the LA house and hints at plenty of story points which come to the fore further down the line. The episode is included on the series Blu-ray box set and I highly recommend you check it out.
Scenes like Caroline and Adelle were forced in to break up the story and try to make the series more palatable to the audience. This network meddling can be felt all across the first batch of episodes and is why I’ve come to feel differently about the show.
It’s only in episode six, “Man on the Street”, that the show finally begins to pull its narrative strings together.
Up to that stage, narratively, the show is like every other new show on TV. It wobbles from episode-to-episode trying to out what works and what doesn’t. But with Dollhouse those wobbles feel all the more apparent in the tug of war between the network and the writers.
“Man of the Street” finally puts Paul Ballard (Tamoh Penikett) face-to-face with Echo/Caroline and cements his suspicions about the dollhouse. It symbolises the moment that Whedon seems to begin winning the fight for editorial control on the show.
As a watershed moment it leads us to episodes like “Echoes” which features some classic Whedon style humour; “A Spy in the House of Love” which is our first real glimpse in to the life of Adelle DeWitt and “Omega” which is the season finale of the present day timeline.
As the mythology of the show begins to take over I find myself watching more and more episodes back-to-back. In particular I watched nine episodes of season 2 over the course of 48hrs, on a weekday, around my day job.
“Epitaph One”, the finale of season 1, is our first look in to the apocalyptic, post-tech future. It jumps ten years in to the future (2019 no less!) and shows us a brief glimpse of a world ravaged by Topher’s (Fran Kranz) active architecture.
This episode, whilst brilliant and poignant, is a-typical of my feelings on Dollhouse. The concept is huge and way beyond what the budget of the show could handle, it’s well produced and never reaches too far beyond its means. But it’s also watered down to become palatable to a network audience and loses some of its impact because of it.
The dialogue features a whole heap of future slang imagined by the writers to help ramp up the future aesthetic. But it comes off almost as stunted as that Caroline/Adelle scene in the pilot. Lines are delivered well but it’s like I can hear a FOX executive stood off camera asking the actors to make it easy for the audience to understand.
It ended the season – and almost the series – on a downbeat note and one which showed the show trying to be what it was always meant to be.
COME BACK LATER IN THE WEEK FOR PART 2 OF MY LOVE LETTER TO DOLLHOUSE!
Dollhouse starred Eliza Dushku as Echo/Caroline, Harry Lenix as Boyd Langton, Fran Kranz as Topher Grace, Tamoh Penikett as Paul Ballard, Enver Gjokaj as Victor, Dichen Lachman as Sierra, Miracle Laurie as November. Also starring were Olivia Williams as Adelle DeWitt and Amy Acker as Dr Saunders.
The series aired for two seasons in 2008-2010 and is available now on Blu-ray, DVD and on digital platforms.