About a year and a half ago I interviewed uber-cool TV show creator Joss Whedon about his upcoming Fox series, Dollhouse, and as he often is in interviews, he was funny, playful and excited. But this time he was also just a touch combative, as if he couldn't wait to get the interview over with, acting as if I should have known all this stuff already.
After coming off successful runs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and the unjustly canceled Firefly, he said something that was far more interesting than trying to convince us that Dollhouse would work. "I did not set out to do a show for Eliza [Dushku]," he said. "I set out to talk to Eliza about what she might want to do with a show. I had no intention of being back in TV."
In fact, by the end of his famous lunch with Dushku to discuss her future, the entire Dollhouse idea was exploding out of his head. "Within a week I had presented it to the network with the full cast, the full pilot concept, the full episodes down the road and a five-year plan and a onesheet," said Whedon. "It was all just there. It was very organic."
Now that the show is gone, having failed to capture a sizable audience over two seasons, it's worth taking a look at what was good about Dollhouse and why it went off the rails. (Spoilers ahead if you haven't seen the finale!)
My guess is that Whedon, Dushku and Fox all looked at the possibilities Dollhouse presented in different ways. Sort of like playing telephone with a string and cans.
♦When Dushku heard Whedon talk about "a girl whose personality has been erased so she can be imprinted with the personality of absolutely anybody in the world," she probably thought that meant, "Job ... Joss ... Emmy!"
♦When Fox, heard Whedon say, "Every week Echo goes and deals with a different group of people, and to that extent it's kind of a stand-alone," they probably thought that meant "Stand-alone episodes ... Eliza's hot ... Joss has a following ... It's gonna be a hit!"
♦And when Whedon said, "But also on some level, everything Echo says is not true. Even though she becomes these other people, when she's done she gets wiped of the personality she had. So creating those stakes in that situation week to week is tough," Whedon most certainly thought, "WTF have I gotten myself into?"
Whedon, who is extremely loyal to his actors, had discovered Dushku, and once the idea burst forth there was likely no going back, even despite the fact that it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that Fox's treatment of Firefly was one of the reasons he had "no intention of being back in TV" in the first place.
The problems that popped up through Dollhouse's run certainly were apparent to me and others who voiced concern over how the series could succeed when you had a main character who was reset every episode and a premise that turned her character into a virtual slave, her body being rented out to whoever could pay the price and for whatever nefarious purpose, sexual or otherwise, the renter chose.
Sarah Stegall of Munchkyn Zone wrote, "I'd like to think that the dark and unsettling pilot is a prelude to an exploration of the ethical issues involved in prostituting a literally unwitting victim, of putting her in danger of her life without her real, informed consent. I'd like to think that Whedon intends to dissect the cultural implications of putting a premium on lithe and attractive bodies that house vacant minds. I'd like to think that Whedon's much-vaunted feminism will persuade him to treat Echo as something more than a breathing mannequin."
While the first episode, which was written and directed by Whedon, introduced us to Echo, her abilities, the Dollhouse, Paul and his search for her, it also showed that the tech was anything but perfect. The episode was good but dark, and it was hard to see how the Echo character and the Dollhouse world would work. Whedon had written a second pilot, but reportedly it tested as too confusing for audiences to grasp. That alone should have been enough to make Whedon to run for the hills, since the same thing had happened with Firefly.
But then the second episode, "The Target," aired, with Echo trapped in the woods with a Most Dangerous Game storyline. It was an episode that could have been reconfigured for any generic action show (and had been), and our fears for the show were realized. Yes, there was some Dollhouse stuff involving Alpha, but Echo's story was paper-thin. The ratings started to slide from the premiere's nearly 5 million viewers.
Through the episodes Echo became a backup singer, a high-tech thief, a religious blind woman, and on and on, but did we have any interest in any of those "characters"? We were stuck with the Echo doll character every week, and she gave us nothing to grasp onto or care about. And worse yet, Dushku as Active Echo far too often had to play to her weaknesses, rather than her tough-girl strengths.
I was completely willing to write off Dollhouse as a failed show despite my deep and unending love for Whedon's work. Then, just when we thought Dollhouse was toast, Fox renewed the show for reasons I still can't figure out. The series had lost half its audience, and—even though the stories had gotten stronger during the last half of the first season—the show still had its core problem: Echo and the dolls were boring. Why should we care about them when they had the brain power of an ant? Who exactly were we supposed to root for?
Yes, we were starting to dig Adelle (Olivia Williams), Boyd (Harry Lennix), Victor (Enver Gjokaj) and Sierra (Dichen Lachman), but as they grew, Topher (Fran Kranz), Paul (Tahmoh Penikett) and Echo herself became harder to watch.
And then the game changed. Somehow Whedon managed to do an episode that explored an apocalyptic scenario of what might happen if the mind-wiping technology escaped. It was called "Epitaph One." The problem was that Fox never aired it, though other countries got to see the bizarre masterpiece. In the U.S., we had to wait for the DVD.
Before the second season debuted, we had questions: Would Fox air "Epitaph One"? How would the episode fit into the Dollhouse-verse? Would Echo finally start remembering stuff in any real way? Would Dollhouse get better?
When I talked to Whedon between seasons during the summer of 2009, he seemed tired. "As is always, the way I make TV, everything that people truly invest in are the continuing stories," he said. "A show that's just, like, every episode is just a chapter in a story with no closure, it gets really frustrating for me."
Whedon added: "It's important to me that every episode has a stand-alone element. This week Echo is this, and she's trying to accomplish this, but wrapped around that is the stuff we were able to do in the second half of the first season, which is all the workings of the Dollhouse, how it impacts people. ... What can she be that will shine some light on who her character is or is trying to become? And how are we different at the end of this episode? What have we felt or touched on or ... how have we moved the chess pieces forward? We don't want to just hit reset, but at the same time, we do want that mission accomplished, that guest star either serviced or killed or whatever. You want every episode to be satisfying in and of itself, and not just a bunch of threads to keep unspooling."
Considering everything, I was hopeful that Dollhouse might finally live up to its potential. Whedon himself wrote and directed the second-season premiere, and it looked promising. But the second episode sucked, and far too literally. Echo was imprinted to be the mother of a newborn baby, complete with nursing the baby. Echo goes nuts and kidnaps the baby and ... who cares? It was that episode that may well have sealed Dollhouse's fate.
Echo was starting to become more interesting as the season evolved, but it was too late and Fox quickly canceled the series. But Fox did commit to airing all the episodes (well, except for season one's "Epitaph One") and decided to air them two at a time on Fridays in December and end the show just short of Dollhouse's one-year anniversary on the air.
At that point, magic happened. The series that audiences had given up on suddenly got better. Sometimes a lot better. Echo started becoming a real girl, and Whedon and his writers began truly embracing what Dollhouse had the potential to be: a story about what might happen if the technology to control people got loose in the world.
Despite the growing confidence that started to take hold in the series, Whedon did not write or direct any episodes after that second-season premiere. While his brother and sister-in-law, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, were heavily involved—along with other great and worthy writers and directors, such as Tim Minear and the writing team of Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters—I have to wonder if Whedon's heart wasn't broken a little bit once again.
However the end of Dollhouse played out behind the scenes, I'm grateful to the writers and directors and even to Fox. Once the network canceled the show, it freed the writers and directors to take Dollhouse to a place it couldn't have gone without Fox's giving them the time to write an ending and letting them finish the show the way they wanted to.
There are still things I have issues about. While I liked the pairing of Boyd and Dr. Saunders (Amy Acker), I never really bought that he was the bad guy all along. I wish Topher's character had been more likable throughout the series, since he really was funny. Alan Tudyk's Alpha never worked for me until the very end. Rossum needed to be represented by one face throughout the series, because it's hard to build up any passion in hating an evil corporation. And bringing back Mellie into the mix at the end made it seem like she came back just to die in front of Paul.
On the other hand, there was so much to love in the way it ended. We found out that Echo truly was special (although I'm not sure why she needed to be an Active to be useful to Boyd), Topher and Adelle evolved to become heroes, and Paul got killed. It was all good. And while it would have been even better if Fox had sucked it up and aired "Epitaph One" right before "Epitaph Two: Return," the last episodes of Dollhouse brought the series to as satisfying a conclusion as possible, considering.
All along, my relationship with Dollhouse was a dysfunctional one, and I have to admit I'm glad the show's run is over. Yes, I'll miss it, at least a little bit. But now Joss can go on to other, hopefully more worthy, things.
After all, I still remember talking to Whedon a few years ago, just before his shiny new show Firefly premiered. He was brimming with excitement and hope for the future: "The whole mission statement of the show is to put you there. It is not to make space something grand and have big plots from afar. It is to make it something mundane that is happening to you the way your life happens to you," said Whedon. But after he got past the stuff he was supposed to say about Firefly, he talked about what was really on his mind: the good ship Serenity. "Like, I've got a big damn spaceship, and I'm the happiest geek in geekland."
Let's hope at some point beyond all things Fox and Dollhouse and cancellation, Whedon gets to find another project on a different network that will once again allow him to become "the happiest geek in geekland." Maybe even one with a "big damn spaceship."
What do you think of Dollhouse's end?