LIFE AFTER GALACTICA:
WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE
It’s a sad fact of life, but we gotta deal with it.
The fleet has jumped for the final time. The Opera House turned out to be the CIC. The President lasted until humanity reached terra firma. After four seasons of being an egocentric douchebag, Baltar not only did something frakkin’ noble, he finally came to his senses and realized there was no one in the universe hotter than Six, and his midgety ass is damn lucky to bang her on a regular basis (plowing fields and then getting to come home to plow her sounds like paradise to me). And after the distracting Ron Moore cameo and the bizarrely improbable robot montage, there is only one lingering question for many of us. And no, it’s not how did he have the balls to leave the Starbuck situation so nebulous.
It’s how the hell is my lame ass going to feel justified if I stay in on a Friday night?
Caprica is an unknown quantity (and hell, it could end up airing on Sundays for all I know) so I have to look for things to fill the Galactica void. This series of articles is going to try and provide some.
Dollhouse is currently a show that has been damned by faint praise. After all, this is a Joss Whedon show. If there is anyone working in TV today who inspires geeks to gush and fall over themselves like Southern belles with the vapors, it’s him. Southern belles quoting Xander dialogue, but still. To hardcore Whedonites good episodes of Buffy are like crack; and after Firefly’s cancellation, the film Serenity was like getting unexpected make-up sex from the girlfriend who moved away. So after years of absence from our tubes (or plasmas if you can afford them) you would expect Whedon to be welcomed back to the airwaves like a conquering hero. And when I saw him give a presentation for Dollhouse to a full room at NY Comic Con, he was. Hell, he just WALKED BY the audience as we were queuing up to go in and they cheered like he was a rock star.
But a lot of people I talk to, from Whedonites themselves to sci-fi nerds in general have been giving the show the cold shoulder. The reasons why:
The premise is, well, kind of icky. Dollhouse is essentially about high-tech prostitution. The ‘dolls’ have their personalities wiped, then new custom made ones are inserted. Dolls get rented out to clients, and a lot of clients have sex with them.
The dialogue isn’t as funny or sharp as Whedon’s usual standard. A few random Xanderisms aside, don’t expect to be in stitches.
The premise doesn’t even hold up to any scrutiny. A lot of people rent out dolls for jobs that would make a lot more sense (and probably cost a whole hell of a lot less) to be trusted to a security professional. Not to mention, how the hell does the place even make economic sense? Between the technology and internal security to keep the joint running, how does it take in enough from hummers and hostage negotiations to pay its employees, let alone turn a profit?
There is no strong central character, like on Buffy. The lead character, Echo, has no real personality of her own – every week she becomes a different character. How do you get invested in a show where your central character is a complete cipher?
Eliza Dushku isn’t a good enough actress to pull it off. Every week, she’s supposed to be someone totally different – but she’s not enough of a chameleon to change that much – her characters all feel the same.
Now I’m going to give you some reasons why I think you SHOULD be watching, and why the show is worthy of occupying your TIVO slot recently vacated by Galactica.
It’s about the long game, stupid. A lot of shows don’t nail it out of the park on their first few outings. Whedon shows have had some early stumbles-remember the demon robot and hyena people from the first season of Buffy? Sorry to do that to you, I try to forget them as well. But where they really succeed is in big sweeping season long arcs. Remember Buffy Season 2? Spike and Drusilla emerge as a bigger threat than can be dealt with in a single hour, and then midway through the season, Angel turns evil and REALLY made a mess of things. Despite some early clunkers (the episode where Echo is a back-up singer to a pop star in particular) the long game promises to be pretty interesting. March 20th’s episode ‘Man on the Street’ has started dropping clues that there are deeper plots at work here. The Dollhouse is only one of twenty in operation around the globe. The money and powers involved are substantial, and the technology has some other purpose beyond exploiting pretty people. There are players remaining to be seen, and agendas to be revealed.
All well and good, you say, but what about characters? The long game will probably pay some very nice dividends here too. The ‘imprinting’ process apparently isn’t perfect. Echo is starting to remember details from her assignments, and her personality is subtly beginning to assert itself. Which brings us to the big bad waiting in the wings: former doll Alpha, who once displayed similar traits, and went knife happy on several dolls and staff before disappearing to parts unknown. We don’t know where he is or exactly what his game is, but he has an interest in Echo in particular, and the Dollhouse in general, and has planted breadcrumbs for FBI Agent Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett, known forever now as Battlestar’s Helo) to follow.
Well, what about twists, you say? Whedon has nicely stolen a page from Battlestar’s playbook – sleeper agents. Since dolls are so thoroughly mindwiped that they themselves have no idea they are one, we can expect (and have already seen, in fact) that some of them have been carefully cultivated as sleeper agents. After hearing a trigger phrase the person you were talking to can turn homicidal and kill you a second later. Any character we meet could in fact be a doll, and I’m hoping the show will play more with the inherent paranoia in the core concept.
Well, what about relationships? Oh, you ignorant sluts. There are a lot of personal dynamics at play. Echo’s handler, Boyd, is getting attached to her (no, not pelvically) and his conscience causes friction over how he should do his job. And while Agent Ballard may seem the noble sort, outraged by the exploitation of the dolls, as a Dollhouse client very adroitly points out, maybe the damsel-in-distress fetish is what really motivates him. After he restores Echo to her old self is there some grateful fuck fantasy he wants to fulfill with her?
Gray = interesting. Or, to put it less succinctly, the less moral certainty we have about what’s going on, the more open answered questions of right and wrong are, the more engaging the show is; another page stolen from the Galactica playbook. Part of the reason why Whedon’s usual zingers and wordplay aren’t in the forefront is they don’t match this tone. As amoral and exploitative as the whole purpose of the Dollhouse is, the temptation and the possibilities of the place are undeniable. The dolls themselves, to some degree, have consented to become what they are. Whether or not they’ve been coerced in any substantial way is still uncertain. According to the terms of her deal, Echo will get her life back after five years of service (hey, just enough for the show to reach syndication!). Again, whether or not the Dollhouse will fulfill this bargain with her, or with any of the dolls, remains uncertain. And since the process itself reduces Echo to an ignorant, trusting state of mind, how could she fight back if they decide to renege on the deal? And since she and the others may be a willing participants, who exactly is hurt? Well, aside from her during those times when a client puts her life at risk, of course.
Co-ed shower scenes. Weekly softcore network nudity, more than you’re going to see on NCIS, that’s for damn sure.
And, finally, shirtless Tahmoh Penikett. I’m not even remotely gay but DAMN he looks good. See for yourself.
Dollhouse is free to view on Hulu.com, seven episodes are available at any time. Go catch up then tune in Fridays at 9. Have faith in the long game. And Tahmoh’s abs.