Toying with Dollhouse

Then you put the boy doll on top of the girl doll and we all learn about urges. -Joss Whedon via Patton Oswalt

"Then you put the boy doll on top of the girl doll and we all learn about urges." -Joss Whedon via Patton Oswalt

On Friday, Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse aired what he and star Eliza Dushkhu had been touting as a “gamechanging” episode.  The hype was double-edged beyond the unusual PR strategy of admitting the first third of your 13-episode network order was really just exhibition games, though — it was airing against the series finale of Battlestar Galactica (hello major audience overlap).

But now that BSG is over, Dollhouse has a wide open shot at absorbing an audience already in the habit of watching a sci-fi show featuring Tahmoh Penikett on Friday nights, and if this weekend’s “The Man on the Street” didn’t exactly change the game, it definitely stepped Dollhouse‘s game up a notch.

I haven’t watched every episode of Dollhouse. Huge Joss Whedon fan, but I only watched the pilot and caught parts of two other episodes later, figuring the show for a set of interesting conceptual pieces that had yet to snap together into something purposeful or compelling.  The show had gone into production before the producers knew exactly what it was.

“The Man on the Street” was by far the most successful episode of Dollhouse yet because it was concerned entirely with the thematic meaning of the Dollhouse and the serialized mythology of the show that can explain why the Dollhouse exists in the first place.  Echo’s first assignment is a set-up for exploring the show’s themes and the Agent Ballard character while Patton Oswalt brings his great sense of timing to Whedon’s dialogue. Her second assignment brings the reveals that the Dollhouse is a vaster and more nefarious organization than we knew, and that somebody is trying to bring the Dollhouse down from the inside and is using the Actives to secretly embed outgoing messages.

These additions to the show’s ongoing story take the premise plausibility problem and turn it into an asset, the same way that the reveal of Rousseau’s 16-year old message at the end of the Lost pilot establishes a sense of the depths to be explored before we can answer Charlie’s series-defining question “Where are we?”  Meanwhile, the thematic reflections about fantasies, sexuality, mindless consumerism, and post-modern multi-media super-saturation gave the show a richer reason for existing, and even found expression beyond the dialogue, in the plotting, with the episode’s story of Sierra’s rape while in her no-personality passive state.

Dollhouse is a Buffy 2.0 of sorts, in that its central character is a deconstruction of a female gender role and it took a little under half of its abbreivated first season to find its footing and produce a truly resonant episode. I think that if the show gets a second season it could really take off, quality-wise, but that’s a big if.  To get there, it needs to demonstrate continued improvement and really rock its season finale, much like Buffy Season 1 did, and it needs to do this so it can draw in the former Battlestar audience, the quicker the better.

So yes, the show has stepped its game up.  For its next trick, I think it needs to find a way to get more out of Eliza Dushkhu’s range. But that’s a different post.

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