Comments on this post may not be spoiler free.
This post is by guest author Frédérik Sisa, a writer with eclectic interests in art, entertainment, fashion, culture, and politics, Frédérik Sisa is a columnist, art critic, and director of operations for The Front Page Online (see also: Fashionoclast) as well as a regular contributor to the venerable gothic eZine Morbid Outlook. He is currently working on two novels and a book of poems and, like everyone, keeps a pet blog (frederik-sisa.blogspot.com).
First, a confession: I am not as much a fan of Joss Whedon as I’d like to be. While I loved Buffy and Angel, their climactic seasons imploded from all the soapy comic book histrionics and left me questioning Whedon’s mojo. I’m still disappointed. Enter Dollhouse, a hyped series that, when first announced, evoked the twin sentiments of curiosity and dread. The premise of programmable people seemed interesting, but Whedon’s tendency to fizzle great ideas coupled with seriously negative development buzz didn’t create a warm-and-fuzzy. I was pleasantly surprised, however. Despite my admittedly hostile bias, the first episode of Dollhouse left me, if not quite gobsmacked, then at least tending a piqued interest.
Unfortunately, the four or so episodes I’ve watched demonstrated a pretty serious case of the hiccups. Dialogue sometimes sparkles but more often than not settles on getting the job done. The casting, also serviceable, reeks of the Hollywood youth bias: pretty young people with screen-star looks that give good gloss to advertisers despite any dissonance their appearance and demeanour might cause with their role. Eliza Dushku, around which Whedon built the show, does hold her own in a part that requires role-playing different characters and personality types during assignments for the titular Dollhouse. She even infuses a bit of humanity in the pre-imprinted tabula rasa code-named Echo, an “active” (as the human-bots are referred to) without any real personality but for some sort of child-like self-awareness. (I admit that the incessant “did I fall asleep?” routine after being de-imprinted gets old very quickly.) But for all her strength and that of the series’ other standout – Harry Lennix as Echo’s handler and viewers’ moral surrogate – Whedon misses his mark with other key cast members. Fran Kranz, as the scientist who imprints the personality on the actives, is implausibly young for a part that demands the gravitas of a Dr. Walter Bishop (Fringe) or a Dr. Jacob Hood (Eleventh Hour) and begs the question, do we really need another smart-alecky boy genius cut from Xander cloth? Also mismatched is Amy Acker, another Whedon veteran, who plays the actives’ general physician in a role originally conceived for a woman in her 40s or 50s.
These are forgivable glitches, however, in comparison to the big downer: Dollhouse can’t sell its essential premise of an illegal mercenary corporation programming blanked humans to perform a variety of assignments, whether criminal, wish-fulfilling, or do-gooding. When Paul Ballard, an FBI agent pursuing the Dollhouse in a key sub-plot, is asked by a skeptical fellow agent why any richie rich would pay for a programmed human when she/he can get the real thing, Ballard wins a prize for articulating the stretchiest rationale ever for a barely-coherent premise: “If you have everything, you want something else. Something more extreme. Something more specific. Something perfect.” Here, at last, is gobsmacking: we’re actually expected to run with this. Without explaining why an expensive, error-prone facsimile (buried memories occasionally surface to interfere with the imprint) is preferable to the real deal, Dollhouse has only sheer force of will (and wishful thinking) to run on, and it’s not enough. Nor are later revelations that the Dollhouse is subordinated to the mysterious Rossum Corporation – a reference, I assume, to Karel Čapek’s play Rossum’s Universal Robots – indicative of anything other than the usual sci-fi conspiracy tropes. And let’s not even ask why anyone would volunteer to become an active for a five-year run given the risks of being injured or killed on assignment – an inconvenience that negates the show’s purported inquiry into the role of consent on the part of the actives during assignments.
But the element that gives Whedon an unusual reputation – attentiveness to feminism – is still there, although the impact is arguably not as strong as with Buffy. While Whedon’s feminism always seemed of an easy kind, a pop-feminism satisfied with transposing stereotypical masculine warrior traits onto women, he nonetheless passes the Bechdel-Wallace test with admirable consistency. And for all that Dichen Lachman’s casting in the role of Echo’s fellow active Sierra smacks of exploiting exotic good looks – because nothing sells like pretty girls, girls, girls in a handsome cast – the inclusion of male actives dilutes, to some extent, the notion that Dollhouse is merely a fetishized fantasy of beautiful girls that, for a fee, can be programmed to satisfy the needs of a patriarchal clientele. In fact, Whedon is aware of the jagged ground he’s threading on and a case can be made that, even if it hasn’t yet lived up to it’s ambition, Dollhouse ultimate sets up a misogynistic scenario with the aim of taking it apart. (When NPR interviewer Jacki Lyden asked Whedon to explain how Dollhouse isn’t a misogynistic fantasy, Whedon replied “I won’t necessarily say that it isn’t that. The fact of the matter is that, in the wrong hands, it is a completely misogynist thing, except it’s happening to men as well – but what we’re trying to do is take someone’s identity away in order to discuss the concept of her identity.”)
Whether Dollhouse can live up to its aspirations of heavy “deconstruction” is, at least at this point, doubtful. Without that element of credibility, that fundamental belief in the show’s core, Dollhouse amounts to an intriguing but conceptually unstable, overstuffed house of ideas that I have no interest in seeing play out. For identity games and sinister machinations of memory, far better to revisit Dark City, which accomplishes more in 100 minutes, and with greater panache, than Dollhouse has so far.