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Dollhouse, folks, is a brilliant show about identity formation and about a certain technological society racing heedlessly towards apocalypse. Besides, it’s a total hoot! (It’s also Joss Whedon’s most feminist series and yet it’s regularly called “misogynistic” and “anti-feminist” by those who don’t think about the show’s conceits — and their own gut reactions — on a “meta” level. Okay, that’s the news flash. Click on the link! So now I go back to being all serious and professorial….
Joss Whedon has been responsible for some incomparable viewing experiences on television, including those many poignant seasons of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” empowering a generation of young women, and the scattered episodes of the scintillating “Firefly,” creating a great science fiction feature film (“Serenity”) and a “Browncoats” movement that will not die — devoted to fighting the horrendous conditions suffered by women around the globe, and to promoting reading and creative writing programs here in the U.S.
These shows were never watched by wide audiences at the times when their episodes aired (3 to 5 million households was typical). But these series were nonetheless works of art and had great cumulative impact, especially in the lives of those who loved them. Their DVD and reruns have been giving them far larger audiences and effects ever since.
From the start, Dollhouse was different. I focused on that difference (as I saw it) over at thelandofunlikeness.com, in a review that for me was also a labor of love and a tribute to Whedon’s artistic vision. It was also a plea to Fox and the world at large to save Dollhouse — and shortly thereafter, to everyone’s astonishment, Dollhouse was given a second season, the lowest-rated show ever to be renewed.
Whedon’s latest project, starring Eliza Dushku (“Faith” on Buffy and Angel), had a rocky production history last season, and its viewership consistently fell off from its hopeful premiere audience of more than 5 million. Whedon fans (and others who had heard the hype) tuned in to see what the show was all about. Disappointment abounded and some shock and anger was voiced. The show was “misogynistic” and dealt with a bunch of “likable rapists.” The “eww” factor was a dramatic problem, but those of us who stuck with the show agreed that the series really found its feet around episode 6 and then grew steadily more impressive through its final aired episode, #12. By then many critics were genuinely intrigued and on board. The unaired 13th episode, “Epitaph One,” became available in July on the Season 1 DVD and generated some real buzz, if mostly among TV critics and Whedonites.
However, I loved the artistic vision of this show from the very first episode. As a Shakespeare professor, Joss’s artistic decision here struck me as similar to Shakespeare’s move from his highly successful early comedies to the much darker “problem” plays, especially Measure For Measure, whose plot concerns a brother, imprisoned and facing death for a sexual misdemeaner (sex with his betrothed), entreating his sister to save him by agreeing to spend a night with the Magistrate, a much older man who is obsessed with her virginity. (“You only have to do it once,” and then you can pretend it never happened….)
I value Whedon’s series because it has given me many moments of moral tension deeper than any I’ve experienced before in scripted television. Sometimes I am so compelled or shaken by a scene that I cry out or weep, and that’s usually when the next scene comes along and delivers an even greater punch. Measure For Measure also masqueraded as a popular entertainment. It also combined stark tragedy and disturbing moral ambiguity with its genre appeals to romance and suspense, all of them offered with a titillating edge of the sordid or risque. When Dollhouse misfires, it usually does so by failing to integrate its generic rip-roaring action scenes (and the deliberately exploited glamour and sexual allure of its cast members) with its serious intent. There’s sometimes an awkward incongruity that hasn’t managed to rise to the level of frisson.
Dollhouse did achieve this seriousness last season, though, and it is still doing it this season, despite the unevenness of some episodes and its occasional scenic misses along with its stupendous and unforgettable dead-on hits. What I continue to notice, though, is that even the show’s most loyal fans tend to view the “eww” factor implicit in the show’s premise as a failing, whenever it crops up, when this is at the very heart of what the show is all about. Whedon is pushing his audiences harder than he’s ever pushed them before; all the episodes make viewers uncomfortable. It’s deliberate and it’s art. And that’s precisely why the audience continues to drop off, even as the show continues to explore issues of human identity-formation and the body’s relationship to the soul in endlessly creative and unprecedented ways.
This show is supposed to make you go “eww.” And then to think about it! (Viewers, let’s try to exercise some of that “negative capability” the poet Keats recommended — who urged us to linger with the questions and with the tragedy for awhile, as Dark Star is currently in the theatres to remind us….) What does it say about our society, after all, that a supermodel (Dushku) who is breastfeeding a baby will send viewers running? Or ask yourself, is it perfectly okay for a high-flier to have a weekend fling with a gorgeous young girl who thinks he’s genuinely interested in her (he’s not, and this scenario happens all the time in “real life”) — but then, if the same girl turns out to be an (unknowing) birthday present paid for and provided by a wealthy friend, it’s rape? It’s okay for our society to tailor young girls to be the dream date, but not for the Dollhouse to do it for money? Joss is disrupting our accepted assumptions, and he always has been with this show. (I discuss the “American dream girl situation” just mentioned, from episode 1, here.)
Dollhouse is all about making us feel uncomfortable. When Joss says it deals with “sexual exploitation and human trafficking and how compromised we all are” — why do we wonder why the ratings keep falling? This isn’t the show’s failings. This is our unwillingness to welcome television drama as being something challenging and essential to our moral and human development, the way the Athenians once viewed their great civic tragic dramas. And Joss & Crew do entertain us at the same time, after all. Last night, in an episode called “Instinct” — as in maternal instinct that is — there was a great spoof on the conventions of the killer madwoman, who shows up in the midst of a sudden lightning storm and is armed with a ridiculously large and gleaming kitchen knife. “Echo” looks down at the knife she is holding, along with a baby, and eventually experiences a gentle moment of recognition.”This… isn’t me,” she says quietly, and she drops the knife on the floor. But is anybody listening? This is a person — a humanistic subject seeking the freedom of self-actualization — who is trying to transcend any of the stereotypical and reductive roles laid out for her to follow.
Mentoring a nephew of mine recently, I recommended that he take an on-line Briggs-Meyers personality test, as a tool for determining the kinds of jobs that might best fit his natural tendencies and genuine passions. All of this test’s personality categories possess obvious and important social roles within the fabric of society, and my nephew might find himself among the “Guardians,” for example, who constitute up to 40% of any population taking the test. These are the folks who crave and enjoy an orderly routine. They are extremely dependable and consistently dutiful, at work and at home. Without them, what would any society do?
Out of curiosity, I took the test for the first time myself. And I ended up in a tiny 1-2% segment of the typical human population. These are creative people who do a lot of thinking, but they also want their efforts to result in protecting the helpless and vulnerable in the larger community. It occurred to me to wonder…. Maybe we are the small (but likewise irreplacable) group that this show is feeding and nourishing. At least there’s no difficulty understanding why, unlike most viewers, I found from the start that I care deeply aboutEcho-Dushku when she is in her innocent “doll” state (when her mind is “wiped”) and identify with her also when something inside her keeps compelling her to go to the aid of others. (The Echo/Caroline deep inside of Echo realized that the baby she was protecting was in no danger whatsoever from the person standing in front of her and offering his life for its safety.) To me, Echo is unforgettable in her most innocent and childlike states. As Adele says, “an active is the purest soul among us.”
In previous shows, of course, Joss appealed to the rebels and artists also, but he could count on pulling in additional viewers with the trademark Whedon snarkiness and wit, and by assembling a “family” out of a wide and varied cast of lovable characters, each character appealing to one segment of the fan-base. Dollhouse does contains some remarkable characters — my favorite is Topher, the insufferable genius computer-geek, or Adele, whose icy career-woman executive is remarkably multi-layered and unfathomable with her overwhelming range of competencies. But these characters are definitely the bad guys, or are they?
So this Whedon enterprise is deliberately attempting to do something much more dangerous and more breath-takingly difficult than anything he’s tried before. That’s why I compare Dollhouse to Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure, in which Shakespeare deals with the same repugnant issues of sexual exploitation and hypocrisy, along with other themes that are more (elevatingly) humanistic.
The ratings numbers for the first two episodes of the new fall season are terribly disappointing. But they are also perfectly explicable, I think, in that this show is asking a great deal of its viewers and is taking them into uncomfortable and liminal territories every week. In the process, it is building an incredibly thought-provoking mythology and a major narrative that extends into a fascinating and apocalyptic future. The already ambiguous and surprising characters are acquiring unusual layers of depth, and they are often far more ambiguous than we ever see in Battlestar Gallatica, for instance. Joss rightly applauds BG for its daring and its dramatic strengths. But BG never prods us to go out on the limbs where Dollhouse takes us every week. Despite flaws and defects, this is powerful art, and I think it is working powerfully for those who are willing to go where usually only the tragic drama is willing and able to take us. (So maybe it needs to be assigned in classrooms, like Shakespeare and Dante. That’s often the first time modern young people get hooked into anything that isn’t simply easily-digestible entertainment….)
Joss has made this show extremely cheap for Fox to produce, in order to keep Dollhouse a going concern. The writers, actors, and stage crew are devoted to it, to the riskiness and wildness of this ride that they (and we) are on. This show deserves to keep its unenviable Friday night niche at Fox…. It’s working for some of us, and like Shakespeare’s problem plays, and his tragedies, these pieces of art are not likely to be going to fade away in the future.
If we get a future, that is. Dollhouse is seriously asking this question too.
Sometimes art seems to be the only light in the darkness, yet it still depends on its wealthy patrons. The nagging fear, as Joss admitted recently, is that on television he will only be permitted to invent if he is willing to do nothing more significant than “running the daycare on the Death Star.”