Tuesday, February 17, 2009

'Dollhouse' and Joss Whedon's Commitment to Garbage

If you spend much time online arguing about television, you eventually have to deal with the phenomenon of Joss Whedon. The creator of such series as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and its spinoff, Angel) and Firefly finds rabid defenders on message boards and usenet groups and from all kinds of demographics. He's even earned the allegiance of a group of fans called The Browncoats, who dress up like the rebel freedom fighters from Firefly and attend Comic-Cons and all other kinds of -Cons, agitating for his show's resurrection. Whedon is something of a television idol to thousands, which is baffling, because his shows are mostly terrible.

Not categorically so, mind you. Amongst Buffy, Angel and Firefly, there are probably 30 episodes of television that I think are great. (I own the fifth season of Angel and the third season of Buffy on DVD without apology.) Regrettably, they're surrounded by hundreds of episodes of not-so-good, and even then, they're still acted by, executed with and premised on the often-bad. Much the same could be said for his newest series, Dollhouse, except for the fact that there's just one episode so far.

The series follows Echo (Eliza Dushku), better know as Faith on Buffy), a twentysomething girl who we learn via videotape was once a college student with goals but who, via flashback, we also learn had to make some tough compromises. One of them was joining The Dollhouse, which clumsy expository dialogue featuring FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett, better known as Helo on Battlestar Galactica) tells us might be a high-end white-slave prostitution ring. What we learn, however, is that The Dollhouse is actually a for-hire fantasy factory where Echo and other people with military-alphabet names like "Echo" and "Sierra" work on a case-by-case basis when not taking quasi-erotic showers and making blunderingly stupid plot-device discoveries.

During downtime, they sleep in coffin compartments under retractable flooring or get awkward medical care from facially scarred Dr. Claire Saunders (Amy Acker, better known as Fred on Angel). But when a case comes up, they become "Actives" and are put into a chair while technicians forcibly download personalities into their brains. They only know of this as a positive "treatment," because they can't remember their adoptive personalities nor remember who they are when operating under their adoptive personalities.

The tension of the show comes from Echo's seeming to start to remember parts of her real self while having another personality downloaded into her. Meanwhile, those personalities aren't perfect. The traits that make them advantageous can also make them liabilities. It's important that they be flawed because of science—or something. At least, that's what we're told. In the pilot episode, Echo becomes an experienced hostage negotiator, but it turns out that the person that knowledge was taken from had been kidnapped as a child by the same kidnapper that Echo must now outwit. Who could see that coming?

In short, it's already got all the elements that make Joss Whedon shows annoying, if not awful, to watch.

Dushku and Acker are both veterans of Whedon shows, which should make the experienced viewer cringe. Whedon actors always seem to be available for work because they're almost all horrible. The best actors on Buffy were an English character actor obviously cashing in (Anthony Head, who played Giles) and a one-off guest star who wound up being so good that they kept him around for two shows and six years (James Marsters, whose Spike character was supposed to die after one episode). The best actors on Angel were likewise a character actor pretending to be English (Alexis Denisof), another guest star who came to steal half the scenes he was in (J. August Richards) and a guy, David Boreanaz, who evidently worked his ass off to get good at acting after getting cast on looks alone and then spending years on Buffy being painfully bad.

Whedon's casting choices seem to achieve capability only through happy accident or after years of trial and error, on camera, for seasons of dross. On Buffy, Sarah Michelle Gellar ran the gamut between self-pitying and bitchy and shrill and bitchy, while Nicholas Brendon perfected wheeling his hands while doing a um-like-you-know take on Woody Allen nebbishness, while Alyson Hannigan managed to uptalk every single scene ever. "And? I'm possessed? By, like, a great evil??? And I feel rage??? Blind rage??? You will die now???"

In that case, Whedon fashioned a show around almost categorical inaptitude. Something similar went on with Angel's core actors, which featured Acker (as said) and Charisma Carpenter, who went on to take her clothes off in Playboy because, one assumes, she could be reasonably expected not to fuck that up. And despite Nathan Fillion, Alan Tudyk and Ron Glass doing some credible heavy lifting on Firefly, the rest of the cast resembled a familiar batch of also-rans, only this time with comically shitty dropped-letter accents or stick-up-the-ass rectitude.

With Dollhouse, you know what you're getting right out of the gate, acting-wise, and it's not encouraging. Eliza Dushku played dangerously peppy to perfection on Buffy, but her stint on Tru Calling showed she just hasn't got enough range to her chops to carry a show. When you couple that with Dollhouse's premise, that every week she's going to be a different person, it's not a good recipe. The pilot opens with her plausible and familiar portrayal of a sexy bad girl, but the rest of the episode relies on her playing naive vulnerability and professional prepossession to a T — neither of which happen and neither of which augur well for the future. Combined with Acker's reprising much the same kind of forgettably mousy demeanor from Angel, it's like a warmed-over version of a dinner you didn't like the first time.

Granted, Penikett seems game, but he's not got much to work with. Harry Lennox's gruffly principled ex-cop Boyd Langton seems interesting, but it's a flattened downgrade from even his portrayal of a suicidal jazz musician from the first season of House. Worst of all Reed Diamond (who did great work as Detective Mike Kellerman on Homicide: Life on the Street) and Olivia Williams (who managed to make virtually no dialogue at all evocatively vulnerable in The Sixth Sense) both seem totally wasted as generically evil corporate types. Neither of them will ever take a place among the greats of their generation, but seeing them garnish a show dominated by Dushku is like shaving truffles onto a Swanson HUNGRY MAN™ Salisbury Steak.

A Vulnerable Girl With Special Powers
Aside from the spinoff, Angel, Whedon has created three television shows:
1. Buffy, about a wafer-thin high school/college girl who had special powers that included kicking ass and being impervious to eating a fucking hamburger while being silent and difficult when she wasn't being bitchy.
2. Firefly, about a wafer-thin high school/college girl who had special powers that included kicking ass and being impervious to eating a fucking hamburger while being silent and difficult all the time, except for when she'd wig out and maybe be bitchy or whatever.
3. Dollhouse, about a former college girl who has special powers that can be downloaded to her and that may involve kicking ass, but at least she looks like she isn't going to starve to death, thank fucking God. No clue yet on the silent bitchiness.*

* — It's worth mentioning here that Whedon also wrote parts of Alien: Resurrection, which involved a bitchy older woman with special powers (Sigourney Weaver) and her something-like rescue at the hands of a thin young woman (Winona Ryder) who had special powers (being a robot). For the record, Winona Ryder is a better actress, is also hotter and has a better chest than all the B-rated eye-candy that Whedon has cast in pretty much everything he's ever been involved in.

It's also worth mentioning here that the actress who played River on Firefly, the wafer-thin high school/college girl who had special powers that included kicking ass and being impervious to eating a fucking hamburger while being silent and difficult all the time, except for when she'd wig out and maybe be bitchy or whatever, went on to star on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. In a full testament to her range, she plays a robot.

When you add in the fact that all the shows were ensemble shows, all dealt with something supernatural in a way and all relied on stylized faux-natural dialogue with an over-reliance on artificial pauses and awkwardness that only works on the printed page, it's hard to think anything other than that Joss Whedon is sort of a shitty writer with one idea.

I grant that he directed a fun episode of The Office. I grant also that the musical episode of Buffy was pretty neat. Then again, mimicry is something that mediocrities excel at. Having zero or few ideas of their own, they slip easily into the characters, motifs and expressions of others. Mimicry becomes a chore only when you have great ideas of your own to intrude on simulating someone else's. This is why Whedon's work — and the Buffy musical episode, which many of his fans hold up as the apotheosis of it — achieves good pastiche but nothing more. It's a cobbling together of other things that work in an effort to make something that seems like it might be new and might succeed because it's composed of other successful things, only differently. With Dollhouse, Whedon's glossed a little bit of The Pretender and Quantum Leap onto the formula of his own previous shows, because the former two succeeded on their own, and his other shows attained cult status because of:

Liberated Tits
Every Joss Whedon show supposedly expresses something about the empowerment of young women, but that ideational insistence takes a per-show backseat to "hot young bitches hittin' shit." Chicks kicking ass is elementally hot, and Joss Whedon would be a moron to suggest otherwise. He's just smart enough to posit that it means something more than that. Buffy was about a hot blonde with decent tits who fucked shit up and then started fucking vampires. Then Whedon added the Faith character, who fucked shit up more violently and who fucked just about everyone and had better and more tank-topped tits too. Then Faith left, and Buffy fucked even more people, sometimes even invisibly, and sometimes when those people were vampires. Then, on Firefly, we met a woman engineer who got her job by sportfucking the guy who previously held the engineering job. Also, the captain of the ship almost lost everything to a con-artist prostitute. Speaking of prostitutes, he provided a room aboard ship for a professional prostitute. Meanwhile, Dollhouse might or might not be about girls who are regularly rented out as physical and mental prostitutes.

Whedon isn't a creep by any stretch of the imagination, but he is disingenuous. The pilot episode of this show alone featured an aside about wiping Echo's experience with a client and restoring her to a "virginal" state — primarily meant to refer to something mental, but the subtext was clear — while also showing Echo/Dushku in a dress that barely covered her genitals before she was shown showering topless in a hexagonal shower with other women and men. Whedon wants to have his cheesecake and legitimize it, too, which is why the idea of women's empowerment is proffered to excuse women being presented as little more than live-action versions of calendars of leather bikini'd bitches straddling motorcycles and holding guns. (Note: the show opens with Echo discarding her helmet and riding a crotch-rocket bareheaded.)

It'd be one thing if there were just one show. It would be one thing if the ages varied much. It'd be one thing if the violence varied much. But apart from one spinoff, every show Joss Whedon has created has been about young, hot bitches who fight and fuck. And this is always meant to advance them in some way despite being the cheapest ratings-grabber possible. Meanwhile, this show's credits feature Dushku trying on different lingerie, while the FOX ads for it feature her sashaying about in minimal states of dress. It's not original. It's not progressive. It's just garbage.

The Pilot Itself
Beyond all explained above, the pilot still suffers major problems. The expository dialogue establishing FBI agent Ballard's mission to track down the Dollhouse exceeds the standards of pilot clumsiness. All it's missing is, "You're a loose cannon!" which was implied, before the FBI director threatened to "take him off this case." Ballard's investigation got as sophisticated as taking a cell-phone picture and putting a gun to someone's head and threatening his life.

Meanwhile, Echo's discovery as to what kind of place she works in was accomplished by having her stumble upon a "secret" downloading session she witnessed by walking up a normal staircase, through an unlocked glass door and then through a set of glass french doors. She essentially stumbled upon the terrifying secret through the same process that leads a houseguest to accidentally walk onto a friend's glassed-in patio when trying to get to the family room.

Most tryingly, we learn that Echo receives a download from an expert hostage negotiator who also has asthma and also has bad eyesight and also was kidnapped (all of which Echo herself suffers/knows) and also killed herself because of the elegant scientific principle that, "People who excel are flawed. So we have to make the Actives excel by giving them all the flaws. Because of... *cough*... science." Look for every downloaded personality's "one flaw" to lead to the premise of a further plot or the advancement of the same.

Joss Whedon is a bad creator and a very overrated writer. As my friend Robert put it, "He is the Kevin Smith of television." He relies on pastiche story and pastiche um like dialogue to obscure a want of drama or character. This show accomplishes little more than proving the previous statements. Add the aforementioned brutally dumb plot points to Whedon's commitment to clumsy exchange, bad casting, overburdening his already burdened bad actors, his abusive repetition of the same story concepts and his repeatedly insulting canard that all of this somehow represents something that empowers women and you have a show that you will probably be personally, aesthetically and intellectually rewarded for never watching.

For a follow-up post on subsequent episodes of Dollhouse, please click here.


  1. You are history's greatest monster.

  2. I think I have a physiological aversion to any show featuring a female lead that is advertised as her being powerful and a sex symbol. I used to think it was because because of some unconscious misogyny, but then I realized I enjoyed Kill Bill despite having a massive crush on Uma. So your line "Whedon wants to have his cheesecake and legitimize it, too, which is why the idea of women's empowerment is proffered to excuse women being presented as little more than live-action versions of calendars of leather bikini'd bitches straddling motorcycles and holding guns" really helps me understand why I shiver everytime I see the promo. Thanks.

  3. i have had many, many foolish people insist to me that i simply MUST watch Firefly or the rest of this nonsense. but i watched maybe 2 or 3 episodes of Buffy while flipping channels when i was profoundly bored, and that was enough to let me know that i would "be personally, aesthetically and intellectually rewarded for never watching" any of Wheedon's garbage.

    and can i say that this kind of "empowerment" i find actually *more* offensive than obvious objectification. Maxim magazine, for example, never claims that it is doing women any favors. you can respect its honesty and appreciation of its own target audience (while still finding it's representation of women distasteful). but your points about Wheedon are spot-on. legions of "brown-coats" drool over Dushku et. al., and all the while imagine they are somehow more morally upright than the average reader of Maxim. this is despite the fact that while the Maxim-reader may be a douchebag/creepy, at least he is not being intellectually dishonest.

  4. I am not sure why everything needs to have some sort of higher purpose or be socially or morally redeeming. Why can't you just enjoy (or ignore) it for what it is. It is pulp. It is fun and fluffy and melodramatic. Joss my have delusions of grandeur, but his shows are fun mindless fluff. I mean fer crissakes, Firefly was cowboys in space. Anyone who watches these expecting to be empowered or learn some sort of life lesson needs a smack.

  5. I am not sure why everything needs to have some sort of higher purpose or be socially or morally redeeming. Why can't you just enjoy (or ignore) it for what it is.
    I have no problem with doing this. In fact, the misogyny-obscured-by-a-nearly-transparent-veneer-of-feminism thing is something I'd totally ignore if the people involved didn't bring it up themselves. It's only a significant argument because Joss himself — not to mention Gellar, Dushku and other cast members from other shows — keeps bringing it up. If he wants his shows to be treated and appreciated on the level of mindless fluff irrespective of socially redemptive or higher themes, then he should stop proffering the latter as some kind of legitimation for why his shows are "important" in any way. It only becomes a sticking point because he keeps sticking to this argument to ennoble high-school level tits-and-ass sci-fi.

    It is fun and fluffy and melodramatic.
    Well, my problem with the show is that it wasn't the first one, but it was definitely the second and third. In the absence of enjoying it, I was left to wonder why, so I said so. The acting was poor, and the writing was poor. Without those things going for it, you look to see if it serves anything important, so at least you can say it features mediocrities wandering through a mediocre structure in service of something conceptually excellent. And—surprise!—there's Joss explaining that the show pursues some higher thoughtfulness and empowering expression of different avatars of modern femininity. So that's what's left to argue about.

    Anyone who watches these expecting to be empowered or learn some sort of life lesson needs a smack.
    I find it a lot harder to want to whomp people looking for meaning in their entertainment than to want to whomp people making fluffy entertainments, going to great lengths to join them to some sociological meaning and breaking their own shoulders to pat themselves on the back in the process.

  6. Ha, while I don't agree by any measure with your comments on Eliza's acting, you nail Whedon's double-standards, weaknesses, and fans to perfection.

  7. That's a pretty generous disagreement/agreement ratio, so I'm happy to take it.


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