Saturday, April 11, 2009

'Dollhouse' Update: Still Misogynistic, Fanboyist, Shitty

A funny thing happened after the first episode of Dollhouse generated mostly lukewarm or negative reviews. Series creator Joss Whedon and the show's stars made the rounds pushing the same message: "Wait until episode six." It was an interesting sales pitch: if you think this is shitty, watch five more episodes! But the question it didn't answer was, "Why would you make a show that you think doesn't give the viewer a reason to watch for its first five hours?"

As I said in my earlier review, my friend Robert quipped that Joss Whedon is the Kevin Smith of television. Like Smith, Whedon enjoys no shortage of rabid internet fanboys willing to snap their spines in two to apologize for hackneyed plotting, stilted stylized dialogue, sexual immaturity and one-dimensional characters. True to form, fanboy apologists were quick to note that the less-exciting first five episodes were demanded by FOX: it wasn't Joss' fault! Joss couldn't jump into his show's mythology without placating network suits who wanted more stand-alone episodes.

Which makes some sense: the episodes were shitty compared to episode six because they set out to do something the show wasn't intended to do. What that doesn't explain, though, is why the episodes themselves were shitty for what they were. Hey, fine, it's one thing to have them be substandard compared to the series' overall goals and themes. But if you have to achieve substandard goals, presumably your talent will make you rise above lowered expectations instead of failing to meet them. What's ultimately sad about Dollhouse isn't that its creator had to create conceptually poor shows to please a bunch of suits, it's that he sucked at it.

The second episode perfectly summarizes these problems. In it, "Echo" goes on assignment to play the perfect date for a young outdoorsman. Again, the implications of unconscious manipulation, prostitution and organized rape get glossed over entirely, foregoing anything like social conscience, questions about what our desires say about us or examinations of how women are still objectified in our society. Instead, the entire episode is the thousandth riff on "The Most Dangerous Game," a story more tired, abused and worn out than (presumably) the crotches of all the Dollhouse "actives." The only redeeming factor to the episode was a better understanding of the relationship between Echo and her handler Boyd Langton, which accounted for maybe five minutes of running time that could have been shoehorned into any better plot, the definition of which is "virtually anything else."

Indeed, the seventh episode suffers the same plot problems and gives the lie to Whedon's exhortation that fans stick around for the sixth episode for things to get going. In it, a mysterious gas disinhibits everyone, making adults act like impetuous children or excitable drunks. Despite the opportunity to reveal deeper character motives, the episode passed all that up for unfunny "look how scared/immature everyone is!" gags. It didn't help that virtually every sci-fi show does an episode like this, with the classic example being the original Star Trek episode, "The Naked Time," where Sulu ran around the ship topless and swishing a sword around. It was another derivative riff on a tired theme that presented instantly disposable content.

But what about the episodes the show's creators want to be writing? What's it like firing on all cylinders? The answer is: pretty much exactly the same as when it's not. The same problems of stilted dialogue, gimmicky plotting and wooden acting remain.

Whedon's ear is still famously tin for anyone who isn't a precociously over-intelligent teen. The serious adults speak in seriously obvious expository dialogue, asking each other helpful questions about the things they do for a living, as if they themselves just realized where it was they've been working for months or years. Meanwhile, everyone occasionally indulges in in- or out-of-character ironical uptalking zingers or byzantine over-description. Whedon obviously has always had trouble thinking of a single adjective when he could link a sentence together with hyphens or put a dozen words inside quotation marks and follow it with a noun, a hyphen and the word "thing." At some point in every episode, at least one character will do this. You could call it the "Whedon theory of verbal imprecision and having to, like, put things together while talking with your hands" speech-thing.

Gimmicky plotting abounds, too. Because it's a Joss Whedon show, everyone knows kung fu or something like advanced hand-to-hand combat. Also, because it's a Whedon show, people who have important personal messages for other people can only deliver them after engaging in five minutes of clock-eating kung fu. And also, because it's a Whedon show, people tenderly hook up with each other after about five minutes for no discernible reason. 

On this last matter, in the same episode in which Special Agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) gets an important message from Echo after they beat the crap out of each other with kung fu for five minutes, he also starts sleeping with his across-the-hall neighbor out of the blue, despite her being gap-toothed, a little meaty, not really that facially pretty and a needy weirdo who flings her door open every time she hears him in the hallway. She's the female version of Rick Moranis's Louis Tully character in Ghostbusters. Usually, she hears Ballard outside and opens the door to inexplicably reveal her holding up a giant pyrex baking dish of fresh-from-the-oven Italian food, which she then tries to foist on him. Neither her looks nor her neediness would really be a dealbreaker for anyone, but the two combined make for a fatally improbable combination. Only a smokingly hot woman would make a legitimately handsome dude like Ballard overlook her generally creepy/clingy/obsessive neediness, so it's a wonder why a switch gets flipped in his brain, sending him to bed with her and overlooking the warning signs that she's basically a bucket of crazy. The show's writers try to legitimize this decision by having the neighbor woman be an "active" and thus ideally designed to appeal to Ballard's need to rescue people, but it's a stretch. Men are men, and crazy is crazy.

Maybe the acting is to blame, because there's an awful lot of bad cases of that going around. The actress playing the neighbor doesn't hit vulnerability marks so much as disturbing over-investment. And no matter how sweetly genuine it might be, it doesn't play well with the characterization Penikett is obliged to work with. Every actor at some point struggles with how to bring a character to life. In acting classes, instructors sometimes encourage students to try to write lists or summaries that describe how they understand the character and how they'd anticipate the character reacting to certain events or situations. The idea is to try to extrapolate a whole person from the text and create an intimacy with him that can be applied organically to extra-textual situations. Yet one gets the sense that Penikett might have rightly written down a summary of Paul Ballard thus:
Things About Which I Am Completely Earnest
Everything. I am completely earnest about everything.

When I go to the gas station, I always bring a quarter and pull my car over to the air pump and check my tires' pressure. Saving gasoline via proper tire pressure is one of my responsibilities as a citizen during the Global War on Terror (hereafter: "GWOT"—remember this!!!). It's also fun when the pressure gauge comes shooting out.

When the guy at the tollbooth asks how I'm doing today, I always think about it and reply as honestly as possible. But not for more than 15 seconds. There are people in line behind me! (Try to think of what the tollbooth guy's name is. He would appreciate this. This is important!)

Every time I'm at a restaurant and a waitress asks me what I want, it's a revelation. "I want a reuben," I tell her, and I realize it's true. I do want a reuben. Then I look her in the eye and say, "Yes. Yes. That is what I want. A reuben will satisfy my wants. Bring me one, please. If you do, you will be bringing me completion." (Later, to sandwich:) "You. You complete me."
Penikett comes off like a decent practitioner of his craft, but he's given little more to do than what's listed above. There are only so many times he can arrange his tongue inside his mouth, exhale decisively through his nose and then steel his jaw at something. The paucity of opportunities for him wouldn't be much of a blow if he were wandering through an acting clinic, but he's not. As said in the earlier review, only Olivia Williams (as Adelle DeWitt), Harry J. Lennix (as Boyd Langton) and Reed Diamond (as Laurence Dominic) are really bringing much to the table. Even worse, the show just effectively killed off Diamond's character, reducing its acting power by 25% and getting rid of one of the only truly ambiguous performances/personae available.

Even a cast that didn't hit a home run every time they got to bat would be pretty tolerable if there weren't prominent members stinking up the joint. A couple people could be singled out on the latter front, but the most striking example is Echo's fellow active Sierra, played by Dichen Lachman.

Lachman is probably a nice person, and I'm probably a dick for saying this, but there's a kind of unwritten rule about acting, and that is that you can either be hot or be good, but you can't be neither. In her defense, Whedon's writing for her doesn't come anywhere close to generous in terms of multi-dimensionality, and he's proven himself a terrible director of his own content many times over. But it's hard to shake the sense that a better actor could do more with the less that Lachman is handed. Instead, she slackjaws and stonefaces her way through scenes, with a head-down sullenness that looks identical to the evil little girl in the video in The Ring, only Lachman's hair isn't so long that you can't see her head. Which, as I said, isn't all that great to look at. Consider:

I'm loath to even mention this, because it unavoidably reminds me of a species of person online called The Internet Male. You've probably run into him by accident once or twice. He's the guy who wanders into a discussion about a movie and, apropos of nothing, says something like, "I wouldn't even fuck Natalie Portman with YOUR dick. Have you even looked at her chin?" He's an ass, a moron, a blowhard. He writes off legitimately beautiful women that meet pretty much all cultural criteria of attractiveness because of minute or barely detectable flaws. Invariably, if you can see a picture of this person, he's so objectively horrifying to look at that you wonder if he could score a pity crotch-rub from the local bar's beer slut. The problem with him is that he makes everyone else's aesthetic judgments suspect just because of his annoying ubiquity in complaint about any woman. (For the record, Natalie Portman is ridiculously gorgeous.)

The thing is, sometimes people in movies and TV are ugly. But at this point, you need to frontload comments about them with sentence after sentence of caveats. You have to say, "Now, I don't usually agree with this line of thinking, but...." Unfortunately, all that preface starts to sound hollow if you read enough of it. It's like the phrase, "Now, I'm not racist, but..." where you know that 99% of the time what follows the "but" probably is actually racist. No matter how I or anyone else says, "Look, I'm not an Internet Male, but..." it won't really matter how we approach the conclusion; all people will see is someone declaiming that a person paid thousands (if not millions) of dollars to be visually appealing to the most people possible is actually unappealing.

But I don't think I'm off-base in really not digging the experience of looking at Dichen Lachman (or, to put that in Whedonese, "the Dichen-Lachman-looking-at-experience thing"). When she doesn't have a personality imprint, she's supposed to be a vacuous shell of a person, but even after getting a personality, her acting choices almost always involve tilting her head downward, looking forward glassily and letting her mouth hang open like her brain has simply been put on hold. That downward gaze heightens her angularity and makes her head look like a shovel. Add the heavy liquid eyeliner, and it's like watching a goth girl emerge from a car accident where she got cranial trauma.

What makes it a giant pain in the ass to experience is the knowledge that this is probably supposed to be irresistibly hot to fanboys. People who dig sci-fi, Whedon shows and the internet already have some sort of weirdly anti-western recessive gene that makes them love anything asian and think AZN GRLFRNDZ are totally kawaii! Which isn't wrong — tons of asian women, like tons of causasian or black or hispanic women are deliciously good-looking — it's just an exploitive stereotypical niche enthusiasm. Add the fact that she's alarmingly thin, coated in eyeliner, sullen and moody and someone who knows kung fu, and she's an obvious sop to this emotionally stunted niche/genre audience. 

The purpose behind her casting, look and character couldn't be more transparent unless she directly addressed the camera and said, "I love anal, obesity and watching men play video games. I also love taking care of people. Doing laundry, chores, running errands. I could do all this in a maid costume. Without panties. So, you know, it'd be easier for me to do anal. With you. The fat one."

And maybe that's fine. Lachman and the Sierra character summarize perfectly everything that Dollhouse is and the limited thing it wants to be. It's fanboy schlock for fanboys. It's not about subtle acting, because it's not about subtle plots with subtle dialogue or subtle characterization. It's derivative fan-service people acting out fan-service characters in fan-service plots in a fan-service story. You pick a girl who looks like an internet asian stereotype to play a mentally vacant kung fu-knowing, lingerie-wearing whore, because the people who are going to watch the show are going to sport fervid erections at the thought of their perfect misogynistic ideation come to life on the TV screen. You write contrived "witty" dialogue because the people who watch it are the sort of people who think conversation is something that happens when two people contrive to quote lines from pop culture at each other.

Dollhouse is a perversely brilliant show because it manages to be everything the broken and unappealing people who will watch it slavishly and by default need it to be. The core audience of Dollhouse are exactly the sort of people who, if they had any money at all, would patronize it regularly if it were a real service, which is why they'll patronize it so long as it's on the air. It's wish fulfillment in every way short of being a legitimate, corporeal option. Everything else about it — the acting, the writing, the thinking behind it — are secondary, which is why it'll be difficult for it to become something other than shitty to the majority of viewers. Because traipsing into any appeal to mainstream human beings unavoidably means alienating the core viewership who will tolerate any creative shortcomings so long as it cleaves to its current sexually creepy and socially one-dimensional fan-service.


  1. You know, as much as I know that Dollhouse is a pathetic excuse for a sci-fi television show...I kind of want to watch it just so I can see how alarmingly fetishist it is for myself.

    But then I think about all the other things I could be doing with my life in that time frame.

    BTW - great post. Loved it.

  2. Thanks, Melissa!

    All the episodes are on Hulu, so you could kill 42 minutes and no more while checking it out.

    Truth be told, I'm probably flogging the fetishistic garbage a little more than it deserves, but I suppose a sensitivity to that is the byproduct of going to a pointy-headed ivory tower liberal arts college where everyone said things like "heteronormative" and "patriarchy" with a straight face. In that case, the severity of the criticism might be unwarranted, but I still think the existence of the content is enough.

    The thing is, I accept that you've got to get ratings, and hot ladies will help you get that. Especially hot ladies who know kung fu. It jacks in to an elemental fandom found all over the internet. But if all you do is fan service, you'll never really create anything. My friend Robert was pointing this out, and I think he's on to something. If you content really is just responsive to the desires of an internet fanbase, you're never going to create any art, just this transiently satisfying thing to a subset of people. And it doesn't have to be like that; tweaking it for the better is really simple.

    For instance, at the end of the first episode, we see this mysterious character watch a video of Echo being interviewed at college. She's a young, happy woman with hopes and ambitions and an obvious wellspring of empathy. But it only works as a "twist" because we know that the person watching the video is supposedly "Alpha," a former doll whose brain gradually "learned" all the information downloaded into his head, making him hyperintelligent, extremely talented and deadly.

    Unfortunately, that's it. That's the twist. Alpha is out there, and he's watching. That's a twist that could have been delivered in the last five seconds of the show, instead of to a couple minutes of Echo video, voiceover and panning around an apartment. What they could have done, what might have been heavy-handed but would have been pretty great nonetheless, was begin showing the old video of her in college, then switch to footage of her getting dolled up for another job while the college voiceover continues. Spend a minute or two jumping back and forth between the two: her in college; her in her tech brothel. Finally, in the last 30 seconds or so, you do the voiceover of her talking about her hopes and dreams while on the screen some obese stockbroker sits in a chair, drinking scotch, watching her do a catholic schoolgirl striptease with a disgustingly enthusiastic expression on her face. Then you cut back to the sincere and innocent pleasure of her on the videotape, thinking about her future. Then you pan down to what's obviously "Alpha" putting together another anonymous message for Agent Ballard. Boom, boom, boom. You get your Alpha twist, you get the true nature of the Dollhouse exposed at the end, and you throw out some very obvious serious shit.

    That's the thing: the show doesn't have to have a "message" every episode or even every other episode or any more than four or five times per season. The point is, right now it doesn't have one at all. Without one, all that comes through is the gimmickry and the fan-service. All it needs is a token bone, here or there, thrown in the direction of criticism of the exploitation of women, sexual commerce, marginalization, whatever. Then the rest isn't so bad. Sure, there's some goofy or immature BS in there, but it makes sure you know that its heart lies in something more permanent and caring.

    I dunno. I wrote that whole post while pretty drunk, and I'm watching a movie while writing this, so maybe all this is bullshit.

  3. While Joss Whedon has always dealt in cheesecake feminism and silly, heavy-handed writing, he was usually saved by the pure entertainment value of his shows. The problem with Dollhouse was he forgot to make it even a little bit entertaining, so all that was left were his creepy flaws.

  4. That's probably a more efficient way of putting all this. I'm tempted to suggest that maybe part of its failure has to do with his recycling so many of these tropes again — that if he hadn't had three shows with thin girls who knew kung fu that maybe people would have been more excited by and tolerant of this one, that basically he wore out his own welcome with previous moderate success. At the same time, though, I want to back away from making any sort of comment like this, because it comes close to my rehabilitating someone who I think is creatively and socially a bit of a cretin.

    Then again, I also kind of feel like he took on too much meaning for his pastiche talent to be able to handle. Even if he'd made the Dollhouse topic entertaining, I think it might have been too profoundly weird and upsetting to think about. Even with a lot of entertainment, it's still a lot of comprehensive violation.

    I think it's funny that, much as Whedon would have liked, here it is, the show's off the air, and we're still talking about it. Of course, we're talking about how to process and categorize it and its creator's shittiness.

  5. And even as I gave up on Dollhouse pretty quickly because of how uncomfortable and awful it was, I'll probably be sitting there giving his next show a try, just because when things go right (because of or despite him, I'm not sure), his shows can turn out to be a lot of fun.

  6. Yeah *grumbles* I'll be there too. Even with the reprocessing and the nakedly commercial aspects of his shows, the surrounding TV landscape is so conventional that even the little bit of difference is refreshing to try, whether you wind up committing or not.


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