Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Contrarian Fan's View of "Dollhouse"

I suppose it's heresy to say this already: but I really don't like Dollhouse. So far, there's just been nothing really to love.

This isn't a review; it's more a lament. I wanted to like Dollhouse, really I did. I just don't. Visually, it leaves me cold. Conceptually, it leaves me wanting. Stylistically, it leaves me bored. If this is supposed to be the Second (Third?) Coming of Joss Whedon, I think it's not going to happen.

The cast is centered on Eliza Dushku, who is both of the show's greatest strengths and biggest liabilities. Put away those toy pistols, geeks. I'm as big a fan of Her Dushkuness as you are, but I think she's wrong for this. This is an actress who needs to be let loose to bite into a role, not be skating on the thin ice of psyche-swapping. So far, the only time we've seen any aspect of her that demonstrated her inner strength was that pre-imprinting bit in the first episode where she was clearly a bit out of control - while still being completely in control. It was very good, and what she's best at. Everything else has been wasted so far. Hostage negotiator? Outdoorsy chick? Do you want a list of third-tier actresses that could have done those? Why waste Eliza Dushku on those? Worse yet is the fact that her 'default' position is that of a vacuous, wide-eyed "doll." Wow. She is totally wrong for that. I don't buy her as a doll in any way, shape, or form. I think she has too much self-assurance shining through for it to seem realistic, and as bad as I hate to say it, she's not quite talented enough to hide her inner strength and be that empty husk. Very few actresses could do it. But, to me, it seems completely wrong to ask one of the most self-assured actresses working to act in such a contrary fashion as to undermine the entire illusion of the show.

Of the rest of the cast, Olivia Williams is perfect for the show, but seems surrounded by actors who can't quite seem to measure up to her. It's as if they can't find chemistry to work with her. Her fault or theirs? I don't know, but she impresses me more. Reed Diamond is basically playing Reed Diamond. That would have been cool eight or ten years ago, but now...not so much. I can't even be bothered to look up the kid playing the mensch scientist. He annoys me so badly, I was hoping he had died in a flashback. Lose him now. Oh, and fellow Angel fans - did we notice Amy Acker as Dr. Saunders? Oh, you did. Did you care? Oh, I didn't. Another wasted role for another talented actress.

The ones I liked were Tahmoh Penikett as Paul Ballard and Harry Lennix as Boyd Langdon, Echo's handler. I'll freely admit, Tahmoh's probably getting some spillover Helo-love from BSG, but he's just so good. I wanted to more of him and less of Echo, which is very strange, since I'm a very straight male. That means something has gone vastly wrong. Before I digress further, let me say that Lennix is the only part of the show I truly enjoy. His Langdon is complex, intelligent, warm, humane, tough, and so far beyond the rest of the cast he may as well be in another show - which, frankly, is where he appears to be. I don't know much about him, except that he's had a nice long career as a character actor. To me, it's paid off. He's outstanding.

Before I go any farther, I must say that I'm a contrarian Whedon fan. I love Firefly, but I never felt the need to wear a brown coat. I prefer Angel to Buffy, and I do think his patented dialogue occasionally...well...isn't all that. I think he's remarkably talented and infuses sometimes heartless characters with heart and soul, which sets him apart from other TV writers. With Buffy, Whedon brought horror to the 'burbs. With Angel, he peeled back the corrupt skin of corporate America to show the demons underneath (which is probably one of the reasons I preferred that show). With Firefly (and later, Serenity), he gave us an entire created universe, which we adopted as our own second home, surpassing the Federation as many geeks' favorite place in which to play.

With Dollhouse, he has given us...Angel again. Yep, smack back into corporate America. (Or actually, corporate Canada. This show so looks like it was shot on Stargate SG-1 backlots it's not even funny.) The Dollhouse itself looks like a back room of Wolfram & Hart and Paul's offices (or the hallways in which he prowls) could be in the very same building where Angel had his detective agency. Visually, this flops.

And I have to ask: are we supposed to believe that this quasi-corporate-government-hidden-Illumanti-kinda-Dollhouse group thing has its own SWAT team complete with helicopters and mass killings that no one knows about? For some reason, I can buy vampires in the 'burbs and board rooms much easier than I can the way they have set up Reed Diamond's Dirty Couple Dozen. Maybe it could happen, but it's been done badly. It seems wrong.

Even more wrong are the scripts. Writing is one of the hallmarks of Whedon's work; it is what sets him apart. In two episodes, there has been one line that smacked of his pen: (as Echo cocked a pistol and got ready for a fight) "I've got four brothers and none of them are Democrats." Now that's choice Whedon (or Whedon-style work). Dollhouse has given us one line in two episodes. Normally, there's be two lines before the first commercial break.

But it's not all about the lines. It's about the structure and the story, too. In two episodes, we've had a little girl kidnapped (a TV concept that was pretty well played out by the last time Miami Vice did it in 1986) and an Honest-to-God "The Most Dangerous Game" pastiche. And that was played out on in TV and movies by about 1965. Seriously? He wanted to hunt Echo? That was the best you could do? Dear God! That kind of lame episode would normally be tucked into the last six eps of season two. Instead it was frontloaded into the second episode. This can't bode well for what's to come. Oh, and there was a backstory about a psycho fellow doll who killed everyone around him (except Echo, of course) and was Gosh. Does anyone else hear Dark Angel?

The more I think about it, and the more I write, the crankier I get, so I'm going to bring this to a halt. But not until I get in my major complaint:

If we're supposed to think that what the Dollhouse is doing to Echo (and the others) is wrong - by turning them into empty husks for imprinting - then what the hell are they doing selling cheesecake and skin shots of the girl during the commercial breaks?

If you haven't thought about, this may seem weird, but hasn't anyone else noticed that the show seems to be selling Eliza Dushku's skin more than anything else. We get shower shots, and slow pans of her back, and thighs, and other curvy parts. Normally I wouldn't mind.* But, as the audience, we know she's being manipulated and twisted. We should feel some disgust that the producers have opted to use the victim of the manipulation to manipulate the audience into watching the show. I actually found myself feeling a little bit ill everything they went to commercial.

And when I say that I'm not a prude...that may be the understatement of my career.**

Maybe I've thought too much into this; maybe I'm not watching it in the right frame of mind. I'm trying to find something about Dollhouse to like. Aside from presence of out soon-to-be-missed Helo/Paul, and the truly talented Harry Lennix, I really can't do it. With the been-there, done-that visuals, the yawner scripts, the borrowed concepts, the hit-or-miss acting, and that appalling "sell our victim's sexuality during the commercial breaks" concept, I think I'm done.


*Seriously, she's magnificent. I firmly believe that her role in Bring it On probably launched more boys into puberty than any 10-year run of Playboy magazine. Chances are, it's also caused more than a few young women to decide to try the fare on the other side of the buffet.

**I'm not a prude. I've watched shows for years simply because someone is on it. After 8 years, I still don't know what Smallville is about. But I know it brings me the tastiest collection of female yum-yum on TV. Strong women, too. If they wanted to show Erica Durance's skin during the commercial breaks, I'd be okay with it, because she is not set up as a victim.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Nick. I've been trying to put my finger on what was bugging me about the show, and you nailed it. Selling a show about a woman violated with sexual images of said woman.

    Not cool, no matter how tasty the woman.