Tuesday, May 10, 2011

TV – Dollhouse (2009 - 2010)

Dollhouse is the most recent TV show that Joss Whedon has had on the air.  His prior shows were Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly.  Please see my separate posts on those.

Dollhouse had a curious history.  It appeared on FOX, of all places.  This was the network that had destroyed Whedon’s last show – Firefly.  The network took control of Dollhouse away from Whedon for a while in the first season, until they had to admit that their monkeying with it was not giving the results they wanted.  They turned control back over to Whedon and he spent the rest of the first season’s thirteen episodes trying to get the show back on track.  By then the ratings were so low that everyone expected FOX to cancel it.  They actually renewed it for thirteen more episodes, let Whedon run it the way he wanted, and the result was a great season of television.  By then it was too late, though.  The ratings never recovered and the show was cancelled.

No one could understand why Whedon would ever work with FOX again after what they had done to him and his show Firefly.  They had aired the show Friday nights, when few people watch TV.  They had refused to air Firefly’s two hour pilot which kicked off the show.  And they aired the episodes out of order so that they made no sense from week to week. 

With that kind of history behind them apparently neither Whedon nor FOX had learned anything.  Whedon went back to FOX, maybe thinking they had learned their lesson.  They had, but not the one that Whedon wanted.  With Dollhouse they had learned to not let him shoot the pilot before deciding not to air it.  This time they headed him off and didn’t even let him film the pilot.  When they did put the show on TV, guess what night they aired it?  That’s right – Fridays.  They even aired at least two of the episodes out of order, too.  So much for learning their lessons.

In the case of Dollhouse, the lesson they must have “learned” is that airing a show on Fridays, with no pilot, and with the episodes out of order, only failed because they let Whedon run things.  This time around they took control of Dollhouse, threw away Whedon’s concept for the show, and tried to turn it into a weird version of the 1970’s show Fantasy Island.  Halfway into the thirteen episode run they gave up and admitted that this still wasn’t working.  They gave the show back to Whedon and he took it back towards his original concept for it.

So what was that concept?  The “Dollhouse” is a company that will provide you with a man or woman who is so completely who you need that they are not acting.  These are limited engagements and they can be a dead spouse, a lost love, a best friend, an action hero, a secret agent, a hostage negotiator, or yes, even a lover.  These people have all the necessary memories and skills implanted into their brains by the scientists at the Dollhouse.  They literally are each of these people, as far as they know.  When each assignment is done, the “dolls” brains are wiped and they are left in a childlike, innocent state until their next assignment.

Whedon’s concept was to focus on the Dollhouse itself.  There’s something dark about what they are doing.  Who are the people running it?  What is their agenda?  How do they get people to agree to be dolls?  Who are the people hiring them?  He had an FBI agent attempting to investigate all of this and the show concentrated on the mysteries surrounding them.

FOX didn’t like this concept.  They thought that if the show instead focused on an “assignment of the week” concept it would be better.  In this view each week would not relate to any other week.  A “doll” would have fun adventures as a white water rafter, detective, doctor, etc.  Just like Fantasy Island they would wink and nudge that sometimes there was sex involved.  The problem with this concept is that it left viewers with no characters to form an attachment to.  If you have completely different people every week, most viewers lose interest.  Yes, the same actors and actresses are on the show every week, but they are either a new person, or they are in their “doll” personas and have little personality.

Whedon’s script for the pilot FOX refused to film made its way onto the Internet and I read it.  It was great.  It had all kinds of intrigue and at least one oh my god moment in it.  While reading this you could see where Whedon had still been working little pieces of it into the episodes here and there as he could fit them.  When he was finally given back control of the show, rather than do a ninety degree turn, he slowly started shifting it more into the inner workings of the Dollhouse.  He called into question the morality of what the Dollhouse was doing with its dolls.

Twelve episodes had been produced and aired and the ratings never recovered from where FOX’s messing up had put them.  Since there had been a contract for thirteen episodes, and since the pilot was never shot, Whedon got them to agree to let him produce an episode for the DVD release.  He shot it on HD cameras instead of film, and did it for about half the cost of a regular episode.  Fans of the show loved the episode when they got a chance to see it.  It took place ten years in the future and it focused on the effect the Dollhouse’s technology had had on society.

Whedon’s agenda in shooting this episode was not just to do it for the fans.  He was also showing the network his ideas for where the show could go, and that he could shoot it on a reduced budget.  Whether it was those things, or whether FOX finally admitted they made a mistake by canceling Firefly too soon, they decided to bring Dollhouse back for a second season.

While the first season was quite jumbled, this season was great.  Whedon started developing the persona of the main doll character, Echo, played by Eliza Dushku.  For some reason when she was getting wiped after assignments, she was still retaining the memories and skills that had been given to her.  She keeps this a secret and starts plotting to bring down the Dollhouse.

The show had an ensemble cast.  Viewers of Whedon’s other shows, and of the newer Battlestar Galactica show, will recognize some of the regulars and guest stars.  Dushku had played Faith on both Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BtVS) and on Angel, so she had a long track record with Whedon.  Other alumni of his were Amy Acker from Angel, Alexis Denisof from BtVS and Angel., Summer Glau from Firefly and Serenity (2005), Alan Tudyk from Firefly and Serenity (2005),  Felecia Day from BtVS and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and Maurissa Tancharoen from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.

Actors from Battlestar Galactica included Tahmoh Penikett (Helo), who was a regular as the FBI agent investigating the Dollhouse.  Guest stars included Jamie Bamber (Apollo) and Michael Hogan (Colonel Tigh.)

Other Dollhouse cast members included Harry Lennix (Matrix Reloaded, Matrix Revolutions), Fran Kranz (Donnie Darko), Enver Gjokaj (Eagle Eye), Dichen Lachman (Neighbours), Olivia Williams (Rushmore, The Sixth Sense), Reed Diamond (Journeyman, 24), Liza Lapira (Dexter, NCIS), and newcomer Miracle Laurie.

I want to single out Enver Gjokaj’s work on the show.  As one of the “dolls” he was called upon to play many different roles.  Often these included different accents, body language, etc.  He even had to play a girl in a man’s body at one point.  He knocked all of these out of the park.  My favorite role of his, though, is where he was playing one of the other characters on the show.  The geeky, hyper mad-scientist who loaded the dolls’ brains had to leave the Dollhouse for something, so he programmed his consciousness into the doll played by Enver Gjokaj.  This meant there was basically two of him running around.  Gjokaj absolutely nailed all the mannerisms and even the voice of the other character.  People thought that the original actor (Fran Kranz) had actually dubbed all the dialogue for Gjokaj’s character because he sounded so much like him.  Kranz didn’t, though.  It was all Gjokaj.

I would give the first season three stars.  Even with FOX messing with it, Whedon was able to get it back on track.  I would give the second season five stars.  It was everything you would expect from a Whedon show.  That means they would average out to a four star rating overall.

If you liked any of Whedon’s other shows then you should definitely watch this one.  Stick with it through the parts where FOX was messing with it and it definitely improves.  I didn’t watch the second season for quite some time, but when I finally did I was glad I had.  If you have never watched any of Whedon’s other shows, then give this one a try.  You might just end up liking it.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

      Season One            Season One                 Season Two           Season Two
           DVD                      Blu-ray                         DVD                      Blu-ray

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