Tuesday, December 22, 2009

On Dollhouse

Matt Yglesias is unsympathetic to Joss Whedon. He's right that cable is a better venue for him. But while Firefly was indeed a great show, Dollhouse is failing because it isn't a great show. It has gotten pretty good at times (now is one of those times), and putting the show in the 8 p.m. Friday "death slot" didn't really give it much of a chance, but ultimately Whedon has to shoulder the blame for a fundamental lack of vision pertaining to the show. It's been clear for some time that the show is at its best when its focus is on advancing the arcs at a breakneck pace. The past handful of episodes have been astonishingly good, some of the most densely packed and exciting television of the past few years. Conversely, the show is virtually unwatchable when anything else is going on. Much of the show's episodes have been "engagement of the week" shows in which some of the dolls go on (usually boring) adventures, while we spend time exploring the general ickiness of the idea of the Dollhouse.

The problem here is that that sort of thing is more scary when it's hinted at or implied, rather than rhetorically debated by characters in the show. And the show has often tried to have it both ways in wanting to show the monstrosity of the Dollhouse while trying to present us with sympathetic characters who happen to work there. Few television shows present intensely unlikeable people in the roles we're supposed to like--The Sopranos comes to mind--but there is a reason for this. Who wants to watch a show full of bad people? If you're going to try to do this, you're going to need something above and beyond to make people like it (such as a piercing look into American capitalism and family at the dawn of the millennium, like the Sopranos). And as it turns out, Whedon doesn't really have the chops to make something like this work, as his talents lend themselves to either creating likeable, flawed, human characters or completely evil bad guys. His best bad guy was The Operative in Serenity, and even he was a little fuzzy in terms of characterization.

All of these are, fundamentally, conceptual decisions that Whedon made at the show's inception and has since tried to backtrack, which has led to more than a little storytelling whiplash. The show has, at times, attempted to be a queasy weekly show about prostitution, an exploration of situational ethics and tabula rasa, an undercover show, a post-apocalyptic thriller, a show about an escaped active, a show about slavery and abuse, and a show about political corruption and upheaval. In this season, the show has been going in so many different directions that it's almost as though Whedon has given up trying to establish any sort of consistent tone or message, and it's all the more staggering considering he's had just north of 20 episodes in which to do all this. The show would have been immeasurably better had he just picked a show to do instead of radically changing the tone of the show to something he's not good at on a near-weekly basis. It has, however, had some good plotting recently and seems to have found its storytelling groove. I suppose this isn't much different from the normal shakedown period for most shows, but since Whedon's previous series was pretty much consistent and awesome right out of the box, it's tempting to want to think he's got a golden arm. Of course he doesn't. This said, Dollhouse is still much, much better than Studio 60, a real flub from a great storyteller.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.