Escaping the Dollhouse

May 14, 2009

Adam Turl looks at a new television series, Dollhouse, from Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy and Firefly.

"THERE'S NOTHING good or bad but thinking makes it so." That's the world according to Topher Brink (played by Fran Kranz)--the fictional scientist that programs the brains (of only semi-willing subjects) in Joss Whedon's Dollhouse.

Last Friday, Fox aired the season finale of Dollhouse--which stars Eliza Dushku as Echo, one of dozens of brainwashed and programmable human "dolls" or "actives" hired out to the wealthy and powerful by the secretive corporate cabal that runs the "Dollhouse."

The Dollhouse is a gilded cage (that looks like an upscale spa) hidden beneath a high-rise office building in Los Angeles. Actives are assigned names based on the alphabet, such as Alpha and Echo and Whiskey. Their minds are wiped clean in between their assignments--which frequently involve sex (prostitution) and violence (sometimes assassination).

They are nominally "contracted" employees (who have signed over five years of their lives to the Dollhouse). Their new personalities, dreams and talents are controlled by the house (while their real personalities and memories are stored in computer files called "wedges" until their bonded servitude is over). The Dollhouse is illegal and "underground" (figuratively and literally).

Olivia Williams and Eliza Dushku in Joss Whedon's Dollhouse
Olivia Williams and Eliza Dushku in Joss Whedon's Dollhouse

I usually love Joss Whedon's work, and Dollhouse is one of few shows on television that successfully goes beyond mere entertainment--but with a Friday night time slot (a notoriously bad time for new shows) and with a "difficult" underlying theme (to say the least), ratings have been low. The show might be canceled.

WHEDON, A third-generation television writer, is known for his fantastic premises (ranging from fighting demons to spaceship-piloting bandits with hearts of gold) in classics like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and the brilliant web-only Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog--that nevertheless put "real-life human" drama at the center.

That is not to say that his shows are simply soap operas with amazing settings. They have a particular outlook on what it "means" to be human. Whedon is certainly no socialist or radical, but he describes himself a humanist, a feminist and has repeatedly professed his atheism--saying that he doesn't believe in the "sky bully," i.e. God. With Whedon, the old axiom "nothing human is alien to me" comes to mind.

Review: Television

Dollhouse, written and created by Joss Whedon. Starring Eliza Dushku, Harry Lennix, Tahmoh Penikett, Fran Kranz and Alan Tudyk. First season finale aired May 8 on Fox.

His shows are often unique because the viewer is led to understand and, on occasion, empathize with the "bad guys" and because Whedon's "heroes" sometimes make horrible mistakes. In other words, his characters act like real people who develop and change due to their actual circumstances (however fantastic these may be).

This is refreshing with a "popular culture" where "bad guys" are often one-dimensional cartoons and where the "good guys" are largely infallible and unflappable.

In Buffy, Angel is a vampire with a "soul" trying to make up for his past crimes. In Buffy's sixth season, Willow (Buffy's friend and a powerful "witch") becomes so distraught when her girlfriend Tara is murdered that she tries to destroy the world. Some of the worst villains in Firefly are flesh-eating "reevers"--but in Whedon's film adaptation of the show, Serenity, we learn that they were created in a botched government experiment in behavioral control. They become victims instead of villains.

Dollhouse takes this theme farther. As the "dolls" are reprogrammed with new personalities and memories, every week the question is: who are these characters really? In particular, this is the case with Dushku's character Echo (her real name is Caroline before she becomes a "doll"). The dolls are victims of the Dollhouse and, at the same time, its pre-programmed defenders.

Whedon got inspiration for the show from an episode of This American Life. "Guys had found a way to block a memory stream on mice," Whedon recalls, and "got flooded with letters from people begging them to be test subjects, because they were like, 'I don't want to remember my life. Something bad happened,' or 'I want to cut out something.'"

Many of the more recurring characters in the show are the corporate managers of the Dollhouse. What they are doing is clearly wrong, but they are depicted like real people, more or less middle management in a global conspiracy of "dollhouses" from Los Angeles to Tokyo to London.

Paul Ballard (played by Tahmoh Panikett) is a suspended FBI agent who is trying to root out the Dollhouse and rescue Caroline, but ends up agreeing to work for the Dollhouse in a deal to free one of the actives.

"The good and evil is kind of the point," Whedon told, "the relativity of both and our assumptions about what's evil is something we want to explore all the time. The Dollhouse is by definition kinda sketchy. And very illegal."

This is not to say that Whedon never takes sides--and his ideas obviously tend toward the liberal and progressive. His earlier shows demonstrate this more clearly.

For example, in one episode of Buffy, the "slayer" is sucked into a demonic sweatshop dimension (until she leads a rebellion to free those inside). In Firefly, two principal characters are veterans of the defeated war for independence from the supposedly "civilized" Alliance.

In the first season of Angel, the show makes the case for rehabilitation instead of punishment when the renegade vampire slayer Faith (also played by Dushku) tries to kill Angel. In fact, the main enemy in Angel is an "evil" corporate law firm, Wolfram and Hart.

Dollhouse also takes sides--but not enough. Every episode is downright eerie--and it couldn't be otherwise given that it is in no small part about the commodification of personality itself. Actives are essentially bullied into signing away their lives. As Whedon describes it, "the question of whether they've actually volunteered or not is obviously somewhat dicey. And as we'll begin to learn, every Active has a different backstory."

Some are former prisoners or victims of different tragedies.

WHEDON'S SELF-DESCRIBED feminism also permeates Dollhouse--as it has in his previous work.

In 2006, Whedon won an award from Equality Now for his positive depictions of women. In his speech accepting the award he argued that "the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance, and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and woman who's confronted with it."

Feminist ideas showed early on in his career when he worked as a writer on Roseanne--a show that presented working-class people and working-class women as actual human beings. Part of his logic behind Buffy was to invert the Hollywood formula of "the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie." Instead of a victim, she is the super-hero able to protect and defend others.

As Whedon recalled: "I started out with [the idea of] 'Martha the Immortal Waitress.' The idea of somebody that nobody would take account of, who just had more power than was imaginable."

Similar themes--including the power of the supposedly weak to fight back--cross through his other shows. In the first season of Angel, the heroes essentially abort a series of unwanted demonic pregnancies (using magic). In Firefly, the show's characters defend women in a brothel from a misogynist warlord (and fight alongside them).

The feminism is there in Dollhouse--although it is more problematic. Not all the dolls in Dollhouse are women--but many are (and it likely isn't an accident that it shares a similar name with Henrik Ibsen's play, A Doll's House).

In the second episode of Dollhouse, Echo is hired out to a psychopathic multimillionaire who hunts her in the woods (until she kills him). In another episode, one of the Dollhouse "handlers" is killed (by the Dollhouse brass) when he sexually abuses one of the dolls. Throughout the show, Ballard's motivations for "saving the girl" (Caroline/Echo) are called into question.

But the series suffers because Whedon doesn't clearly condemn the prostitution implicit in the fabric of the dollhouse (not unlike far too many later-day "feminists" who wrongly believe there is something "empowering" about prostitution). Whedon doesn't go that far, but his ambivalence about the "world's oldest profession" is a weakness in the makeup of the show.

REGARDLESS, EMPATHY, liberalism and feminism aren't the only reasons why Whedon's shows are so good. They are (usually) genuinely good stories--using "classic" plot devices (cliffhangers, "the end of the world," criminal capers, etc.) as well as groundbreaking new ones--where the fantastic reinforces the mundane.

For example, Buffy won an award for the fourth season episode "Hush." In "Hush," for 35 minutes there is no spoken dialogue (a demon has stolen everyone's voices) but the silence brilliantly underscores the "real" conflicts of the characters.

In Dollhouse, at its best, the twists and turns of plot underline the larger questions the show raises about control and individuality.

In the season finale, an escaped (and homicidal) doll, Alpha (brilliantly played by Alan Tudyk) kidnaps Echo. Alpha was accidentally given 48 personalities at once and considers himself a sort of ubermensch. However, his homicidal impulses began before the Dollhouse accident--raising the question of how much control the Dollhouse really has over the minds of its actives.

Echo is the would-be hero of the show. Throughout the season, she remembers things she is not supposed to--engagements, skills and memories that were supposed to have been wiped from her mind.

Dollhouse's biggest problem (politically, artistically and in getting viewers to tune in each week) is also what makes it interesting--the identity crisis of its characters.

Part of what made Firefly, Buffy and Angel compelling was that viewers loved the characters and identified with them, warts and all. They were trapped in conditions often beyond their control, trying to do their best, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding (much like real life).

Whedon has said that "Echo is a much more complicated character by virtue of being hardly a character, and the premise itself is designed to be kind of distancing."

But that could be a fatal flaw. It may be that the lack of control (and the limited ability to fight back) that Echo and the other dolls have is too apocalyptic--and the line between so-called "good" and "evil" too blurred to be useful as either an artistic or political device.

By way of contrast, in Buffy, Angel and Firefly, you often understood why people did the wrong thing--but they could only find hope by switching sides and trying to make the world better. By extension, viewers could conclude that they too could find hope by picking the right side--whatever tragedies, weaknesses or failures they had endured.

In these series, even large numbers of people joined together to fight back--as in the finale of Buffy season three, when Buffy's graduating class unites to defeat the town's newly transformed demonic mayor.

Dollhouse should be renewed--and folks should watch it. For all Whedon's wild plots, his stories are some of the few on television that really resemble the complications and conflict of life as it is actually lived. But here's to hoping that as the show progresses, its characters will start picking sides--and ultimately that they "burn" the Dollhouse to the ground.

That's what Buffy would do. "Martha the Immortal Waitress" is nobody's slave.

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