Complexities of Dollhouse
May 10, 2009

Most of my favourite books are character-driven books. They have to have a good plot, but it's the character that drives everything for me. The same with television and movies. Oh sure, I'll turn on a rather empty movie or show for background noise whilst I'm drawing ... or working in Photoshop - but it's not something I pay close attention to.

And, I've realized, besides the character-driven aspect, I want a plot that is rich. One that I can't really guess from 200 pages out or from the first three minutes of the show. I will admit I enjoyed the TV show The Pretender - not for its wretched Scooby Doo plots (where the first person the Scooby gang sees is generally the bad guy) - I found the show fascinating for the overall story. Who was Jarod really? Why was he snatched? Would he find his answers? Could he bring down the Center and save Sydney and Miss Parker? How can he claim to be so moral when he's constantly lying about who he is? What is the back story of the Center? of Miss Parker?

The basic weekly plot was a funny li'l side benefit. Nothing to concentrate hard on, but just an interesting side note on the way to delivering the larger story. It was often amusing, funny, touching ... and always revealing about Jarod's real self. It was not the best-written show ever, but I found the premise fascinating and the actors all did a splendid job, I thought.

Now with all of that said, I didn't watch more than a handful of episodes of Lost. It does seem like the show is character-driven. There is in over-arching, series-encompassing plot rather than each episode being a "one-off," a self-enclosed entity. I'm not positive why Lost didn't capture my attention and, in fact, wound up irritating the crap out of me. Perhaps too many characters and not enough hints/clues/info about each? That's the most likely answer - there were too many people and I couldn't focus enough on someone to become invested in. The ending of the few early episodes I saw felt like cheats to me. When I hear co-workers talking about the overall plot now, it does sound like an interesting show ... maybe I'll give it another try and Netflix it later on. But it seemed too spread out and too slow to capture my attention.

On the other hand, Dollhouse captured my attention from the get-go. I had one major character to concentrate on - Echo/Caroline - and two semi-major characters: her handler, Boyd, and the FBI agent who is obsessed with this mysterious dollhouse organization. Then there's two more slightly less air-time (at least at the beginning of the show) characters that I'm fascinated by: Topher and Dr. Saunders. To a lesser extent, I'm somewhat interested in the "madame" of the show as Cowboy Pete called her - and he's right about that. As the show has progressed, I have become much more invested in her character than I ever thought I would.

For those who haven't watched the show, let me explain the concept very quickly: The Dollhouse is a "company" which has developed a way to take your memories and personality and place all of that on a hard drive (a wedge). They can then wipe your brain clean, essentially, and imprint you with a new personality and new memories. It might be a composite of several people - the skills of a bank robber, the law knowledge of a cop, the computer skills of a genius and the empathy of a really good nurse. Or, it might be the straight-up personality, knowledge, skills and memories of a single person.

The "actives," as they call their unwitting operatives, have little personality when they are not actually on an assignment. They are docile half-wits who do what they're told. It's only after they've received a "treatment" to turn them into a full-fledged personality that they "come to life" - as someone other than their "true" selves.

Okay, I have to admit, the concept alone completely fascinates me. Some unscrupulous company is erasing people? Who the hell is going to volunteer for shit like this, it's insane to let yourself be wiped, right? But think of those times in your teens or twenties when something wretched had happened and you just wanted to disappear. Or you thought that if you just had x amount of money, you could get through this and start over, better. In a moment of desperation, the thought of disappearing for 5 years and then "waking up" with 5 years of damn good salary and not having had to spend anything on apartment rent or car payments or well, even food, might sound like a good idea. Momentarily. After all, you're not responsible for anything you do during those 5 years, because it's not really you doing it. And you won't remember any of it anyway. And you'll be through the bad patch with a nice sum of cash. It's kind of like hitting fast forward on a bad patch of your life, right?

Naturally, the situation is more complex than that, but I can easily see how at 22 I might have found that an attractive option in a moment of weakness or desperation. Hell, I can see where a 30something or a 40 something might find that an attractive option after the love of their life dies ... or a traumatic divorce. There are circumstances which make most people wish for a fast-forward and a clean start.

And, from the first aired episode of Dollhouse, we get the idea that at least the main active we'll be watching through this series, Echo, is not quite as "wiped clean" as Topher (the genius tech who runs the wiping and imprinting technology) thinks. There are moments in every episode where we see flashes of Echo's core self, Caroline, coming to the surface even though that's not supposed to happen.

We're also told that Alpha - a doll who at one time was their best male active - was an anomaly whose core personality started "waking up" at least somewhat when he was supposed to be in his docile, empty state. He turned out to be an active who broke the programming, killed a handler, maimed several dolls and escaped. An insane genius, they describe him now. One they'd both like to forget and capture. But their first clue something was wrong was the fact that his core personality starting coming through the imprinted ones.

So, will Echo/Caroline turn into a psychotic repeat of Alpha? Or will she "wake up" and bring the Dollhouse and its company down?

Other Whedon fans have called the show an actor's dream where the main character can be completely different every week - and therefore show off the actor's range. There is some truth to that, I think, but to write the show off as only a Dushku vehicle - a kind of network sponsored demo reel - is to sell literally everyone involved in the series very, very short.

I honestly don't understand the ire Dollhouse has gained from some Whedon fans ... unless it is perhaps too subtle for them? And I think this is the real crux of the problem.

There are a handful of shows that I must actually watch every minute. Dollhouse is one. Dexter is another. Life is another. And Saving Grace is another. I cannot sit and draw and half-watch any of these. The acting is often done in silence as it is in real life. More is communicated through a look or a gesture or a sudden look in an unexpected direction than through the overt dialogue. In Saving Grace, everyone from Holly Hunter through the director, writers and producers have said what a joy the show has been to work on because they don't rely on music or a "hit-you-over-the-head" camera angle to force their viewers to pick up on a subtle detail or clue. You have to pay attention yourself. And the show assumes that you are and that you are intelligent enough to pick up on these things. Imagine that, television that assumes the viewer has a brain and enjoys using it.

Now, don't misinterpret that last paragraph. I don't think that the Whedon fans who dislike the show are stupid - I am NOT saying that. I am thinking that they - for any number of reasons - are not picking up on the subtleties of the show. And that could be true for a variety of very legitimate reasons.

I, personally, have found the Echo/Caroline character fascinating. I see quite a bit of her core Caroline self in her various Echo personalities. I think that to accept that Echo has nothing of Caroline in her either in the inactive docile doll state or while she has been imprinted with a personality and is out on an assignment is to swallow the line that the Dollhouse company is handing out. The evidence is certainly there that the personality wipes are simply not very good. I watch each episode waiting for Caroline to burst through Echo in some way ... to further the mystery, to further her struggle and save herself. To say that only in the last episode does Echo begin feeling stirrings of Caroline is to have not really watched the subtleties of the show from the first episode aired.

You see, I don't think either Echo or Caroline is a damsel in distress and doesn't know it. And I don't think she's waiting for someone else to come rescue her. I think that core personality - that soul as the rather overbearing FBI agent Ballard kept saying in the season finale - is there and is trying to break through. She might be a Sleeping Beauty as Jane Espenson says in the episode with that title - but she's not really waiting for a prince to come and save her. This show is about her struggle to awaken from a situation which seems beyond her control and yet at the same time is a situation in which she got herself into.

That, to me, seems to describe many people I know. How many people find themselves in a situation where they essentially, became lulled by everyday living to the point where they "fell asleep"? I can think of friends who were so caught up in the day-to-day "I have to work 80 hours a week to make enough" or to keep this job or to put my wife or husband or boyfriend through school -- and when that goal is accomplished we can start living again. They are so caught up in that, that they aren't living any more. They're not staying true to their core values even though they've lulled themselves into believing they are. And one day, something happens and they wake up and look at what they've been doing, who they've become, the time they've "wasted" and freak out. They can either be numbed by the realization, go back to sleep and back to the status quo or they can struggle to wake up and make a change, become true to that older ideal and less involved in reacting to the now, but acting upon their core beliefs.

To watch Dollhouse, to me, has been to watch each of the characters struggle with this. How do they balance the ethics of what they do? How do they make a change now? If they just leave, does that really change anything since the dollhouse continues on without them?

Dollhouse is not Buffy The Vampire Slayer. It's not Angel. It's not Firefly. And yet, it does encompass all of the tropes that mark a good Joss Whedon venture. All of his shows have explored the messy choices that we make and how we stay true to our own moral compass. Spike (from Buffy and Angel) was not just a bad guy, nasty vampire. He was, in many ways, better than Angel ever was because despite the demon within (the vampire), he wanted to do good. Angel had a soul forced on him - before then, he was a right nasty bastard who'd given in to the demon.

Mal (from Firefly) was not the immoral smuggler he seemed to be. He was a military man who fought for and believed in the side who lost. He tried to take jobs that either helped people or at least didn't hurt anyone.

All of these characters struggled deeply with the circumstances in which they found themselves. The struggled against societies who wanted them to fall asleep and toe the line - to fit into their neat, little stereotypical boxes and just stay there and be predictable. But life isn't like that. It's messy and it's not predictable.

And neither are we.

Even when we fall asleep and let our circumstances carry us away, we tend to wake up and fight back at the most inopportune moments.

If you wrote off Dollhouse as merely an actor's dream role, I invite you to take another look. If you haven't watched it yet, I hope this has intrigued you to take a look now. The DVDs are available on Amazon and available by the end of July. Or watch it on FOX on demand.

Posted by Red Monkey at May 10, 2009 9:46 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |

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