04th Apr2009

thachoo in my DOLLHOUSE!? – UPDATED!

by jerad.formby


Joss Whedon has a new show out. He’s the gentlemen responsible for TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” and “Firefly.” Not surprisingly, it deals with sci-fi. Not surprisingly, it’s being shown on Friday nights on Fox.

Surprisingly, a lot of his fans aren’t watching. I can’t figure out why.

Many of my die-hard Buffy fan friends can’t get into it –hell though, they couldn’t get into Buffy season six either (my favorite year). I’ve been cornered on more than one occasion to justify my positive feelings for the show, so I’m gonna make all of my arguments here.

What’s really awesome about this timing is that I’ve just finished watching Dollhouse’s seventh episode and, strangely enough, it was a Star Trek episode.


I heard somewhere that Joss Whedon delivered his new show with Eliza Dushku and the leaders at FOX weren’t happy about what they saw. They asked him to make another pilot for them. This wasn’t the first time they’d asked this of him. With “Firefly,” Whedon had intended to kick the show off with a two hour set piece where we’d learn about the characters and he would seduce the audience into the world with a “slow burn.” Too slow, FOX said… they wanted him to go back to the drawing board and deliver what “Firefly” would be week to week. So Whedon created a second, more action packed pilot and FOX finally said, ‘Yeah. We like this show.’


So, with his “Dollhouse” pilot, I’m only guessing, he decided to deliver that more action-packed, week-to-week episode so that he could satisfy them where “Firefly” had underwhelmed them. FOX actually asked him to go back and make an episode that was more of a ‘slow burn’ because the action packed one was too hectic and “confusing”. Poor Joss Whedon. He had already sculpted a story arc for the first season of “Dollhouse” and a new pilot wasn’t even in the mix. The result? He had to go and create an episode that would take place before the frickin story.

The character stuff was already on reserve. The big epic bad guy stuff was already reserved. Origins were already reserved. So Whedon had to mix up a new pilot that used very little of the actual material that the drama would be about and basically just showed us his concept. The first episode flat-lined from the first scene. Just telling us the concept and demonstrating the most mundane aspects of the concept weren’t going to hook anybody. To my knowledge, lots of his audience walked away and many have refused to go back because the episode didn’t feel right.


Lots of people I know swore up and down that they were finished after that initial boring episode. I implored them to stay with it. “The actual pilot is next week!” I told them.

[UPDATE: I’m actually pretty much dead wrong here. Guys, the confusing pilot actually has not aired and will not air. The hectic pilot will be released to DVD and features Felicia Day from Dr. Horrible. I would re-code and re-write my jokes, but I love them so much I can’t! So just read this post as if it were an alternate timeline.]

I don’t know who stayed and who got off the train, but I crossed my fingers and hoped the second episode would succeed where the first one had, to quote David Ivy, performed an “epic fail.”


It was more of a description of a show than an actual show, if you know what I mean.

In case you don’t know, the show features a house somewhere filled with beautiful people. These people are basically “blank slates” on which memories can be implanted and they can become pretty much anyone that’s required for any particular task.

It’s not some dodgy government thing where these “actives” are doing black ops work and delivering action all the time. It’s actually a private institution that caters to the insanely rich.

For the right amount of money, one of these dolls can be leased to you and she/he will be programmed with a certain memory set to ensure that you have whatever experiences your rich crazy mind can cook up. And yeah, pretty much anything goes.

The show centers around one doll called “Echo.” She’s played by Dushku. We follow Echo through these strange little jobs that she never remembers doing (or does she??) and we see a lot of things go wrong with these jobs.


The second episode delivered the goods. The Joss Whedon I know and love had his beautiful fingerprints all over the episode. I can tell you the exact scene where I decided I would watch the entire show –no matter how long it runs (although the fact that it is on FOX makes me feel that each episode will be the last).

The scene in the second episode that rubbed the right thing in my brain is where the “handler” character bonds with his active. He is just there for a job and suddenly he’s holding a strange woman’s hand. It’s explained to him that after this ‘bonding’ the active will rely on him and always be vaguely aware of who he is –even if she can’t place him. She will trust him implicitly. Will he ever have to trust her like that?


Any number of Whedon fans might disagree with me –some are actually still waiting for the show to do something cool for them. I don’t know what they’re looking for, because the show is bringing all sorts of great things.


I really don’t get all the hohum responses from my Whedon fan collegues. This show has introduced us to a mystery just as twisted and weird as River on “Firefly”. I’ll admit that the mystery unravels at a very unique pace as one of our central characters doesn’t change from week to week (well, she changes, but not in the way we’re used to).

Maybe people are having trouble with the characters. Ms. Dewitt is the “walking freezer unit” boss of the show… people just might not be fascinated with the British lady who appears to be in charge. Too reminiscent of Giles for some? Or is it not reminiscent enough? Hmmm. Perhaps they’ve seen it before?

I guess ‘M’ for James Bond could be viewed that way, but I’d rather watch M pimping Bond out to rich fools, right?

Perhaps it’s the whole “elite society” thing. People just might not be into watching fools blow loads of cash on things they can never afford.


I, for one, am glad that this isn’t some sort of “black ops” show. I’m glad that it’s not action mission after action mission. I like that the whole world of “Dollhouse” will be open to dealing with the world of fantasy. I think it’s a respectable, realistic application of the sci-fi tech that Whedon has brought us with his concept. If it was just an actioner every week, I think it would start to feel like things we’ve seen before.

Ohhhhh… I think that’s it. Isn’t it? That’s what everyone’s problem with the show is. It’s not enough like the things we’ve seen from Whedon before. It’s not Buffy enough. It’s not Angel enough. It’s not Firefly enough. It’s not easily identifiable as Joss Whedon because there’s… not enough sarcastic dialogue. There’s not enough over the top action. There’s not enough emotional highs and lows right out of the box.

Those hallmarks of Whedon’s work are all there. They’re just not as obvious as they’ve been before, you know. I’m happy he’s not being obvious with us. Another obvious Whedon show would actually probably annoy me.


“Dollhouse” is a very 21st century show. It is a testament to Whedon’s versatility and ingenuity. For now, the most intense moments in each episode hover around what Echo’s up to that week, sure… but all around her the real story is moving like a chess game. The pacing is so brave. I’m glad Whedon’s the rock star that he is and the network’s letting him tell this one the way he wants to.

He is building a show around a character who doesn’t remember things week to week. Nobody ever reminds her what she’s missed. The reason for that is simple and cold. It’s not their job. In fact, the characters work to keep their professionalism on such an even hook that they seldom let any of the drama creep into their own scenes. It’s like watching a house when you know there’s a fire smoldering in the basement. The signs of smoke are there, but you have to look for them… and none of these characters want to acknowledge that fire.

I can see how this would be a formula for a drama nobody wants to see, because watching people fight a fire is way more fun than watching people pretend the fire isn’t there. That’s where I have to remind everybody that this is the guy who brought us Mal Reynolds. This is that same guy! When his show is deliberately this cold and seemingly empty, it’s because he’s programming us to receive the drama. We’re like actives ourselves in that respect. He’s giving us the right “profiles” and “skills” to properly interpret what’s to come.


There’s this fantastic litany of words that stream from each active once their minds are erased. It’s like booting up your computer. They say the same thing: “Did I fall asleep?” The programmer replies with “For a little while.” I just know this is the sort of thing that is going to be molded, pulled, perverted, altered, and re-presented in awesome, gut wrenching ways. Whedon’s programming us with this very basic conversation… he’s making each of us into emotional “sleeper agents” and when he pulls the trigger, I guarantee it’s gonna pay off bigger than Buffy taking out that uber-vamp in Buffy season seven.

So if people really are put off by how cold these characters all seem to be, it takes more than one Star Trek fan’s arguments to convince them otherwise. It takes a master show developer like Whedon to realize that he has to open these characters up in a unique and unpredictable way. So, right around the seventh or so episode of this show, do you know what he did? He rubbed some Star Trek on it.

Turns out there’s this drug that causes people to lose their inhibitions. This drug, once in your system can become, very dangerous. Once infected, lots of things become more interesting than your professionalism. You all know that’s Whedon flexing a Star Trek muscle, right?


Now our professional Dollhouse runners have let their hair down for us. I believe the timing couldn’t be better.

I actually think Trek got the timing wrong –especially with “The Naked Now.” They did the “lose the inhibitions” episode second. Second! It’s not particularly funny or fun to watch total strangers act drunk. That actually gets a little embarrassing. But if you know them? If they’re your friends? That’s a whole lot more fun, so why give us uninhibited Data and Picard when the last time we saw them hadn’t been long enough for us to bond with them.


When this concept happened to Kirk and his crew back in the sixties, the episode was shown 4th. (Which is a pretty good length of time to have spent with Kirk and Spock before watching them become afflicted).

So you can see that Whedon even held this one back a little longer just to make sure that when Ms. Dewitt suddenly went off on “lentils” we would be engrossed. The direct opposite of her behavior washed over all of us viewers like a long cool glass of lemonade. We suddenly wanted to know more about her and we suddenly really wanted to like her.

I don’t know if its pitch perfect drama, but it is definitely pitch perfect series.

Why aren’t you watching? Did you fall asleep?


Follow Jerad Formby on Twitter by giving Buffy a big kiss or a hug or a click.


  • Steve

    Here’s what’s perverse. I’m still not sure I like the show but I continue to watch for all the reasons you’ve stated (and, of course, I missed the “second” episode). I really only have one question; when’s Dr. Horrible gonna show up?

  • zancho

    you know my slow burning love for the show. so far it’s like a bad marriage i won’t get out of because at one time i really was in love and don’t want to give up that easily.
    the last few episodes ARE giving me alot of hope for the future however.
    i can introduce you to a girl that looks kind of like eliza if you like. 🙂

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