I've held off on posting my thoughts about Dollhouse until I knew it would be picked up for another season...the upfronts are in and the verdict is?
It's no secret that I'm a Joss Whedon fan. I've been in love with Buffy for as long as I can remember. Every Tuesday I was glued to my TV (this was before Tivo, kiddies), I can quote my favorite episodes verbatim, I never tire of the tragic story of Buffy and Angel and I still cry when she shoves that sword through his heart and sends him to hell in "Becoming, Part Two"...and yes, I'm that much of a dork that I call the episodes by their name. Deal with it.
I was excited about Dollhouse, but the idea of it being on Fox turned me off. After what they did to Firefly I was scared to invest the time in the show for fear that I would fall in love with the characters and not be able to follow their development. For reference, you can see Joss's excellent character development on Buffy, but it's really most evident in Angel: the story runs so deep that you hardly recognize the characters you were introduced to in seasons 1 and 2 by the time season 5 ends. I still have a hard time watching Firefly because of the disappointment of an under developed show that never had a chance to actually grow due to studio pressures, so when rumors of a re-written first episode and a heavy hand from the studio on the first few episodes of Dollhouse were floating around I was turned off.
Of course, I watched it anyway. How could I not?
I'm so glad I did because the last few episodes were so excellent they had me shooting up in my seat yelling "WHHAAATT??! SERIOUSLY?!!" The Fox aired season finale "Omega" (there is still one more episode that they are not airing, but will be on the DVD called "Epitaph One") penned by the amazing Tim Minear was filled with so many "oh my golly" revelations that if they didn't bring this show back I would have knocked on the door of Kevin Reilly myself and said "um...what the f?" As he said to the press: ""Not to mention, if we had canceled Joss’ show, I’d probably have 110 million e-mails this morning."
Since I'm not the most eloquent of writers, I'd like to quote a few bloggers who have been able to incorporate their love for Joss's vision and also the importance of his strong female characters on mainstream TV, of which we are very much lacking, and his deep feminist ideas.
I really recommend reading this entire post at Tiger Beatdown, but here are some highlights:
Dollhouse is, pretty much specifically and entirely, a show about consent. It's built around an organization - the titular Dollhouse - which erases volunteers' personalities and memories and renders them childlike and passive, in order to implant them with new, built-to-order personalities custom made for wealthy clients who wish to order the "perfect" person for a specific job. The purpose for which these mind-wiped folks (called "dolls," and I do not think that we are for a second supposed to miss how creepy that term is) are rented out is, primarily, sex. Also, they have no knowledge of or ability to consent to the "engagements" for which they are rented out. Also, they seem, in large part, to not really be volunteers at all - most of the ones we know about, including the central character, Echo, have become dolls in order to get out of jail time or worse, and one woman in particular was literally sold into the organization. Also, several Dolls have been used for sex by Dollhouse employees, sometimes with the illusion of consent in place and sometimes not.
So, at this point, people were like, "um, is noted feminist auteur Joss Whedon aware that he is making a show about forced prostitution and rape?" Whedon's politics have repeatedly been called into question, and usually for damn good reason. (Here is the thing about doing stuff that appeals to politically engaged audiences: you cannot fuck up politically and have people fail to notice or just go, "oh well, par for the course, ha ha ha!" You get yelled at. Sorry. Deal.) Dollhouse, in particular, had the potential to be hugely offensive. Here is the thing: Whedon, unlike most folks and many feminist or progressive-identified dudes, seems to actually listen when he is called out and to improve his work accordingly. In the case of Dollhouse, I think he is doing smarter work than he ever was. Getting smarter about oppression, I would submit to you, requires making the visible manifestations of it or metaphors for it much, much uglier.
The answer to whether Joss Whedon and his showrunners know how rape-culturey the entire Dollhouse concept is would seem to be, at this point, a big huge Yes. The Dollhouse is a giant metaphor, not only for rape culture, but for patriarchy and oppression at large: even the boy dolls are girls, stripped of agency or access to power and cast in pre-defined roles to fulfill the fantasies of the folks who are actually in charge. When they have sex, they aren't consenting - they've been made to think that they are consenting, by being made to think that they are the people who would consent to such things. They exist either in a state of infantilization and non-personhood (in which they are "cared for" by people who have a vested interest in continuing to use them) or implanted with false consciousness in which they are not aware of what's being done to them. I mean, false consciousness: Whedon's metaphors, they are rarely subtle. Their reactions to learning this, when they "wake up" (which Whedon has shown them doing, albeit briefly) are horror, disgust, and rage at how deeply they've been violated.
That seems, to me, like a much bigger and more profound and all-encompassing metaphor than saying that some boys are vampires and will turn evil if you fuck them. Just saying.
From Maureen Ryan at the Chicago Tribune:
When it premiered, the general consensus on "Dollhouse" (8 p.m. Central Friday, Fox; three and a half stars) was that it had potential but that the vision for the show hadn't quite gelled.
Friday's season finale finds the Joss Whedon show reaching its potential, and then some (rest easy, what's below does not contain spoilers).
The episode, "Omega," does all the things that Whedon's shows do at their best: It delivers action, suspense, quippy dialogue and a tangled set of relationships, all while asking thorny questions about human nature.
Around Episode 4 of "Dollhouse," I was doubting whether this show could overcome its rather strained, repetitive beginnings. My doubts are gone now; the most recent bunch of episodes have been stellar.
I challenge you to find another show that overtly discusses the malleability of the soul and is also chock full of witty dialogue and bone-breaking action. The TV world would be a much less interesting place if "Dollhouse" weren't in it, though I wonder if one more season of the show is all fans should hope for -- at most.