Visiting the “Dollhouse” (a tv review)

I’m not exactly a Joss Whedon fan, but he’s built up enough good will for me with Angel and Firefly (the latter one of the greatest shows of all time) that I will give anything with his name on it a fair chance.

I remember the rumblings in nerddom when Joss returned to TV with a new show on Fox, one Dollhouse.  I tried catching two episodes of it but was so confused and lost I didn’t bother any more with it.

Until one weekend when, browsing through netflix, I sought for something on instant streaming which I could devour fairly quickly.  Lo and behold, Dollhouse was on streaming and was 27 episodes.  So I decided to see what the show had to offer; I at least wanted to see how the few episodes I’d seen on air fit into the story.

Dollhouse is Joss Whedon’s greatest TV work to date.

And it’s not surprising at all that it didn’t last more than two seasons.

If I had to compare this series to something that invoked similar emotions, it would have to be Lord of the Rings.  Both of them had a slow start.  But once I got used to the style and rhythm of it, it grew on me, until an emotionally powerful ending that made me want to cheer and cry.  Structurally, this is very much like a novel and one of the things that makes it work on DVD/streaming far more than on network TV.  While an author can set his/her own pace, the reader can still read through it as fast as he/she desires.  In the same way, Dollhouse has a set pace by its creator, one that is very difficult to suffer through on a one “chapter” a week schedule, but is more bearable when the viewer is able to watch as fast as he/she desires.

The question is how to review this, because it’s best viewed when you go into it as blind and ignorant of it as possible.  The series has more than a few motifs in common with John C Wright’s Chaos Kids trilogy (enough to make a drinking game), including the tactic of deceiving the audience about what the actual story is.

Dr Helen once wrote about how lately there seems to be a lot written about humanity’s lack of free will.  Dollhouse examines a world where not only is this true, but we’ve mastered the brain completely.  And in examining this sci-fi premise, Whedon ends up making one of the best cases for religion I’ve ever seen – or rather, he creates a parable where by the end, you deeply hope that man is more than the sum of his parts.

As far as writing goes, I loved it.  While the show had “plots of the week” episodes, by the end, you realize that they weren’t as disconnected as you thought.  Each episode of this show either advances the overarching plot, or advances the rules of the story’s world.  There is not an episode you can skip without risking confusion or a lesser emotional impact later on.  The characters are also top notch, demonstrating well the difference I talked before about being rational vs being logical.

I know I gave it 5 out of 5, but let me be clear: this is NOT going to be a show for everyone.  Whereas I would recommend Firefly to nearly anybody in a heartbeat (unless they had no soul), this is simply one of those works that isn’t going to appeal to everyone.  A good litmus test would be how much one enjoyed Inception.  (I can’t even recommend this to every LotR fan, even though I compared it to it.)  While TV Tropes lists “grey & grey morality” for this show, I actually disagree.  The world of Dollhouse is one which has a very definite black and white morals.  The only problem is that it’s filled with very flawed humans.  So one might call it a world of “grey & grey moral actors”.  (Some might say the Bible’s a lot like that – except for that One Guy.)

Language isn’t too bad and the sex is surprisingly sparse but it is talked about.  With that and the themes and the plot lines, less mature viewers (no matter their age) will find much of the show difficult to grasp.


5 thoughts on “Visiting the “Dollhouse” (a tv review)

  1. The first season is very patchy until the end, the second season runs much better. It seems to be a weakness of Whedon in starting a show slow – Buffy didn’t hit it’s stride until the second season, Angel too, & I think Firefly would have had a better chance of securing an audience if he had cut to the chase & included more of what featured in the last episode & then the Serenity movie. Whedon is one of the greatest ever masters of the television form but he needs to whip out the good stuff earlier.

    • I actually didn’t mind Dollhouse’s slow build and thought it kind of worked all things considered.

      It’s kind of a tough tightrope for writers. On the one hand, you need to induct the audience into your world, but the more different the world is, the longer and more difficult the transition is. I mean, the epitaphs are all kinds of awesome… but dumping them on the audience too early can backfire and drive them away by either trying to hard to make the audience care or snapping the suspension of disbelief. I agree, second season was all kinds of awesome, but a lot of that reason is because the foundation had been built so well in the first, IMHO.

      It kind of makes one wonder if some storytelling could be delivered in a streaming/dvd only medium. But economics and current media culture aren’t ready for it.

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