Friday, March 20, 2009

Dollhouse: It's Getting Better!

So, I'm WAY behind on my TV viewing. Again. Sigh. I really need to do a post soon on the shows I'm still watching (like Big Love... oh my GOD what an awesome season this is!!!) I have about 5 Ugly Bettys, 5 Damages, 3 Flight of the Conchords, and so many old episodes of EastEnders I don't know where to start with that one. That's just the tip of the iceberg. I have a PVR that holds 200 hours of programming and there's only 50 hours left. I need a week off just to catch up on my TV.

But anyway, over the last two nights I've watched the last two episodes of Dollhouse, and I really think it's hitting its stride. Last week's episode in particular, "True Believer," was my favourite one so far. First of all, DUSTY!! Is there anyone else out there old enough to have recognized Brian Bloom when he first walked on screen as Jonas? When I was probably 10 or 11, this guy appeared on As the World Turns, and my mother, a lover of soap operas if ever there was one (I spent summers sitting next to her watching As the World Turns, Guiding Light, this boring one called Capitol, and a few years later, The Bold and the Beautiful). And then Dusty appeared one day. Oh, those metallic blue eyes... he was in love with Lily, who dumped him for bad boy Holden (HOLDEN?!) and I always thought she was an idiot after that. I think she married him or something. I haven't watched the show in 20 years (but the crazy thing about soap operas is, you can tune in one afternoon and be caught up in about half an hour after not watching it for two decades).

ANYWAY. My excitement at seeing a long lost lust aside, this episode FINALLY gave us some of the old Joss Whedon dialogue I've been waiting for. There's an excellent scene between Topher and Dr. Claire about Victor having a "man reaction" in the show when he's looking at Sierra, and I was in stitches. My husband was laughing his head off, too, and we both looked at each other and said in unison, "Joss!" Then giggled some more. It was a brilliant scene.

But five episodes in (or 6? Man, I've lost count already) long-term arcs are starting to come into place. What really happened to Alpha? Why is he so obsessed with Echo? Why is Helo so obsessed with Echo, and where does he know her from that he's on the hunt for her? What the hell did they mean this week when they said Echo should be put away in the attic? (I cannot WAIT to see what that means... is it like boxing a Cylon on BSG?) How much is Echo starting to put together? At the end of every episode, she seems to be building a mental repertoire of what's happening around her, who is a friend and who is an enemy, and things are falling apart for the people running the place. Meanwhile, Boyd is taking on a more Giles-like role than before, he's concerned about her, and he refuses to talk about her like some plastic Barbie like the others all do.

Last week's episode was really good, too, when Echo was remotely brain-wiped and turned into a shell of her character, rocking with anxiety on the floor and repeating, "Did I fall asleep? Shall I go now?" waiting for the Pavlovian response from Topher that was not forthcoming. I'm really starting to see something much, much deeper with this show, and my fingers are crossed so hard they're turning white that Fox will give this show the chance to allow it to unfold the way Joss clearly sees it eventually will.


JJ said...

Tonight's episode will be #6. Apparently it's titled "Man on the Street" and is written by Joss.

I absolutely agree re: the direction and quality of the show. Here's hoping for many more years of the Joss and Eliza Show!

A.G.Wooding said...

Wow never knew you watched Damages as well? Do you never feel like writing about that or is it one of those i'll watch it if it's on shows??

redeem147 said...

I thought I was the only one who remembered Dusty.

There's another actor playing Dusty now. He's not Dusty. :)

SenexMacdonald said...

@ Nikki: "Why is Helo so obsessed with Echo, and where does he know her from that he's on the hunt for her?"

Shouldn't that be Agent Helo? LOL

I also LOVE Damages. Another great show!

OT: Are we safe to discuss last night's BSG finale here?

helfron said...
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helfron said...
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helfron said...
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helfron said...

I thought I was going to be somewhat disappointed by the premiere episode of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse on 13 February 2009, but I wasn't. I liked it quite a lot. The set (which rivals the Serenity set of Firefly) was magnificent. The episode was full of typical Joss Whedon themes—existentialist and social ethical themes revolving around conscience, identity, role playing, fantasy, gender, belonging, created families, patriarchalism, and corporate power—and touches—foreshadowings of things to come if Fox allows the show to last for more than 13 episodes (beware of the Fox). Eliza Dushku was superb in her switch from biker girl to infantile Echo to damaged profiler. I never suspected she had such range in her. Olivia Williams and the rest of the cast were wonderful. And there was even a bit of humour in a very serious show. Over the course of the following five episodes my admiration for the series has only increased. Patience has paid off as the contours of the show, its complexities, its arcs, its conspiracies, its investigation of human fantasies, and its interrogation of gender and storytelling fantasies in particular are coming more clearly into focus.

While I was not disappointed in the show I am disappointed with some of the reviews. There have been some excellent reviews of Dollhouse. Those of the ever perceptive Cynthia Fuchs (PopMatters) and Heather Havrilesky (Salon) in particular standout. Some of the other reviews, however, should make us reflect on the nature of contemporary literary, film, and television criticism and the ideologies and values that underlie it just as the dominant modes of academic analysis of literature, film, and television should make us reflect on the social and cultural factors that construct criticism in the ivied halls of the academy. Alessandra Stanley's review in the New York Times is as shallow as a typical US movie and television show and not worthy of a newspaper that is supposed to set the standard for art reporting in the United States. Tom Shales's review in the Washington Post is a mumbo jumbo of snark, missed opportunities for thematic analysis, and so full of contradictions—dissing Dollhouse for its formulaic qualities (uh, dude, its a genre show, genre is formulaic on one level) while seeming to praise the work of "rip off" artists David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino (the latter ironically borrowed heavily from Buffy in Kill Bill) as to be somewhat amusing. Misha Davenport's review in the Chicago Tribune damns Dollhouse for its lack of humour apparently assuming that every Whedon show must be a retread of Buffy. Davenport seems to want to wipe away the fact that Dollhouse is an adult show with a very different set of characters and a very different sensibility from Buffy. Alan Sepinwall's review in the Newark Star-Ledger takes Dollhouse to task for its lack of realism making, in the process, a mistake many amateur and armchair critics make. Literature, TV shows, and films, as many before me have pointed out, make their own realities, make sense in the context of their own manufactured worlds. The notion that fiction has to be like real life (something not even documentaries can accomplish) is, to say the least, silly and sophomoric. And then there are the slew of blogger reviewers who complain that the show is not like Buffy and thus they are giving up on it after viewing only one, two, or three episodes. What this suggests, apart from the issue I addressed above as to whether Whedon should simply spend the rest of his life remaking Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is that the fine art of patiently allowing a television show to unfold over you is a lost art for the George Lucas and MTV generation, a generation that seems to have become walking, talking TV dolls who embody the if it doesn't catch me in three minutes and thirty-two seconds I am not going to watch it even if it is an arc or novelistic television show. My favourite of these blog posts, however, has to be that of a commentator at the blog site Nik at Nite (run by Nikki Stafford). After seeing the first episode this blogger remarked that Dollhouse was clearly misogynistic (without even entertaining an Ibsen/Whedon link). And here I thought prophecy was dead. I am hoping to convince this commentator to tell me what the stock market is going to be doing in thirteen days.

I liked Dollhouse very much. I intend to keep watching it. Joss Whedon never fails to touch me both intellectually and emotionally (quite an achievement for an auteur in a film and television world dominated by the juvenile and by juvenalia). It touched me in ways that shows like Alias and Fringe never can. Frankly, J.J. Abrams increasingly limited role in Lost is the best thing that ever happened to that show. I haven't been able to stay interested enough in any Abrams product because they seem all surface and no depth to me. This all surface and no depth, all style and no story, tendency in US cinema and television, is, of course, a dominant trend in a media system dominated by an obsession with the 15-34 demographic. Even the so called US “art” cinema, a cinema which includes the films of both Lynch and Tarantino, is dominated by this all surface and little depth mentality. As critic Jonathan Rosenbaum pointed out much US art cinema is a cinema for audiences blissfully unaware of the innovations of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s European art cinema, a cinema which both Lynch and Tarantino mine extensively (all the while depoliticising it). I will be able to stay with Joss Whedon's Dollhouse just as I stayed with his Buffy, Angel, and Firefly. Whedon's work is more than just eye candy. It is also candy for the nerd cinephilic mind. And I am a nerd.

Cedar said...

If you thought "True Believer" was good, wait until you see "Man on the Street"--absolutely fantastic! I can't stop thinking about it today. I agree with a poster named "Fredikins" over on Whedonesque, who wrote, "It hurts in a Joss way."

Blam said...

I respect your considered essay, Helfron, and don't myself think that Joss is being misogynistic per se. Even with the deepening of the stakes and the mythology in the latest episode, however, and despite the fact that half of the premise of the show is about shutting down the other half of the premise, that other half makes me feel like I need to scrub my brain with an alcohol pad every time I let myself take in its full ramifications. I just don't know if I want to keep going there.

Nikki Stafford said...

AG: I LOVE Damages, and I don't think it's a show you could watch if it's on; if you miss an ep, you are completely lost. :) I will definitely post on it soon; my problem is that I get so behind that when I finally finish watching it, the season is long over and everyone's already moved on. :)

helfron: I'm wondering why you removed the post where you accused me of completely misreading Joss Whedon's work and accusing me of demanding that all answers be revealed in the first episode or I'm unhappy. Have you heard of a little show called Lost? ;) I guess you probably realized how insulting the comment was, and took it down (it still gets emailed to me). I hope you also realized you were wrong, and that's why you took it down.

It's clear you wrote it for another site and then posted it here, or you wouldn't be referring to me and this site in the third person the way you have. And if I can then surmise that this is some comment you're cutting and pasting all over the web, I'd ask you to be a little more careful about saying I accused Joss Whedon of misogyny. I did not do anything of the sort, and I don't appreciate you going to other websites and suggesting that I exhibited such narrowmindedness after the first episode.

I'd appreciate it if you went and reread my review. It was just short of glowing, and said nothing about misogyny.

The reviews that you liked are the ones that glowed after the first episode. The reviews that you disliked are the ones that criticized. One thing Whedon fans have often been accused of is liking everything Whedon does without holding anything he does up to any gold standard. To which I used to reply, "Well, of COURSE we hold him up to a gold standard... he IS the gold standard." That said, I can still criticize where criticism is due (I don't think I shall ever forgive for Beer Bad).

The first episode was problematic, and it turns out it probably wasn't Joss's fault. Even the brownest of the Browncoats would admit that airing Firefly out of order was ridiculous, and they'd never say, "You could have aired the entire season backwards and it would have been awesome!" There were some problems, I think a lot of stuff was watered down, and only now do I sense Fox backing away and letting Joss do his thing. The last 3 weeks have seemed like Classic Whedon -- not a Buffy/Angel/Firefly retread, as you have often accused me in your comments of requiring of my Whedon. I mean it holds up to what I knew Joss can deliver: a dynamic arc, witty dialogue, heartbreaking sadness, and so many complications you wish you could burst into the show and try to help everyone out.

I don't know when you caught on to him, but I was watching Buffy *almost* from the beginning. And I thought the beginning of season 1 was a little stilted and jumpy, and if I'd been keeping a blog at the time, I would have said so. It's only in retrospect we look back on those episodes as near perfection, and perhaps when Dollhouse ends its run (hopefully years from now) we'll look back on these early episodes and see the seeds of the brilliance that came later.

But, despite you rather rudely calling me such, I'm not a prophet. So I'll sit back and happily watch until then.

Cedar: Just finished watching Man on the Street and I LOVED it. [warning: Spoilers] You're right: best one yet! I loved how he took the ideas of human trafficking and any of the discomfort we have watching the Dolls and puts it into the mouths of the man on the street, effectively turning them into the critics of the show in a way. Brilliant.

And I actually thought the neighbour was a Doll the whole time, and waffled only when the assassin was sent... that was AWESOME.

Cedar said...

Yes, I agree regarding the neighbor being a Doll. Indeed, in Albuquerque some of us discussed this very issue over dinner at the Asian noodle bar--we'd seen only two episodes at that point. So, when the neighbor was about to be killed, I thought, "Oh no, we were wrong!" But then the switch and the gasp and the cheers: yes!

helfron said...

1. I wasn't referencing you as the prophet niki. It was another poster on this site. As I said, I really love such things.

1. My comment about Dollhouse misreadings is a general one and was and is not aimed at anyone in particular. I do think you have exhibited a lack of patience akin to others on this site and on other sites and I do think that you and others have exhibited a tendency to want Whedon to do yet another Buffy (e.g. we want more Joss popcult humour).

3. I wrote my "piece" for myself.

4. Atlantic take on Dollhouse...

helfron said...

5. I incorporated what I said in other posts in the larger post and decided to delete the others.

6. I seem to recall that the Dollhouse as misogynistic was by a poster on this site but I may be mistaken. I have seen hundreds if not thousands of posts on Dollhouse and, given that they are often similar in content, they seem to run together.

Nikki Stafford said...

helfron: I'll agree that in the commentary, we were probably less forgiving of the show than I was in my post. I misread your post when you referred to my site, then my name, and said "this commentator" (which looked like you meant me) said the show was misogynist. I can't control what other people post in the comments section of my blog. Short of spam or saying something bordering on hate for other readers, I won't delete a comment. If someone thinks the show is misogynist, I allow them to say that so others can agree or disagree. If someone wants to post a really long essay as a diatribe against anyone who's offered the tiniest amount of criticism against Dollhouse, I allow that to be posted, too.

We don't talk about each other in the third person over here. If someone referred to the show as misogynist, it's best to address that comment within the blog post where it was left (otherwise someone reading your comment here has no idea what you're talking about). Tell them in clear terms that you disagree, and explain why. Then it allows that person the opportunity to counter or perhaps change their mind. That's the way things are generally handled here, and most people discuss the shows with a lot of respect. I want this to be a place where people feel safe to say what they want, as long as it's respectful to everyone on here. You've blasted some unnamed person here for a comment they may or may not have made -- now you're saying you're not sure if it was actually made here on my site; you should check that before stating that it was.

To be honest, my surprise at your comment is that I am AGREEING with you. I've come around to saying this show is really catching on, it's grabbing me earlier than other shows might, and Joss is already showing signs of building a beautiful arc. My readers seem to agree with me. And then you come on here calling us products of the MTV generation with our short attention spans and our need-answers-now frame of minds and that we want Buffy retreads. I think you should hold off on your criticism for someone who actually hates the show and won't give it a chance at all. Your words are wasted here on the converted.

There are LOTS of blogs out there by people who don't like Dollhouse. I think your criticism might be useful over there, and you might convert some people over to the show. But many people here are enjoying the show, so unless someone says something bad, this comments board isn't here to incite something. So let's all try to be nice here, K?

All together now: "Yes, Miss Crabtree..."

helfron said...

I really think that the advent of Lucas-Spielberg Hollywood juvenalia with their mania for special effects and action/adventure (the last likely due to their love for the serials of their youth), the triumph of the Lucas-Spielberg mode of filmmaking in Hollywood, the triumph of what seems like that other dominant force in Hollywood the childish gross out sitcom like films of people like Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell, the alliance of this style of filmmaking with commercial and MTV jump cut editing, the advent of the computer with its internet and special effects and editing capabilities, and the impact of the omputer (particularly the internet) has impacted and transformed human perception.

Those born in the wake of changess in communication media no longer seem to read as many books as previous generations. They seem to have little patience for more novelistic or short story type of adult cinema (or even children's cinema). They seem to throng to films with jump cut editing, action/adventure themes, extensive special effects, and childish humour. There no longer seems any room for the adult oriented fare Hollywood used to make during the studio years and even into the
1990s in significant numbers.

Given the emphasis on jump cutting, special effects, gore, and gross viewers seem to have come to believe that these are the only type of films that matter (quality, in such a context, has been reduced to box office ticket sales--quanity equals quality). For this reason (along with the technological utopianism that dominates these days--the notion that black and white films are from the stone age and irrelevant), the "irrational" mania against subtitles, and almost ominpresent US parochialism there is little patience in todays cinema audience and TV viewer.

The increasing speed of communications, the notion that bigger and better (and more gross out) special effects are more "realistic", the apparent love of the physically and mentally young for obvious and gross out childish humour, has not simply impacted the cinema going
and television viewing audience. It is all over the internet.

The increasing speed of communications and the advent of the internet has also impacted journalism. As print journalism gets shoved into the waste basket of history blogging, journalism on speed, is becoming ever more influential to the computer generation. Blogging about film and television (along with porn) has, in particular, been unleased on the internet since its appearance.

Cultural criticism, of course, has always been speed journalism. But it has become even speedier in the computer era. Criticism is in many ways, the most anti-historical form of journalism with its need for quick value judgements and quick turnaround. As the computer generation has moved into online cultural criticism the impact of those communication changes noted above allied with the ultra-speedy nature of blogging has produced a significant number of critics who seem more than willing to judge a TV programme on the basis of a few episodes than a considered judgement of as much of the available data as you can get your hands on (I, for one, think that one should wait until an novelistic arc TV show is complete before one explores it). This, of course, has exacerbated the social and cultural values basis of much criticism. And it has exacerbated even further the anti-historical nature of criticism since ideologies of value, a lack of narrative and visual patience, and anti-historical methodologies generally form the foundations of such criticism. Here the criticism of the hypermoment has triumphed.

I am not, by the way, arguing here that all online criticism is of equally poor if not awful quality.

helfron said...

I should note that I find myself, someone from the pre-computer, pre-ipod, pre-cell phone stone age, becoming less and less patient. I think that as I have come to use and rely on the computer daily my attention span has diminished. Of course it can also be old age.

Robert Kuang said...

I am definitely willing to give this show a chance. In the beginning I wasn't sure, but now that longer story arcs are being introduced, it is really getting me hooked. Check out my prime time TV website at