Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Dollhouse: 1.1

Lady Hotspur (AKA Nicole) & I finally watched the pilot of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse. I found it a mixed bag but with some potentially compelling ideas (she didn't like it; generally, she's more critical than me). The basic scenario -- Echo (Eliza Dushku) is a blank slate who can be hired & imprinted with specific skills -- offers Whedon & company a lot of opportunities to tell done-in-one episodes while exploring themes of identity, experience, and memory in the long-term.

Whedon is probably my favorite TV creator, mainly due to a sympathy of dramaturgy and temperament. He's an intelligent, liberal artist who tackles social and political issues in a dramatic (rather than discursive) fashion. He's interested in how characters change and what they change into. He's unearths the flaws to narrative conclusions, building momentum and complexity. Among his strengths of craft: he writes character-driven dialogue, he elicites good performances, he creatively mingles disparate genres.

So I'm dismayed to note how bad the craft of the Dollhouse pilot was. The dialogue sounded like posturing badinage rather than warm speech; the actors look underprepped and a little confused about their roles; the tone looks and sounds terribly serious despite being pretty silly sci-fi. It's generally unfair to evaluate a show based on the pilot: the writers need time to find the characters' voices, build the world and develop themes, and generally warm up.

But it doesn't auger well that the pilot episode runs into an obvious pitfall: if the episode's standalone story doesn't hook your interest, you'll be stuck waiting for a scene involving the super-scenario (or you shut the TV off). In Episode 1.1 (AKA “Ghost”), Echo gets hired out as a negotiator (a la Jodie Foster's fixer in Inside Man) who botches a hostage/ransom exchange. Whedon gives it a melodramatic twist: Echo's imprinted personality recognizes one of the kidnappers, and believes he'd molested her as a child. This raises the stakes in a hysterical fashion (though after all, we're watching Fox) and involves a ludicrous coincidence. It's lurid and it distracts from the strange corporate conspiracy that exploits Echo.

And really, that's where my interest lies. The setting (essentially a corporate conspiracy) offers potential for the fleshing out of dynamic power relationships as they butt against moral quandaries. This episode hinges on Echo's handler (Harry Lennox) arguing altruism against the corporate mission. Lennox brings gravity to a pretty silly episode, and I expect he'll ground the show when Echo's a blank slate.

Which leads us to the concept's biggest hazard: If Echo has a different personality and situation every week (except when she has no personality at all), she'll be a hard protagonist to invest in on any level except an abstract one. Her larger role is a victim of her circumstances; it's hard to see how she'll change without the concept changing radically as well. I'm also not sure that Dushku can pull off the range that Whedon and the other writers will require of her on a weekly basis.

I reiterate my warning about evaluating a show based on its pilot. None of Whedon's pilots were especially strong, and all three shows needed time to find their voices (Angel took a leisurely half-season just to get started). I'm patient and, with BSG winding down, I've got no other shows to follow. And I'm apparently faithful to Whedon to a fault. I'll stick with Dollhouse and report back to you.


Leah said...

My understanding is that Fox has wanted the first 5 eps to be stand-alone to draw in new viewers, and that there will be a story arc beginning with ep 6 which hopefully will allow Echo to be fleshed out as her own character, not just a blank slate.

That said, the premise seems really, really silly to me. If you want a hostage negotiator, why not just hire a REAL hostage negotiator? Ep 2 is even sillier. That's as far as we have gotten (and as far as we may get) with it at our house.

Also, I am personally icked out by Echo's body going off and having sex without her personality having some say in it. It seems very wrong, KWIM?

Josh said...

Glad you're following this one - I've been curious, but the premise seems sketchy to me and I've heard mixed things. I would suspect (though I haven't heard) that we'd begin to see some repeat traits in Echo's various personae so that we can relate to her. Or, if not to her directly, to her sort of meta-persona. But maybe not. Anyway, I'm interested to hear how the next bit goes.