It’s no secret that I worship at the altar of Joss Whedon, and the irony of that statement, given Whedon’s avowed atheism, is not lost on me. I am one of the legions of people who are autodidacts of the Whedonverse, those who will from time to time exclaim, “Shiny!” when pleased, who can sing along not merely with “Once More with Feeling” but also “Commentary! The Musical,” and who secretly lust after a Smile Time Angel puppet. I am a shameless Whedon geek. Should Joss Whedon cross my path, I would be reduced to a blithering idiot and be overcome with my need to kiss his, well, anything, really.
Which is all a preamble to my explanation of both why I find Whedon’s new series Dollhouse not very good and why, despite recognizing that I don’t like it very much, I’m still watching it.
Dollhouse, which began airing on Fox on Friday, February13, centers on Echo, played by Buffy alum Eliza Dushku, an operative for Dollhouse, this futuristic rent-a-person company housed in what may be the best-looking spa on earth. "Actives"—there appear to be a half-dozen or so of varying races and both genders—are incredibly beautiful, blank beings who spend their spare time wearing as little as possible, doing yoga and running on a treadmill. They also do Tai Chi, though they’ve yet to drink chai tea. When hired, these blank beings recline on spa chairs outfitted with blinky lights to get “imprinted” with “composite” personalities that allow them to be imbued with any range of characteristic, whereupon they are leased to people with more money than IQ points or self-awareness. All of them also receive a handler whom they trust implicity and who watches over them. In essence the company that is Dollhouse is in the business of creating the perfect person for the job at hand, regardless what the job may be, and for a limited time only. There’s also a rogue operative named Alpha and an impossibly hot FBI agent who is inexplicably hot on Dollhouse’s trail, just to complicate matters.
It’s an intellectually fascinating premise. Dollhouse has elements of The Matrix (easy implanting of difficult skills), Alias (the protean ability of one captivating woman), The X Files (an FBI agent who wants to believe and suffers for it), Terminator (technology gone horribly awry—or not), as well as a soupcon of The Stepford Wives (unbelievably gorgeous and compliant people). Dystopia + technology x (sexy bodies + gender politics) = a lot to ponder. And yet it’s the very premise of Dollhouse that poses its thorniest issues.
Because it arose from the consciousness of Joss Whedon, the show has recognizable elements of his other three programs. There is the faintly dangerous force of dominant culture—Buffy’s Watcher’s Council as well as its Initiative, Angel’s Wolfram & Hart, Firefly’s Alliance—that shows up here in the eponymous Dollhouse corporation. There is the theme that we humans make our own worst enemies—Buffy’s Frankensteinian Adam, Angel’s freaky son Connor, Firefly’s zombie-esque Reavers—that reappears in Dollhouse’s problem son Alpha. There is the blending of genres. There is the ambient mistrust of capitalist enterprises. There is the hero’s mysterious background. There is the gratuitous musical moment. There are, in short, all the telltale markers of a Whedon production.
If it’s Whedon, it also has to be feminist, and Whedon’s history of feminism stands to be the most contentious point among Dollhouse’s feminist critics, if the conversations on the Web are any indication. Whedon’s oeuvre’s showiest feminist character may be Buffy but he has created a voluminous list of strong female characters. Most importantly, Whedon creates not only good female characters, but also evil ones, and some like Willow and Faith who traverse the territory between these two extremes. A person is a feminist only when he or she believes that women can be as good as men—and that they can also be as evil. The question becomes how, then, can a show that glories in the trafficking of perfect women be a feminist enterprise? Dollhouse seems to fairly smack of misogyny.
However, this is Joss Whedon we’re talking about, so we need to look again. Three episodes in, Dushku’s eternally plastic Echo seems to be made of sterner stuff than she initially appeared in the pilot. Dushku is not much good at playing blank. Her features read too lively, too mercurial, to play convincingly empty but for cheerful obedience. This would be a problem if Echo were the ideal Stepford operative; by the third episode, she clearly is not. She may embody the silver screen upon which buyers project their wishes, but as she herself announces in the pilot episode, a clean slate is never clean. It always retains residue of its history, and like a slate, the brain of the cleverly named Echo is never washed completely.
This dirtiness stands to reason in the Whedonverse because rather than unthinkingly duplicate the cultural mechanisms that churn out the cookie cutter template for women, Dollhouse questions them. The best example of this critique is the most recent episode, “Stage Fright,” that centers on Rayna, a Beyoncé/Britney/Rihanna hybrid, who complains of being “grown in a lab” and of being “a factory girl,” and whose wish to be killed by her number one fan is as much fueled by her desire to escape her gilded cage as it is by her desire to give a good show. (Echo is assigned to protect Rayna, and she gets one good line about the star's death wish: "It's not just shave-your-head, flash-your-junk wackiness.") It’s a pretty, compelling portrait of any number of young female celebrities who have been rendered powerless through money, fame and management. The problem is that you can’t critique a media system without appearing to be complicit in it, especially if you’re making a television program on Fox. And yet I detect the criticism amid the glitter, pop music and washboard abs.
It’s not Dollhouse’s slippery grappling with female representation that troubles me. It’s that three specific elements of the Whedonverse seem absent from the show. Dollhouse lacks the trademark Whedon humor, for one thing, and though there are a few toss-away funny lines, they’re buried in a gloomy atmospheric murk (Echo on being asked if she knows how to shoot a gun: "I've got four brothers. None Democrats"). Second, the show’s premise is so complicated that it overpowers the program. Buffy’s simplicity was genius: its surface arc was “the blonde girl is not a victim but a savior,” while its metaphoric arc was “high school really is hell.” This simplicity allowed the program to grow in unexpected ways and to expand both on literal and metaphoric levels. Dollhouse’s prolix concept seems to overburden its narrative. And finally, while Buffy, Angel and Firefly all drew their narrative strength on the show’s complex bonds between people, Dollhouse’s infinitely replaceable personages preclude these bonds. There can be no Scoobies, no Angel Investigation, no Serenity in the Dollhouse world; relationships are forgotten as soon as they’re forged.
The real issue at the heart of the show is that when your central character is constantly changing, your audience has a hard time liking her. We can feel for her in an abstract and anxious way, but because she doesn’t sit still long enough for us to attach to her like moss to a stone, we can’t identify with her as we did with Buffy, Angel, Mal or any of the other myriad characters that populate the Whedonverse. It’s hard to find a likable character on Dollhouse, and that may be Whedon’s ultimate undoing. I can appreciate their abs, their abilities, and their wardrobe, but I stop short of wanting to be them. That’s a problem.
And yet because I love Whedon’s work so ardently, I’m going to give him and his new show as many chances as Fox will allow him. He has his work cut out for him, but if he can make the concept resonate in the heart, it might just be genius. I hope for the time when watching Dollhouse gives me a visceral thrill, an emotional response, and a gut laugh—and not just an intellectual jungle gym.