It’s been confirmed that Joss Whedon’s latest show Dollhouse won’t be getting a third season. This comes as a surprise to exactly no one, after the show struggled to find an audience within the first few episodes of the first season, and didn’t improve its numbers this season. FOX even went so far as to pull it from its November sweeps programming, instead choosing to air reruns of House and Bones. That’s right- they chose to show episodes of shows people had already seen instead of brand new episodes of a show which desperately needed attention from viewers.
The trouble is, for the first time in basically forever, and I can’t belive I’m about to say this… they’re absolutely right to do so.
Look, Whedon has had a bad run at FOX, everyone knows that. They gave him his head on Buffy, it’s true, but pulled the plug on Angel just as it was getting good again, not to mention the complete debacle that was their handling of Firefly.
And it’s not just Whedon’s shows, FOX are well know in fandom for their heavy handed practises with shows, up to and including threatening to scuttle the relaunch of Futurama by completely recasting the voice actors with people who’d work for less money (they eventually reached a deal with the old cast, but still- wow)
The Firefly incident especially leaves fans bitter, that such an incredible show, with such instant chemistry between its cast and a wealth of stories and settings to draw from, was shuffled around the schedule, given little to no promotion, before being dumped after 13 episodes for “not rating”. That’s the sort of thing to create a lifelong enemy of your brand.
But unfortunately, that isn’t what happened here. Dollhouse was given every opportunity to succeed; it was scheduled in the popular Friday night timeslot in the US, teamed up with the already popular Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles as a programming block to keep viewers from clicking away; it was heavily promoted, with TV spots, radio and print ads, even public transport and other types of advetising; it was even saved from a last-minute axeing by fan-petition towards the end of the first season, despite an abysmal showing in the ratings. And that was taking into account views online via sites such as Hulu which streamed it officially as a broadcast partner.
No, what every Whedon fan has to do at this point is face the awful truth that we may be looking at a previously unheard of phenomenon- a Whedon flop. Up until now, the man has seemed untouchable, even as he presided over several doomed ventures. But Dollhouse is a different beast altogether.
Dollhouse should have worked. The premise of the show itself was awesome- an Evil Corporation has developed a way to wipe a human brain of its personality and implant it with a new one; like wiping a hard drive. Like all cutting edge technology, it’s used largely for sex; several nubile young “volunteers”, called Actives, are kept in a facility called the Dollhouse, where they act as basically very-high class prostitutes, with the twist that you can make them think, completely and truly, that they are in love with you, and want to do anything to please you.
It’s an intriguing idea, and of course there are myriad ways the Actives could be used other than as walking talking RealDolls; in one episode, an Active is programmed as a master safe-cracker, in another, as a skilled hostage negotiator.
But it was here that the show also fell down. The entire show was reportedly set up as a vehicle for Whedon-and-fan-favourite Eliza Dushku to showcase her acting talent, esentially by playing a new character every week. The trouble with that was Dushku, while a fine actress, doesn’t have anywhere near the range needed to pull off the various roles she was being called on to play. It also didn’t help that because the main character, who the audience is usually meant to identify with, was a blank slate, there was no relatability. “Echo”, as Dushku’s character was known, was a childlike tabula rasa when she wasn’t imprinted with false skills and traits for the current mission.
Not to mention that most of the other Actives were far better at playing their different personalities, meaning whenever Dushku was on screen, we wanted to see what the other Dolls were up to. Let’s be clear here. Even when Dushku was wearing this-
we still would have preferred to see what one of the other characters was up to. That is not right, Dollhouse writers. If I see Eliza Dushku in bondage leathers and think “I wonder what Topher is up to?” something has gone terribly wrong.
And ultimately, I think it did. Dollhouse suffered not from poor casting, but from some actors being stretched way, WAY past their range, poor plotting, a glacial reveal of backstory which should have been brought forward a lot more quickly, and a general sense of wasted potential. So many great ideas, but none of them seemed to mesh.
Take for instance Episode 13 of season 1, “Epitaph One”. In it, SPOILERS the show flashes forward several years to a time when humanity is in a post-apocalypic chaos, following a mass wireless wiping of the majority of the population by a rival to the Rossum Corporation. There are only small groups of survivors who managed to not be wiped in the intital onslaught, trying to survive in a world now populated basically by the fast-zombies from 28 Days Later, people with their original personality wiped and replaced with mindless rage.
It is a gripping, fast-paced 45 minutes, some of the best TV I’ve seen for ages. It also, in a brave move, foreshadows a massive event in the near future for the show as it currently stood, and which Season 2 has been dropping little hints and clues about as it works towards the inevitable mass-wipe. A pity then that “Epitaph One” was never aired, and only appeared on the DVD of season 1. Who’s fault that is remains open for debate, but the simple fact of the matter is in 45 minutes, Joss made me care more about a group of characters and their story than he had managed with 12 whole episodes of Dollhouse.
The question then becomes- why wasn’t THAT the show? Or at least, why wasn’t that storyline incorporated more fully into the show? Half-assed attempts at viral marketing based around the future as seen in Epitaph One just seem all the more hollow now we know the show is done after this season.
Who knows what reasons lay behind how the show turned out. Maybe Joss and the other writers literally only came up with that apocalyptic future after they’d started making the show. Maybe studio pressures really did hamper him again; its common knowledge FOX made Whedon re-write the first 7 or so episodes of the series to make it “less confusing”.
But ultimately, they were very hands-off with the making of the show, much moreso than in the past. Which means there’s really no one left to blame but the production team, including Whedon himself.
Look, this all kills me to say, because I’ve been a fan of Whedon’s stuff ever since Buffy. That show was paradigm-shifting, it changed things forever, and has rightly entered the pop culture milleu along with things like Sherlock Holmes, Hamlet, and Star Trek. But Whedon has not had a good run in his last few projects, and the cancellation of Dollhouse could be a sign that the wheels are finally coming off the geek-train.
I sincerely hope they’re not, but you have to admit he’s starting to lose some of his shine. Especially when you start to realise that his bag of tricks only includes two or three tricks, and they all involve women being AWESOME. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if you eat the same meal every day for a month, you’re going to get sick of it.
In the end it comes down to this- industry people and fans are going to be watching Joss’s NEXT project with great interest. Because it’s make or break time. If he comes through with another instant classic, or even just a workable film or TV series, then the streak is broken and we’re all good. But if it’s another flop then we can’t write it up as the Big Bad Studio stifling Whedon’s creative vision any more. We’ve got to start coming to terms with the idea that maybe he was a one trick pony all along, and we’re looking for a new trick.