Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Dolls and Dollhouses

We can hardly broach the subject of a show called "Dollhouse" without first referring you to the most recent toy review in The Clearance Bin. Strictly speaking, these are not dolls but rather "action figures," though the distinction, we feel is entirely semantic. Those of us who play with dolls would be better off admitting the fact, rather than hide behind petty technicalities.

Last Friday, Joss Whedon (iD&Di: .97), creator of Buffy, Firefly, and (more recently) Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog, premiered his newest project, Dollhouse, to an eager world.

The internet, of course, was abuzz.

There are few who command the level of fanatic loyalty that Whedon has. And, we would add, such a fan base exists with good reason. Buffy: The Vampire Slayer is easily one of the most significant modern superhero creations, overshadowing even the Powerpuff Girls in its influence. While not every episode of Buffy was equally brilliant, both it and its spin-off, Angel, stand as shining examples of what television can accomplish.

Firefly, if anything, went even further. Offering an innovative approach to an old conceit, its early cancellation stands as the pinnacle of errors.

There is little need to delve in depth on Dr. Horrible once more. If you've an interest, simply look to our initial review here, along with our follow-up look at the dvd.

Indeed, there can be little debate that Joss Whedon is capable of genius. But does Dollhouse live up to his previous work?

The answer, at least for now, is no. Presumably hoping to expand his range, Whedon has abandoned the humor of his earlier shows, relying instead on a starker tone. While we applaud the attempt, the result has a generic feel. There is no shortage of Science Fiction programs on television these days: we've yet to see what makes Dollhouse stand above.

Our reactions were not entirely negative, though. The pilot for Dollhouse revealed a philosophical depth that is unusual for network television. This isn't to say it delves deeper into its ideas than anything we've ever seen, but it does more than pay lip service to the compelling issues of identity and memory.

But philosophy alone will not carry a show. If Dollhouse does not find a hook to catch our attention, it is unlikely we will remain with the program.

The problem, we fear, is that the show will become trapped by its own premise. The concept relies on a constant string of memory wipes, which will no doubt grow old over time.

We wholly expect that the formula of the show will change over time. In fact, it is our considered opinion that Whedon has never had an intention to maintain the status quo. That Echo, our tabula rasa, will begin retaining some of her memories is more or less a given. But we anticipate larger changes.

There's a wide supporting cast with implied backgrounds and histories of their own - are there memories implanted, like the main character's?

Will Echo regain control of her destiny? Will she run from the Dollhouse? Or will she instead reach a point where she chooses to download memories to access knowledge and skills (with Whedon, it is never a safe bet that superheroics won't develop)?

But, ultimately, will any of this matter? Shows that begin with an episodic formula face a troublesome dilemma. If they continue to follow their formula, they will stagnate. But, should they deviate, they may well lose the element that attracted viewers.

Still, we've enough faith in Whedon to give him the benefit of the doubt. We'll keep watching for a while, at least. We have never been led astray by Joss before: we've every intention of giving him ample opportunity to impress us once more.

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