The Doll's House
Sometimes bad television is more than just bad television. I think we can all agree that The Real Housewives of Atlanta, no matter how much you love it and want to listen to “(Don’t Be) Tardy to the Party” on repeat, does not constitute an epitome of human cultural production. The same can be said for America’s Next Top Model, which is effectively made, entertaining, terrible TV. (Especially this season, by the way. The whole short model premise has really allowed them to push their innate freak show tendencies.) But as in the case of a show like Sports Night, a show with problems can still be well worth watching.
That’s what Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse is for me – a show with failings both external to its production and inherent in its concept, that I nevertheless find completely fascinating. I’ll back up a bit, because you probably haven’t seen Dollhouse. Nobody has. It airs at 9pm on Fridays, and opened its second season last Friday night to impressively low ratings. The premise of the show is that the Rossum Corporation has produced technology that enables them to imprint a human body with any identity they desire, and they use this technology as a form of prostitution. If you hire Rossum, they will imprint a human with any personality you choose and allow you to have that person for as long as you’re willing to pay. The idea is that the show can split two ways. On the one hand, you’ve got action star main character Echo, played by Eliza Dushku, who can be imprinted with awesome, sexy skills which allow her to hop straight off her motorcycle and into her hostage negotiator/bride/backup singer/art thief gig. On the other hand, you’ve got an incredibly creepy setup to allow you to explore morality and identity, the relationship between the body and the mind, immortality and the construction of avatars, and a new and disturbing technological apocalypse. Awesome, right?
Turns out, that show is not so easy to make. Whedon has been fairly close-lipped about the creative differences that led to making and remaking the first season of the show, but the emphasis ended up more with sexy prostitute ninjas than with creepy moral grey area. Who knows what actually happened, but my guess would be it was mostly a result of network exec input. Unlike the untimely death of Firefly, though, the blame cannot fall entirely on the network. The bigger problem is that for much of the first season, Dollhouse’s audience couldn’t piece apart the show’s intention. Does the show condone the Dollhouse? If so, that’s awful. Assuming the ultimate goal is to condemn the Dollhouse, then you’ve built a show where all the main characters are brain dead dolls or brilliant, sociopathic pimps. Sure, the thought experiment might be intriguing, but watching a show almost completely devoid of sympathetic characters is less than fun. It’s not impossible to build a show around an evil sociopath – case in point, The Sopranos. Where Tony Soprano is terrifying, funny, complicated, sympathetic and motivated, though, the Rossum Corporation is merely greedy and amoral.
And yet, occasionally you can catch glimpses of the show it should be between the bloody fight scenes and shots of dolls wandering around uselessly. In the second season premiere, the Dollhouse’s doctor (because, remember, they are prostitutes in both an unconventional as well a more traditional sense) copes with the discovery that she is also a doll. The Dollhouse still needs her, so instead of wiping her and starting over, she has to deal with the knowledge that she is an artificial construct of a person inhabiting someone else’s body. Dr. Saunders, living in the body of the doll Whiskey, confronts Topher, the brilliant evil nerd programmer who created her. Topher asks why she doesn’t try to restore her original identity, which is stored somewhere in the Dollhouse’s memory banks. “Because I don’t want to die,” she says. “I’m in someone else’s body and I’m afraid to give it up.”
See? Disturbing, fascinating, tragic, sympathetic, appealing, frustrating. What should we want, Dr. Saunders to “die” by being erased, or whoever the poor woman really was to continue to be “dead” while someone else uses her body? And then there’s the amazing, unaired thirteenth episode of the first season, which takes place ten years in the post-apocalyptic future where Dollhouse technology has spread and no identity is safe. That’s the Dollhouse worth watching. The show almost certainly won’t be around for very long – no one thought it’d come back for a second season – so who knows if it will ever find its stride. As a symptom of its many failings, I have no emotional attachment to the show, and will not be crushed when it inevitably dies. In the mean time, while it’s still around, the intellectual exercise of piecing together its scattered, excellent fragments turns out to be enough for me to stay interested.