Wednesday, July 13, 2011

And on the 8th Business Day of Whedon, There was Dollhouse


Last summer, I wrote the seven part Seven Business Days of Whedon feature on the old Quad Blogs website. The Seven Business Days of Whedon found success on the interweb, specifically in the fandom communities like whedonesque.com (you can find the seven business days of Whedon in the archives of this very blog). I received feedback and some criticism for my various opinions on individual episodes (like why I defend the ANGEL series finale). I read disappointments from several individuals about the lack of Dollhouse during the seven business days. I had my reasons for essentially ignoring Joss' fourth TV series. Among them was a reluctance to write about the series without a re-watch or two. I've re-watched Buffy, ANGEL and Firefly many times over the years. Dollhouse was new, its storytelling complex and complicated its issues worth a re-watch or two. So, I return nearly a year later with the 8th and Final Day of Whedon.

Before Dollhouse premiered in January of 2009, I wrote a preview of the show for my college newspaper. I remember when news broke that Joss planned to return to TV with an Eliza Dushku led series but I had no knowledge about the series. I just knew that the series involved a place called the Dollhouse and characters known as actives. As I researched the preview article, I had no clear idea about what the week-to-week format of the show would be. I had unwavering belief that it'd be great television and I anticipated themes about identity and freedom. When the show premiered, I liked it. Throughout season one, though, the story didn't hook me the way Buffy, ANGEL and Firefly did on my first viewings. I wondered why. I certainly liked the characters, the writing, the acting and the directing. What the hurt the first season beyond the problems Joss had with FOX about the tone of the show was the extended episodes (each episode clocks in around 49 minutes). Simply, most episodes didn't have enough narrative to justify the run-time so some scenes would drag (the entire "Briar Rose" episode seemed like it dragged, especially with the prolonged scenes drawing parallels between Echo, the troubled girl and the story and Echo's future). A great episode like "A Spy in the House of Love" ultimately suffered from seven extra minutes. The only season one episode that used the time well was Joss' "Man on the Street."

Many fans and critics became frustrated with the show early because the first few are unremarkable (with the exception of "The Target," which is fantastic). They were stand-alone episodes that struggled to build the world of the show. The audience couldn't relate with the characters because the characters had a different identity each episode. Throughout the first five weeks, fans and critics alike held hope that episode six of the season would change the show because Joss and Eliza promised that episode six would mark the first episode that really showed what Dollhouse was about. Indeed, "Man on the Street" is a terrific episode of TV. Joss dove into the ethics and murky morality of the Dollhouse. Patton Oswalt's Joel Mynor is a fully drawn character, the first of its kind for those who buy the dolls. And he acknowledges the ethical and moral issues within the business in which he partakes but he's lonely, and the dollhouse is a lonely line of work.

"Man on the Street" moved the series into a more serialized format (Joss' strength). The rest of season one had its stand-alones but the season also had an identity that the first five episodes lacked. We learned about Caroline, Tony and Priya in "Needs." In "Epitaph One," we learned more about Topher and Adelle's compassion and humanity than in any other previous episode. "Omega," the season finale, is among the most bizarre episodes in television yet it's Alpha's origin story, and we learn quite a bit about Dr. Saunders as well as Echo and Alpha's history.

Joss and his writers, directors and crew took the show to an awesome level in the second season of the show. The first season left a dull taste in my mouth in the months afterwards. I only bought the DVD when I found it in a bargain bin. Truthfully, they were lucky to produce another season because their season one numbers were dreadful. The second season begins slowly with some stand-alones before "Belonging" made a statement about what kind of show they'd be for the rest of the season.

Of course, the first three episodes of the season are vital for Echo's growth into a fully-formed character rather than someone waiting for Caroline to return. Season 1's problems boil down to the Echo Problem. Season 2's success, simply, is about the Echo Solution. She became the protagonist. The writers stopped shoving Caroline's altruism down the viewers throat because fans and critics never warmed to Caroline's brashness and sheer unlikability. Echo remembers in the first three episodes. The most moving scene in the first three episodes is the last scene in "Instinct," when Echo tells Paul that she remembers everything hours after an ordeal she had while imprinted to be a mother. It's in the scene when one understands and feels how manipulative and cruel the active's life is.

In mid-season, Echo owns her memories completely and possesses the ability to switch from person to person. The overall narrative's damn exciting and compelling too. We learn more about Rossum, their plans for the tech and for the future. In the two parter with Alexis Denisof, we learn that Rossum's influence stretches into the political realm as they transformed Denisof's senator from screw-up into political giant (that angle allows Joss to make one last dig at George W. Bush). Tony and Priya become active characters in the narrative. "Belonging" is about Priya, rather than Sierra, and her desire for revenge. Topher's a prominent character in the story as his transformation into future hero continues. More succinctly, the second season's magnificent because it's about well-written, compelling characters coming together to form Reflexive Pronoun Use (consider revising) family with life-or-death stakes. I love the way the characters come together at the end of "The Attic" when we learn that Adelle sent Echo to the attic so that she could learn how to defeat Rossum. Such a scene is a staple of Mutant Enemy and no less goose bump inducing.

Before I dive into the Top 7 episodes of Dollhouse, I have scattered thoughts about some of my favorite scenes and characters in the series:

--Topher and Claire's scene in "Vows" might be the best scene in the Whedonverse. Claire's in the midst of an identity-crisis and she hates her maker, her creator Topher. She's unsure of where Whiskey begins and Dr. Saunders ends. The scene says so much about identity and free-will. It asks questions that do not have answers. My favorite exchange in the scene is when Claire accuses Topher of not caring if people are hurt. He responds: "You don't know me! That's the contract. You don't know me, and I don't know you, not fully, not ever! I made you a question. I made you fight for your beliefs. I didn't make you hate me. You chose to."

--The Two Tophers is among the most delightful B stories in the Whedonverse. I get a kick out of the Two Tophers conversing about Bennett like she's actually Summer Glau and their fanboys at a convention.

--I didn't care about Paul and Echo in season one but season two made me care about them so much so that their weird reunion in her head moved me. It's an odd happy ending but fittingly Dollhouse.

--Alan Tudyk's turn as the Big Bad for 98% of the series is great fun. I had no idea the paranoid computer geek Tudyk began the series as would, in fact, be the menacing Alpha. Alpha's a great villain because he's the other side of the Echo coin. The difference between the two is insane and sane. When they tech went awry, Alpha had to process many, many personalities and it caused a psychotic break. It didn't help that his original personality liked to kill folk and slash faces. He became obsessed with Echo and, previously, Whiskey. Alpha desired to deliver a stable composite event into her brain so that they would be the same. Eventually, he mastered his various personalities and became a freedom fighter in 2019-2020. He redeems himself by giving Echo the Paul Ballard's full imprint.

--Paul Ballard escaped the trappings of the brooding, selfless hero type in season two. Ballard has moments of greatness in the first season--his arc with November's worthwhile, his fight with one of Echo's imprint and his showdown with Alpha in "Omega." I liked his integration into the Dollhouse in the second season. He's too separate in the season one. His primary focus is saving Caroline from the Dollhouse. The arc's predictable and boring. When he becomes Echo's ally, though, then Ballard becomes something better. I like his interactions with Boyd and Adelle. I especially like his interactions with Topher. Of course, I think Topher's gold in any scene because of Fran Kranz.

--I suppose it's time to write about Boyd. "The Hollow Men" didn't crack the Top 7, though I like the episode more than others. The reveal of Boyd as the Big Bad of Rossum came out of nowhere. His motivations were insane (which was the point, I think). His insanity sort of saved the absurd reveal. I can't help but opine that his death happened as a result of some murky morals. He's wiped clean and handed a grenade to blow him up and the Rossum headquarters in Arizona. Actives wiped clean were described as children (essentially). Yeah, Rossum would've used the tech on Boyd to restore him but, still.

--The first five episodes of the series aren't that bad contrary to popular opinion. "The Target" shows up on the list below. "Gray Hour" is a fun hour of television--an episode that showed me what Dollhouse could be. "Stage Fright" is atrocious, though. Tim Minear's commentary with sofadogs on "True Believers" changed the way I thought about the episode.

Well, onto the Top 7:

THE TOP SEVEN DOLLHOUSE EPISODES

7. "Man on the Street"--Written By Joss Whedon; Directed By David Straiton

Joss said he wrote the script faster than any script he's written. Ballard and Joel's conversation is a highlight of the episode as is the infamous fight where Paul receives messages from some mysterious person within the Dollhouse. The identity of Sierra's attacker is revealed and Adelle has some harsh revenge for the handler who violated his active and his job. She sends him to Mellie's where Adelle triggers her and all hell breaks loose. This episode's one of the highest points in Dollhouse.

6. "A Spy in the House of Love"--Written By Andrew Chambliss; Directed By David Solomon

The story follows four separate engagements. The episodes as much a character study as a spy espionage intrigue story. Ms. Lonely Hearts shows us a side of Adelle that no one expected. She sometimes indulges in her own business. Dominic's revealed as the spy, as someone part of a group hellbent on taking down Rossum. Echo leads Adelle to Dominic, in Echo's most major moment of self-awareness in the series.

5. "The Attic"--Written By Maurissa Tancharoen & Jed Whedon; Directed By John Cassaday

"The Attic" is one of those episodes Dollhouse could only produce. Adelle sends Echo, Tony and Priya to the attic--the place where nightmares are forever. During their time in the attic, they meet up with Dominic, who has gone from mind-to-mind tracking the shadow-creature called Arcane. Arcane reveals himself as none other than co-founder of Rossum and the tech, Clyde. He reveals that the attic IS the mainframe of Rossum--the human mind operates 20x faster than the fastest computer. Clyde's murdered people in hopes to collapse the mainframe. Clyde shows Echo, Priya, Tony and Dominic the shape of things to come (the world we saw in "Epitaph One"). They learn, through Clyde, that Caroline learned who controls Rossum. Echo must become Caroline to bring Rossum down.

The episode's so awesome. The Rossum stuff's so cool. The storytelling's tight. It's one of the great hours in all of the Whedonverse. The episode explodes visually.

4. "Getting Closer"--Written & Directed By Tim Minear

Claire shoots Bennett in the head. Echo meets Caroline. The gang of do-gooders prepares to make their last stand against Rossum. Bennett's death is heartbreaking. The writers, in particular Minear, were cruel to write wonderful scenes with Topher and Bennett only to have Topher watch Claire shoot the girl of his dreams in the head--exciting episode that concludes with the jaw-dropping Boyd reveal.

3. "Epitaph One"--Written By Maurissa Tancharoen & Jed Whedon; Story By Joss Whedon; Directed By David Solomon

What a great episode. The narrative flash-forwards 10 years into a post-apocalyptic landscape where the tech has affected 97% of the population. The scene of the episode is Topher and Adelle when we learn that Topher's responsible for the tech ("don't answer the phone"). The episode ends with hope that the tech can be stopped and peace will return.

2. "The Target"--Written & Directed By Steven S. DeKnight

I love "The Target" so, so much. For roughly forty minutes, Echo flees a psychopath who bought her time just to kill her. Echo and Boyd bond and form a permanent trust because of the experience. "The Target" is quintessential Whedon--girl terrorized turns the tables on the male aggressor and kicks his ass. This episode is DeKnight's best episode as a director.

1. "Belonging"--Written By Maurissa Tancharoen & Jed Whedon; Directed By Jonathan Frakes

No episode compares to the brilliance of "Belonging." The Episode is special. I dare not tarnish the episode by writing anything more about. Dichen and Fran were tremendous. Frakes' direction was cinematic. Mo and Jed didn't waste a single word.

In closing, I'm glad Dollhouse aired for two seasons. The show becomes better with each viewing. The storytelling's so rich, dark, and complicated. Buffy and Firefly will always receive the most attention from the media but Dollhouse and ANGEL were great, great television. Everyone should be proud of Dollhouse. It was one hell of a series.

THE YOUTUBE CLIP OF THE WEEK


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About The Foot

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Originally, I titled the blog Jacob's Foot after the giant foot that Jacob inhabited in LOST. That ended. It became TV With The Foot in 2010. I wrote about a lot of TV.