From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Opposing Viewpoints: Dollhouse

Joss Whedon’s latest effort, Dollhouse, premiered last night to an audience of almost 5 million viewers.  This show has been in the works for a long time, premiered with a reshot pilot, and has been the subject of speculation and, in some quarters, anger.  Fans and detractors alike are voicing their opinions on the show today, so we invited two of our contributors to offer their opinions in a new feature we’ve dubbed “Opposing Viewpoints”.

Why I’m Excited About Dollhouse — Samantha Chapman

I’ve only been a fan of Joss Whedon for about a year, but I’ve grown quickly to expect a mixture of off-beat humor, fully-developed characters and engaging storylines from his various works. Dollhouse may not be slated to be the comedy of the year, but the concept and potential for intriguing, thought-provoking stories more than anything else are what have me impatient to finally see the show.

For those of us not yet in the know, Dollhouse stars Eliza Dushku (known to Whedon fans as Faith from Buffy) as Echo, a girl whose memories, personality and experiences are cleaned away every night to leave her a blank slate. The titular Dollhouse is the secret facility where Echo and the other Dolls are kept in this blank state, to be rented out to the rich and famous for fantasies, crimes, companionship, or anything else, provided the price is right. Of course, Echo is going to have to make things difficult for her Handlers, when she begins to be self-aware and fight against her mental programming.

The murky moral ground and potential for stories involving wildly different ends of the legal spectrum are what excite me the most about the premise of Dollhouse. It’s easy to think of situations where renting a Doll would be ethically repugnant, but what if you rented one to be your counselor, someone to spill all your secrets to as therapy who will never remember? What if you rented a Doll to infiltrate a crime ring, needing someone untraceable, who can’t be found later for retaliation? The variety is endless, and I trust Joss to come up with as many situations and storylines as he needs to keep the show fresh and lively.

That’s not to say I’m not also excited for some good old-fashioned angsty drama. The potential for really tragic, heartbreaking moments is in the premise as well, and nothing gets to me more than a desperate or bittersweet moment. One thing mentioned at the Dollhouse ComicCon panel was the potential for Echo and FBI Agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett, Helo from Battlestar Galactica) to have a first meeting any number of times, as Echo will not remember him. Assuming romantic developments (which I don’t think is too far a leap, here), it can be truly gut-wrenching to watch Paul have to deal with Echo’s memory loss, until he can finally infiltrate the Dollhouse to save her.

So overall, it’s the potential of Dollhouse that has me excited to watch it. Sure, some shows never live up to their premise, but I think that the amount of work and thought put into this one will show, and all of the possible twists and turns will manifest themselves in interesting, exciting ways. My mind has already flown about looking for plots, and I haven’t been thinking about this nearly as long as the writers have. I’ll just have to wait, watch, and hope that I’m not disappointed.

Why I’m Not Excited about Dollhouse — Genevieve Valentine

Long story short: Dollhouse offers nothing worth being excited about.

Long story: While it’s a chance for staff writers to play with their pet genres (Spies! Geishas! Hackers! Chefs!), there are so many problems that not even forgettable plots or Shakespeare quotes from that programming nerd trying not to be like any of Whedon’s other programming nerds can distract from them.

And sure, it’s a pilot, but it’s Joss’s reshot pilot; that these problems remain after a second pass does not inspire confidence.

There are the large problems: why go to so much trouble with erasable minds when many other TV secret agents have done far more than negotiate with kidnappers and dance in a short dress as the camera goes for upskirt shots?

There are the small problems: if they need another member, will they have to shift all the coffin-beds in that round bedroom? Does no one notice people climbing in and out of a huge black kidnapper van? What was the burning need for a co-ed shower?

There are the casting problems: Eliza Dushku cannot sell three of the four personas she attempts in the pilot. Tahmoh Penikett frowned manfully and took cell-phone videos, and everyone else meandered through IKEA sets dropping exposition. (This will, presumably, improve, though Dushku in the lead is a problem Whedon made for himself.)

There are the script problems: exposition was still being dropped in minute forty-five.

There are the subtext problems: our heroine’s first assignment was to be hot. (For this we need mindwiped secret agents?) Her second assignment involved a persona who had been abused as a child by the kidnapper she was going to face, which turned her into a timid victim (and, frankly, seems a pretty avoidable misstep).

And finally, there is the problem of stakes: despite the effort to attach us to Dushku’s character with a teaser about her past (an insufferable, aimless co-ed), Dushku’s performance is not compelling enough to make us care about what happens to her – not a good sign for a show.

Watch the premiere yourself:

And tell us: Which side of the fence do you fall on?

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