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Dollhouse: Just Start Here

There are two things to say up front. First, this post does not indicate another schizophrenic relaunch of PIE SPOILERS!!! Instead, I just needed a place to put my disjointed thoughts about “Ghost”, the first episode of Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku’s new series Dollhouse.

Second, in many ways these thoughts became as much a response to other people’s reviews of the Dollhouse pilot as a reaction to the pilot itself. In that regard, I’m kind of thankful that I saw it so much later than did so many other people.

While I understand, superficially, the concern some reviewers have expressed about how the audience is going to care about a character that in essence is a blank slate, I’m a little surprised no one else seems to have seen what Joss has done: Boyd Langton, Echo’s handler, is the doorway through which the audience will connect to Echo’s humanity while we (and she) are still learning about her past self.

Harry Lennix is near-perfect casting for what he has to do here. A single concerned look for what’s happening to her in one scene (even though what’s happening to her is just a conversation, and of course it’s her assumed personality talking) makes us concerned for her in turn. Boyd is the audience’s link to Echo regardless of how blank Echo might be.

It also seems pretty evident that the concern over the audience’s connection to Echo likely would have been more problematic in the original pilot, at least based upon its script. The new first episode establishes some hooks into Echo’s story that the original script did not. I confess that when I first heard of this particular adjustment, I was skeptical that it would sit well with me. But it’s done in a way that gives just enough, without giving up the game.

But even beyond that, the second time through I noticed another dynamic: The audience might very well find themselves identifying with the personalities of the people with whom Echo is imprinted (I do think you get to rooting for her persona in this pilot). While that’s not the same as identifying or connecting with Echo, it works almost as a kind of proxy, and also, frankly, plays into the open and fluid questions about what makes us human that the show is posing to begin with.

Identification is not going to be simple, straightforward, or necessarily even easily identifiable. But given the premise, and its philosophical questions, I’m not sure it should be. And while it might not be those things, I do think identification is recognizable within the ways the show presents it. Those ways are just a little askance from the norm. But they are there, and they are reachable by the audience.

I’m afraid that I found myself most perplexed with the humor complaints. A fair number of reviewers seem to have noted a lack of Joss’ “trademark” humor (whatever trademark that might be). And while it’s true that there’s no overt “oh look, Xander just made a funny” humor in the pilot, anyone arguing that there’s no humor at all must have watched a damaged version of the screener with missing dialogue or scenes.

But here’s what I think is actually happening: The humor in the pilot is more subtle, even, I’d argue, a bit subversive. Much of it comes from the Dollhouse’s personality programmer Topher (and a little from Russian mobster Lubov), but in addition to having an odd sense of humor that is not at all of the Xander sort, he’s an amoral punk that I think many reviewers felt uncomfortable identifying with even just a little. And humor is one of those ways in which people identify with each other.

It’s actually a juicy little trick Joss has pulled. He gives the best humor in the pilot to someone we might not actually like if we had to deal with them in real life. If people don’t see Topher’s humor as funny, I suspect it might be because they were too uncomfortable with the idea of identifying with him.

Personally, and I’ve expressed this elsewhere, I think Topher has a bit of the artist’s humor. The observant craftsman who has to be both engaged in understanding the world around him but detached from it at the same time in order to do what he does. I’ve said before that I suspect that what he does, the forming of personality and identity, isn’t merely technical, but artistic. I now think his particular kind of humor is an aspect of that.

I’d love to get the chance some day to talk to Joss about his development as a maker of television between the end of Buffy and the start of Dollhouse, and the impact that writing and directing a multi-million dollar motion picture had on him as an artist. He’s got a very different canvas to work with here, both in terms of the studio set and the city of Los Angeles, and he starts putting it all to work right away, in ways we never really saw him get the opportunity to do in Buffy or Angel.

(There was a lot of location shooting on Firefly, but it was almost all seemingly the same M*A*S*H terrain redressed into different barely-terraformed planets. So, not quite the same thing.)

My suspicion is that his experience on Serenity made him much more familiar and comfortable with the use of space than he was before. If so, it shows here. Well, even if not, it still shows here anyway.

I love the way in which they manage to introduce the world being depicted without actually having a beginning. We definitely are dropped down into a world that existed before anyone started calling our attention to it. Everything’s already moving, everyone’s already in the middle of doing something, of being something.

It’s not so much the beginning of a story as it is someone (Joss) saying, “Just start here.”

A general consensus seems to have formed, over the course of the early reviews, that “Ghost” was adequate to good, not perfect, but showed potential.

That consensus is too weak a position for me to agree with. I find myself now more excited, more anticipatory, for Dollhouse to start than I was before I had seen any of it.

It’s true that there’s a bit of it that seems more forced to me than the some of the original pilot script. Some of the introduction of FBI agent Paul Ballard played as heavy-handed and unnecessary metaphor for me. And this episode’s engagement (a hostage negotiation) at times plays more like “here’s an idea of how an engagement might work” than a fully satisfying story of its own.

Despite that I also believe, as I argue above, that the audience will successfully identify with the negotiator personality’s story arc.

But I’m forgiving of these because everything else about the setup worked so extraordinarily well for me. We might be dropped into the middle — we might be asked to “just start here” — but we come away knowing the basic dynamic.

We know the premise. We know how Adelle DeWitt, head of the Dollhouse, handles her position. We get a sense of how Claire Saunders, the operation’s in-house doctor, feels about the Actives. We see how Boyd and Topher interact with one another. And we see our initial glimpse of Echo as both “blank slate” (a condition I think Dushku actually nails here pretty well) and as Active on assignment.

In truth, I came away with the sense that if Whedon and his team can manage to follow through on what they establish in “Ghost”, Dollhouse actually could end up being kind of beautiful.

Just start here, and I think everything will be fine. For my part, I’m now as anticipatory for February 20 and the second episode as everyone else is for February 13 and the premiere. That can only be a good sign.

After Thoughts

It occurs to me only now, after posting this, that while Joss and Eliza talk about the genesis of this show being in how Eliza feels about other people constantly telling her who she is supposed to be, people do that to Joss as well.

I find myself wondering if that doesn’t account for some of the discord, mostly minor though it might be, from early reviewers of the pilot.

Does anyone remember the people who didn’t like Firefly because it wasn’t Buffy? Or who didn’t like Serenity because it wasn’t Firefly? Some of that has been in play here, I think.

This isn’t Joss bringing his Buffy sensibilities back to television. This isn’t Joss bringing his Firefly sensibilities back to television. This is Joss bringing his Dollhouse sensibilities to television. Let him be where he is, rather than insisting to yourself, even unconsciously, that he should be where he was.

It is, of course, entirely legitimate to still not enjoy it, for it to not work for you. But at least go into this with the intention to let him do what he wants to do. Then decide.

While I freely admit that I worked my network of contacts to get a chance to see the pilot, Fox is perfectly free to send me my own copies of episodes two and three if they’d like. Have your geeks WHOIS this domain for my address. Just sayin’.

Don’t read this recent LA Times item if you’re avoiding spoilers. But given what I wrote above, I felt the need to mention that Fran Kranz describes Topher thusly: “But he sees it as an artistic, creative process. When he builds these personalities, I like to look at it like he’s building a brain. He’s using real parts of real personalities. Nothing is completely artificial. They’re pieces of real people. They’re kind of his color palette, and his final product is a complete person.”

- The One True b!X

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