Wednesday, April 22, 2009

no heroes, only dolls

It's that time of year where people are starting to talk more about TV shows that are getting canceled and ones that are getting renewed, generally both despite their quality. I've heard some complaints about the possible fate of Chuck (which I haven't watched), Terminator (which I have, and it's good) and Castle (which I have, and I'm sorry, but it's crap).

The one that everyone's talking about, though, is Joss Whedon's Dollhouse, which you may have heard is in serious danger. Having watched this show, I think there's a lot to talk about in it. A whole lot, the more I think about it.

I haven't been sure about the show since it debuted. I wondered for a while if that was common among Whedon fans, seeing as I'm one of the rare ones who never got into Buffy or Angel, but my general impression is that it's not considered one of his best.

On the other hand, it should be noted that the show has gotten much better since "Man on the Street" (the one about Sierra's rape). In the earlier episodes, when the show appeared to be dealing primarily with the connections between eros and identity, it wasn't as interesting because of the "ick factor" of the central premise, which constantly asserts itself into any attempt to engage the show intellectually. Besides the almost objectively better writing quality of "Man on the Street" and later episodes, I feel like it was the first one where the writers acknowledged to us that they realize how creepy the premise of the show is, where they really embraced it and transitioned the show into a meditation on consent and domination.

Sady at Tiger Beatdown is right: it's a show about patriarchy, and is so in ways so obvious that I can't believe I didn't recognize it earlier.

That realization changed my perspective on the entire show. Dollhouse has several major problems, including Eliza Dushku's limited range and the incredible implausibility of such a company as the Dollhouse. Perhaps the biggest, though, is the lack of anyone in the cast to become invested in and identify with. The characters are uniformly unlikeable because they are, to a man, either:
    a) perpetuators of an organization that engages in a form of human trafficking, or
    b) utterly passive ciphers.

Even the characters that the show seems to want you to like, Boyd and Ivy and the doctor and sometimes Adele, are primary actors in what can only be described as Echo's forced prostitution. Meanwhile, Paul Ballard, who's supposed to be her Knight In Shining Armor, has an "ick factor" of his own: he seems primarily motivated by his own obsessive desire to have her for himself.

Once the oppression becomes the focal point, however, those roadblocks become interesting in their own right, how the characters, otherwise perfectly normal and likable people, deal with and rationalize their own involvement in the oppression of other people. Furthermore, they deal with the gross moral contradiction in what they're doing to varying degrees. While it seems to keep Boyd up at night, Topher (interestingly, a character clearly modeled after Whedon himself) seems utterly unconcerned by it, treating it purely as a scientific exercise. Adele has marshaled a litany of excuses, generally relating to the "good" they do, yet she [SPOILER ALERT] herself frequently indulges herself with one of the actives. When she eventually stops, it isn't because she recognizes the doll's humanity and the way she's abusing him, but rather how pathetic she is to fall for a false person.

And yet, you can't just say "f*** Boyd," because his personal struggle with what he's doing becomes itself endearing. Adele's moments of weakness are humanizing. Topher is utterly despicable especially in his faux-lovable geekiness, but that fact becomes particularly interesting in light of the realization that Topher is Joss Whedon, taking beautiful women, replacing their identities with ones he's tailor-made for the "job," and sending them off to amuse other people.

This, of course, means that the show carries entirely too much intellectual heft to survive on network television.


sap said...

So *that* is what I've been thinking for weeks but unable to express! The Sady piece is far more articulate than my own thoughts had been.

If Fox catches on that would seem to spell certain doom for the show, so I suppose we'll have to hope that the dvr/website download numbers are enough to convince them of a solid audience. Or that they miss the point and just think it is about showing ok-for-prime-time exploitative sex of beautiful people, which studio people tend to think sells well.

Oh, and the evil feminist paper corrector in me must point out the irony of the following phrase:

"The characters are uniformly unlikeable because they are, to a man, either..."

Way to let the patriarchy take hold of your brain, dude. :)

el ranchero said...

I actually thought about that phrase, but "to a person" sounded weird and calls attention to it, like I'm saying "Look, I didn't say 'man!' I'm a feminist! Really!"

sap said...

Ah yes, but isn't that the problem? Sexism in the form of phrases like "to a man" imbedded so thoroughly in our daily language that there is no way to change them without drawing attention and seeming to be screaming about it? Is there any way to stop the subtle stuff like that without making a fuss? Or is the point to go ahead and make the fuss? To draw attention to the insidiously subtle language or mannerisms that perpetuate the system?

For example, I've been trying not to use the word "seminal" for a few years now, given it's linking of success, creativity and prestige with obviously male-only, um, stuff. While it doesn't come up often (though more often than you'd think in an academic setting), it is hard to find a good replacement. Saying "ovule" or the like is ridiculous sounding, but am I selling the point short by just using "ground-breaking" or "important" or other similar words?