Saturday, May 9, 2009

Dollhouse: Season in Review

I'd love to say that sticking through to the end of the season has earned me some great insight into the nature - and problems - of "Dollhouse"... but the truth is, I'm as frustrated now as I was at the end of the pilot.

It's all well and good to run a relatively bold experiment in serial narrative: can you identify with a protagonist whose basic personality changes every episode? Can you have continuity without memory? Conceptually speaking, these are certainly interesting avenues for exploration.

Unfortunately, the sum has turned out to be considerably less than its parts.

The central moral issue (if you can call it that) in "Dollhouse" has to do, unsurprisingly, with the Dollhouse itself, and the way its Actives are used. Throughout the season, we were basically given three points of view represented by Paul Ballard, Adelle DeWitt and Topher Brink. Ballard sees the Dollhouse as an evil institution enslaving and pimping helpless victims, but he's also a slightly obsessive freak with a one-track mind whose investigate skills are, shall we say, slightly less than impressive. DeWitt wants to believe she's helping people, but more often than not things go horribly wrong (and she's kind of a hypocrite too). And finally, Topher doesn't much care about the moral implications of his work: he just likes playing with shiny toys and human brains.

In other words, there probably is a moral quandary here worth exploring, but none of the characters are capable of expressing that properly. And rather than remain neutral, the show seems to vacillate between taking the Dollhouse's side (ie: the traumatic revelations about Echo, Victor, November and Sierra in "Echoes", as well as Echo's innate desire to protect the Dollhouse in "Spy in the House of Love") and condemning it (because November's fate in the finale certainly looks like liberation in a uplifting sense).

The reason this is such a problem is because the Moral Issue is really the only thing that could even remotely qualify as an ongoing storyline. There's very little plot consistency: at best, the events of an episode will have consequences in the next one, but that's about it. Alpha is introduced, built up, and then forgotten until the penultimate episode; the threat of Echo snapping seems to appear and disappear whenever it's convenient, and so on. There was no sense of structure at all; the first five episodes seemed devoted entirely to world-building, with Whedon asking viewers to stick around a bit longer until the good stuff would kick in. And yes, later episodes improved somewhat, but none of the glaring flaws in this series were corrected (or, apparently, even noticed at all).

As for the season (possibly series) finale, "Omega"... well, I will say this for Whedon - he's still very good with misdirection, as the whole Whiskey revelation proves. And I enjoyed much of the dialogue. But now, a plea to all TV networks: can we have just one science-fiction series that doesn't engage in metaphysical mumbo-jumbo?! As soon as Ballard started talking about souls (and, guess what, he seems to be proven right given what Echo becomes) I just rolled my eyes and strongly resisted the urge to stop watching. Enough with the metaphors, enough with the childish navel-gazing, enough with invoking higher powers: just once, I would like to see a story that unfolds without invoking questions of divine intervention and the human spirit (literally).

I suppose the question of whether I'll be watching season 2 is moot, given the vultures circling over this show, but I'm going to have to chalk this up as another disappointment from Camp Whedon. And those are really starting to pile up. I do hope he comes out with something in the near future to remind me why I used to love his work...