Thursday, February 26, 2009

Review of Episode Two of the Dollhouse (ridiculously long)

I am so excited about having a new Joss Whedon TV show (even though I haven't been able to write anything else, because I've been planning this epic review. I may need to make the reviews a little less epic, if I'm going to ever blog about anything but Joss). Even though dollhouse is not great, by any stretch of the imagination, I've missed having a show to watch every week, and there's huge potential.

I thought this episode was a huge step up over the second pilot (and not as good as the script from the pilot that they scrapped, but that's the great minds of Fox executives for you). In particular the main plotline wasn't deathly boring, and there was some connection between that plotline and what we learned about the dollhouse. It seemed to show exactly how much they could fit in an episode, and how much richer the episodes are when they're full.

Plus it seemed more like a Joss show in general, it was more twisty, and the dialogue was snappier ("Four brother, none of the democrats" being the standout line). I thought the crash cut between the shooting of the deer and the sex, was obvious, but in keeping with the themes of the episode.

Clearly the heart of the episode was about Echo's relationship with Boyd, and how he came to see her as human. I thought they tied the threads in together thematically really well, with the violence of Alpha reflecting (and possibly not just metaphorically) the psychopath's mission. We learnt more about how the dollhouse operated quite organically.

Most importantly I really liked that they showed that Echo and Boyd's relationship had started off with him contemptuous of her. To get explicitly political: The dollhouse was trying to divide it's employees - the actives and the minders - by encouraging the minders pre-existing inclination to see the actives as lesser. To see Boyd and Echo overcome that was pretty awesome.

The big question for me is the politics of the engagement. One of the big questions that other people have asked is: 'what makes depicitions of sexual predatory exploitative?' and 'does the fact that the woman wins in the end matter?'. And I can't really comment that much, because I don't watch the crime shows and horror movies where this sort of stuff happens, so I don't really have a feel for the parameters. As a single episode this didn't bother me from that perspective, although I would have a big problem if it happened all the time. But that might change if I knew just how bad things are in the land of TV and movies I don't watch.

The question I was more interested in was about the psychopath. I saw his psychopathic behaviour as a natural extension of buying the perfect woman. If you see people as commodities to be brought to order then of course you want to test them, of course you see them as yours. But another reading could be to see the fact that he's a psychopath as endorsing what went before. "Well it's a problem now he's trying to kill her, but building her to spec is totally shiny."

Having rewatched the ep, I think the show did actively undermine the second reading and support the idea that wanting to buy someone was part of him being a psychopath. In particular, he comes across as creepy from the first moment and his entitled misogyny is apparent from the way he talks about women with Adele. Although any understanding of this episode is challenged by the revelations about the psychopath's connection with Alpha, and my reading could be uncompatible with what will be revealed in future episodes (which was the one thing I didn't like about the way the stories came together, I liked the psychopath as a psychopath and wouldn't like anything to undermine that).

The point of the story turned out to be that Echo overcame her programming in her relationship with Boyd. I think that that, combined with the fact that the psychopath is portrayed as an extension of men who feel entitled to women's bodies, makes me more generous towards the general creepiness of men writing stories about men who want to kill women. But I would be worried if it was going to be like this lots.

Although this episode was much stronger than the pilot, I think the show still has a long way to go. I'm still unconvinced about Eliza Dushku's acting range. Although I don't think the scripts really helped her. The two male fantasy characters she's played in the first two eps are Faith like (you can imagine either one of them saying "I've got mad skills" like Faith to Robin in the final of Chosen). I think she's doing an excellent job as Echo, unimprinted, but I'm not sure about the idea that she can be anyone.

The FBI plotline just goes from bad to worse. You can tell that the writers on dollhouse have spent their entire writing life constructing plotlines where they get to set the rules "Don't touch the Flabotinum in jar C "*, and don't know how to make plots from real life. It's not just that everything they know about cop-shows they've learned from other cop shows. It's not even that they're telling a story about a cop and have no interest in cops and nothing to say about cops (and I've watched the Wire, they've watched The Wire, there's no excuse). It's that they don't seem to care that they're regurgitating scenes we've all seen hundreds of times before.

I actually enjoyed Lasagne girl AKA Mellie. But I was more than a little distracted that this was the woman who was originally cast as November. The casting description called for:

20’s, any ethnicity, beautiful and heavy.
And like a chump I got all excited, just like I did when Kaylee was described as zaftig in the Firefly pilot(and I'm not saying a word about Jewel Staite who was unbelievably awesome as Kaylee). I knew that they'd cast Miracle Laurie, so I wasn't surprised when I saw her, but I still spent most of that scene going "What?". I think it was underlined by the fact that the costuming people appear to have taken the same tack the Buffy people did with Tara "This is a real person, she will wear real people clothes that emphasise her real-ness".**

I forget what the point of this rant was? I'll be interested to see where Mellie goes, but her character will have to develop quite a way before I stop ranting in my head everytime she's on screen.

It was really noticeable to me that this episode did not pass the Bechedel test (none of the female characters talked to each other). More than that the women in Dollhouse don't seem to have relationships with each other, in the way Topher*** and Boyd do (or Boyd and Echo) do. While I'm hopeful that Sierra and Echo will develop some sort of relationship, that'll be long and slow. All the other female characters seem very isolated from each other. But, unlike on say Battlestar Galactica, where you got the feeling there must have been heaps of relationships between women that existed and the show just really wasn't interested in them, I can believe that the women who work in the dollhouse are atomised, it seems like the place that would do that to people. I think that could be interesting, as long as they show the relationships developing over time (and at this point Adele DeWitt and Dr Saunders could have a huge history, but we wouldn't know abuot it).

I'm worried about different things than I was after the first episode. I think this episode showed that they could write an interesting stand-alone story, that we weren't just going to be bored with a procedural of the week.

But, in my head Echo's coming to conciousness would be about forming relationships with other people.**** And in this episode it seems to be about violence. The first sign we had that she remember everything was the horrific-ness of "shoulder to the wheel/do you deserve to live." It seems to undermine the idea that she's overcoming her programming if all she takes with her is something from one of her programmers.

This episode was, for me, still more rocket launchers than emotional resonance.***** The Echo/Boyd plotline was cool, but it didn't hit me in the gut. It was a story about trust and a growing relationship, but it seems strange and unusual, not resonant. I think the premise is very rich in emotional resonance, but mining it might be a challenge, because the leap to ideniify with an Active, or someone's relationship with one, is a big one.

It's frustrating, because the more I watch and think about the dollhouse, the more excited I am about the premise. Because at it's heart it is a criticism of commodification, and (presumably) a statement that people cannot be commodified. It could be an amazing statement about resistance. And I know Joss's work well enough to be reasonably confident that that will be part of the story he's trying to tell (but probably not all of it). I'm just worried that Fox was more into the sex and violence, and not at all into the collective resistance, and they're going to cancel it before we get to see the bits that I'm most interested in.

* A term the Buffy writers coined to refer to the magic plots which they could just make each week since they controlled the whole universe.

** Although the costumes are in general miles better than Buffy, where all the women had ridiculously large wardrobes and wore even more ridiculous and unsuitable clothes (remember when Willow skinned a muppet and wore it for a vest). On Dollhouse the clothes are stylie and all but they also seem to serve the story, rather than just be things the actresses want to wear. Also I've wanted almost every top Adele DeWitt has worn.

*** Confession: I find Topher really engaging. Clearly he's an absolutely asshole, but particularly in his relationship with Boyd, I find him really watchable. I think it's at least partly because he's an archetype Jossian character surrounded mainly by normal people. I've got kind of addicted to people who talk funny and it's nice having one on my TV.

*** I think this is influenced by the unaired pilot, where the first sign we're given that Echo is coming to awareness is that she's grouping with two of the other

***** For those less obsessed than me in the commentary to Innocence Joss said that the two most important things in the work that he does were emotional resonance and rocket-launchers. Innocence certainly has an abundance of both.

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