Thursday, October 22, 2009

Belle Chose: Dollhouse episode 2.03 review

Sorry for the delay in this week’s dollhouse episode. I’ve been a bit busy, and this was a solid episode. Not so world-changing that I had to spend the next three days searching for superlatives, or so incompetent that I was instantly driven to rant. Just solid. I think in some ways it proves that Dollhouse can have solid Engagement of the week episodes, so I was wrong last week.

So for those who haven’t been following dollhouse ratings from the edge of your seats – the news has been all over the place. The episodes were appalling, they were better but still awful, Fox was going to pull it, Fox was committed to making and airing all 13 episodes, Fox had confirmed airdates for the next 5 episodes

Well four days or so after that good news Fox has announced that they’re not airing Dollhouse during sweeps, but instead they’re airing double episodes through December. This means I’m going to be in withdrawl all through November, and also I’m grumpy. If anyone out there has a Nielson box, the offer is still on for a very small bribe.


This episode was filmed as the second episode, and it’s obvious after watching them out of order that they’d been changed. (according to reasonably reliable internet sources it was Joss and Tim who decided to change the episodes round – which is surprising to me – messing with continuity isn’t usually their style). This episode fits straight on from ‘Vows’ – the mention of Dr Saunders, and Ballard clearly new to the dollhouse.

The one advantage to all this is that it makes Ballard look much, much worse (and since no-one really insulted him this week and so I’m therefore favourite character-less I’ll take what I can get). In his first engagement, his behaviour is just standard-issue-creepy. But if this is even his second engagement he isn’t just confused, stupid and gross – he’s predatory. Although, despite the advantages of Ballard looking worse, I’m going to go with the original continuity, in the rest of this review and in my head.

Oh and there was an extra special Ballard hating moment of putting down the client: ‘Some egghead English professor who can’t get any of his real students to sleep with him’. There’s some masculinity dissing in the first half of that, which makes the second part particularly gross. Apparently Ballard thinks “he’s a non-manly man who can’t even take advantage of his power over women” is an insult. Seriously – why did no one insult him this episode?

But the most exciting aspect of all this was that we got to see the wardrobe. The mechanics of the dollhouse are far more interesting to me than most engagements. The wardrobe guy’s commitment to his job was great – I really hope we see more of that character.

We also saw another African-American watcher. I do wonder if the casting of people of colour as handlers is deliberate. In terms of how the dollhouse would work, I think that would be an interesting decision. To build your world with an understanding of ethnicity, and the segregation of the work-force is a real step up when it comes to Joss-verses. However, the TV show ‘the dollhouse’ doesn’t tell stories about handlers - it tells stories about dolls, management and professionals. So the effect of what may (or may not be) realistic world-building, is that the stories revolve around white people, which is not a good solution (I’d love to see some stories about handlers – that is handlers that aren’t Ballard).

I should warn you now that I’m not an English major, I’ve never read Chaucey (or Chaucer), and so the insightful parallels with English literature will have to take place in the comments.* Given that the professor wrote non-fiction bestsellers I guess it isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility that he’s saved up everything he’s ever earned to pay for the dollhouse. Although that is one inane fantasy to spend your life savings on – unless there’s a literary layer I’m missing.

And while I usually rag on Tim Minear for being a libertarian, there was some straight up feminism in there. (As there was in Out of Gas – Kaylee and Fester the mechanic was a moment of true beauty) The way the Professor’s ridiculous speech on the power all women have was undercut by the fact that he only wanted a women with that power over him if he’d constructed her. And the parallels between the professors’ refusal to acknowledge his own power and control and the serial killer’s explicit violence against women were nicely done.

None of these themes were subtle, but after the thematic hot mess that was ‘Insticnt’ I’ll take obvious any day.

Echo stabbing the client, was a very satisfying moment. (Although I don’t know what’s more implausible – the dollhouse’s profitability or its (lack of) security.)

Neither Boyd, Adelle or Topher really got much to do this episode, but their interaction was nicely done (“Topher has ethical problems *Topher*”). I’ve been disliking Boyd for a while now, mostly because I hate the moral posturing about the dollhouse for one so complicit. And also because I find the way he gets so worked up when Echo has sex in a way he doesn’t want to have sex – the problem is that she’s having sex with no meaningful way of giving consent, not that that sex involves whips and tempura. Although I think the real problem is that he hasn’t had a plot-line since The Target. His translation of Adelle made me remember that I might like him if we ever saw anything from him but hypocrisy and punches.

When the serial killer was loose in Victor’s body, Adelle was clearly more concerned about Victor than say him killing people. I wonder if she’d have tried something that risky if it had been any other doll.

Clearly Victor as Kiki was one of the highlights of the episode. And Ballard had a small moment of not-sucking when he stood with Victor. Enver is a fabulous actor and he committed. But it was also an example of the show having it both ways. The scene was a commentary on social norms, why are those behaviours normal in Echo’s body, but ridiculous in Victor’s? Why does the same person get such different responses?

But the only reason the scene is funny is that he’s a boy acting like a girl.

The show is going to continue to have it both ways (see the wardrobe). The question will always be, how did the balance come out? Dollhouse is usually going to have to show the ideas it’s critiquing. Which is stronger: what we see or what the show is saying? I think in this case it works, at least partly because of Ballard’s position, but it’s always a fine line.

I was a little disappointed with the ending. It seemed to be another season one “Ba-Boom! Echo remembered something!” I really like the idea that Echoline (I’m pretty sure I got that from Whedonesque) is fighting back against the imprints if it’s something she doesn’t want to do. But to end it all on such a repetitive note was a real let down.

That just leaves the serial killer plot. Eh – serial killer plots aren’t really my thing, even at their best moments of parallels I’ll talk about the parallels not the plot themselves. Enver Gjorkaj is very talented. The dialogue between the women in the cage “we have names” was clunky in the extreme. I was engaged, it was watchable, but if I never watched another story about serial killer, it would be too soon.

See I don’t even care that Ballard killed someone – that’s how much I’m not interested in serial killer plots (I’m more grumpy that he made fun of his name – two masculinity insults in one episode – I hate Ballard so much).

Enjoy the next episode – it’s the last till December (and this makes me very, very sad).

* Although I have read ‘Writing Your Dissertation in 15 minutes a Day’ and the author of that started her dissertation on The Wife of Bath. Although all I remember is that is based on hideously misogynist source texts, but whether it is itself as misogynist is up for debate. I’m guessing that the parallels lay with the way men use ideas of women having power – discuss…

Sunday, October 18, 2009

On ACC...

When writing about my analysis of sexual violence and prisons, one of the points I keep coming back to is how centred it is on the perpertrator. It's not a new or original thought to point out that everything about the way a criminal law system deals with sexual violence is entirely focused on 'the offender'. The follow-on from this is our society's way of dealing with sexual violence revolves around the court system.

A few year ago, I wrote about a nursing student, who was raped by a fellow student, after a typical, ridiculous, defence, the rapist got off. She had to drop out of school, because the school wouldn't do anything to ensure she wouldn't have to see her rapist regularly. I think it's important to understand how structural the problems within our justice system are. These systems are not designed to support survivors of sexual abuse, and therefore they will always fail at that task.


But, in New Zealand, we do have a system that is set up to meet, to revolve around, what survivors of sexual violence need. There are many things it cannot provide - ACC will not help student find a way to continue to study without seeing her rapist. But it can provide counselling and income support.

I don't have any personal experience, or depth of knowledge, of ACCs sensitive claims system. I am sure, as it currently operates, it has flaws, and some people fail to get the help that they need. But, at the moment, it can be centred around what a survivor needs, based on her relationship with her counsellor (or his).

If these changes go through, it will be much harder, maybe impossible for ACC to be survivor-centre. Currently, a survivor can have up to four sessions of counselling to disclose their abuse, but the changes will cut this down to one session (or maybe two, Peter Jensen, the person in charge of the proposal, was unclear on nine to noon).

At the moment a survivor can access up to 50 sessions with a counsellor before they have to obtain a psychological assessment. The changes will require psychological assessments much earlier in the process, and that process will be directed much more by clinicians. In order to get funded counselling, a survivor of sexual abuse will require a DSM IV diagnosis.

This is not a survivor-centred approach to sexual abuse; it is a clinician-centred approach.

ACC has already begun tightening the screws. And in doing so it has turned funded counselling into another area where a survivor has to prove her (or his) experience – maybe not beyond reasonable doubt, but close.

Dr Kim McGregor explained how ACC restricts access to counselling on an interview on 9 to Noon 9 to Noon. ACC declined cover for a young boy who had been sexually abused as the behaviour described: mood swings, tearfulness, and sitting alone sucking his thumb, did not necessarily have a clinical link with sexual abuse. They said these behaviours could just as well have been caused by settling into school and a new environment rather than the sexual abuse events.

Imagine the difficulty of someone who has survived sexual abuse will have in proving that the difficulties she (or he) is experiencing are directly and only a result of the abuse. Those who had what insurance companies call ‘pre-existing conditions’, could find support denied – if they had previously been depressed, how can they know that depression after the sexual abuse is a result of that abuse? (not a question that could be asked by anyone who cared about the experiences of survivors of sexual abuse, but a question that is being asked by ACC). While those who do not seek help for a long time, will have to prove the effects the abuse has had on them, and the more complex their survival strategies in the intervening time, the harder it will be for them to access the support they need.

The parallels between the perfect victim of the court system and the perfect survivor of ACC are strong. In both cases the onus of proof falls on those have been abused to prove either that there was abuse, or that that abuse affected them. Just as previous sexual history is used against survivors in the court system, ACC can use previous mental health history against survivors.

My point is not just that the changes to ACC need to be fought (although they do – Monday is a national day of action – come along), but to show how important, and how fragile, a survivor centred approach to sexual violence there is.

As well as pushing against these threats to survivor support, I want us to push further. I want us to imagine what a response to sexual violence which prioritised survivors look like.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Instict Review; Dollhouse 2.02

I seem to be having two completely contradictory reactions to Dollhouse at the moment. Half the time I think:

“This is the best show and concept that ever has, or ever will be made. I can’t believe how amazingly brilliant it is and want to watch it for ever and ever and ever.”

But then I also think:

“This show is irrevocably, structurally flawed”

After watching Instinct, I decided they were probably both true.

I’m not a fan of stand-alones or procedurals. Television is a medium that is built for serialised storytelling (the most powerful narrative form ever invented), I don’t understand why you’d squander it by not telling a story. But I also think you can take things too far in the other direction. If you don’t have stand alone plots that finish off each episode, you actually have reset TV of a different sort, as the plotlines come and go, and they’re never given due weight. You get Gossip Girl, where killing someone can be fixed in half an episode, or BSG, where they’d be these dramatic changes for a few episodes, but they’d always be reset so the captain was still the captain the president was still the president and so on. If all your plot is on-going then that makes it very difficult.

That was one of the many things that was so great about Buffy. There was a perfect balance between serial, and So even a relatively mediocre episode could still have interactions between our core characters (My friend dissed Inca Mummy Girl the other day – and I reminded her that was the origin of the genius “I didn’t choose yet” exchange) and at the same time something like your boyfriend going evil could be given the emotional significance it needed

Dollhouse’s on-going story is so powerful, resonant and exciting, that I will be devastated if they cancel it. But they haven’t figured out how to tell interesting short-term stories, and I don’t think it’s possible (because the short term stories involve only new characters).

So an episode of Dollhouse is either going to make everything right with the world for ever more, or not be that interesting. There is very little in between. Even Vows, which is I think the closest Dollhouse has come to middling, was actually just some scenes that would cure cancer, intermingled with some other scenes that there’s no reason to re-watch.

It think exacerbating these problems, is that Fox does not want to the best version of this show.

This is all a long winded introduction to the fact that I wasn’t particularly sold on this week’s episode.

Although having written all that, I’m not as sure as I was that the problems are structural. I wonder if the problems with the execution with this episode were actually about the episode itself. There were so many clich├ęs. The most inexcusable was the father finally bonding with the child towards the end.

But rewatching it, I think maybe the problem was more that they focused on the most boring aspects of what could have been an interested story. There was an inordinate amount of time wasted on ‘what is going on’ from Echo’s point of view. I didn’t find this particularly interesting, because we knew it was an engagement, so her point of view on her husband trying to kill her always felt ridiculous.

And now is as good a time as any to say how annoyed I was with the portrayal of ‘mother instinct’. If you are going to spend the teaser talking about how amazing it is that you’ve used the brain to trigger lactation and then you show the lactating woman being paranoid, and saying people threatened to kill her when they didn’t. Then that’s pretty offensive, and reinforcing derogatory harmful ideas about women and mothers.

I think maybe I would have been more interested in the engagement if rather than focusing on the ‘have baby: go crazy’ angle they had told it from the husband’s point of view. Because to me that was interesting – the dollhouse couldn’t provide what he needed. It could have been a critical interrogation of the Patton Oswalt engagement in Man on the Street. If someone you loved died, would having them for one day a year or even longer really help? But rather than getting any of him we got boring scenes setting up false tension (and on the Sierra rating scale this episode fairs very poorly – she probably had more screen-time last week, but there was no purpose to her character. Come on people)

I thought the central scene in the police scene was amazing. (Although the police officers seemed deeply implausible to me – if only women who were scared were taken that seriously) Eliza was fantastic, and the impact and horror of what they were doing was very clear. From there the episode definitely had more of a purpose.

A purpose that was built on with the awesome [punch] “Can I Go Now?” That’s just the sort of pay-off that the rituals around the dolls was made for.

The final scene between a confused Echo and the boy’s father had some great stuff (and again I was impressed with Eliza’s acting). But then I there were the same tone and focus problems as earlier in the episode.

The switching to horror felt completely unearned. Why did someone who thinks a car is driven by saying ‘go’ cut the lights and electricity? (And it’s even more unearned if that’s supposed to be a coincidence) Why does she have a knife? Why does Echo say “Mummy’s home”? None of these things make sense in the world they set up. They also didn’t add anything to the scene. Why didn’t the writers trust themselves to write a powerful scene between two people without the irrelevant pyrotechnics?

So maybe, in the course of writing this review, I’ve persuaded myself I’m wrong. Maybe the structural problems with the dollhouse are not inherent. Maybe this could have been a very satisfying episode, and the problems were in the execution. If it’s possible to do good engagements of the week, then they better learn fast.

That all sounds as if I didn’t like the episode at all, and it had some great moments. But it feels such a waste to go from Topher and Dr Saunders to something completely incoherent about motherhood instinct.

In the dollhouse itself, I have a new rule: whichever character insults Ballard the most in any given episode is my favourite character of this week. (And I know everyone disses on Eliza’s acting, but Tahmoh Penikett has so little range it’s embarrassing.) This week Topher wins the prize - go Topher – like I said last week Fran Kranz is amazing and Epitaph One is adding so much depth to the character.

Obviously the most exciting long-term development was the return of Madeline (and Miracle Laurie rocked in a very different role). I don’t quite know what I think of it yet. I enjoyed the scene with them together, because it’s all about what an asshole Ballad is (well it is in my head anyway). But from a narrative perspective it’d be very annoying if she reappeared just to help Ballard learn about the Dollhouse.

Although I strongly suspect they’re going somewhere far more interesting with this. Because she’s spent her time finding the perfect dress, and the perfect apartment, and now she’s ‘not sad’. Her grief that was so strong in Needs has been taken away. The parallels between her and Echo, who chose feeling something over being asleep were obvious. But I wonder if there are also going to be, in the end, parallels with the father, if the Dollhouse won’t be able to give her what she needs.

The final scene, between Echo and Ballard was very powerful. She undercut the lies he’s telling himself (and Madeline) about it not being real. I really love that they’re exploring Echo’s agency, and that she’s making a choice to keep everything she’s feeling. I think it even offered an alternative explanation to the ‘mothers are crazy’ idea that dominated the episode. I don’t love that the only person she’s bonding with is Paul, but he’s at his least obnoxious when he’s actually talking to Echo, since that’s when he comes nearest to treating her like a human being.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Vows Review: Dollhouse 2.1

So currently I’m continuing to review dollhouse as my main form of blogging (although I do have a post about Roman Polanski half written – nothing like prisons and feminism to get me writing – except of course the new season of Dollhouse).

Ethical Martini asked in the comments whether Dollhouse is airing here yet. Unfortunately not. You can get order the DVD on Amazon. To get more recent episodes it’s illegal or semi-legal avenues only (is IP address marking to buy episodes from overseas illegal?)