Friday, February 5, 2010

The End of Dollhouse

Last week marked the last episode of a TV show that attempted to bring some high speculative fiction ideas to television with mixed success. Joss Whedon had created Dollhouse to explore the ideas of identity in a world where it's becoming less and less clear what an individual can do to effect change. Coupling this exploration with musings, both delicate and heavy-handed, on ethics and morality made Dollhouse a potential blockbuster, not just for speculative fiction but for television in general. Unfortunately, the show was pretty much doomed from the start, given that its parent network, Fox, apparently wasn't interested in high concepts so much as the appearance of thoughtfulness as a shiny veneer over action sequences and skimpy clothing.

One of the highlights of the San Diego Comic-Con for me was seeing the "lost" episode of Dollhouse, "Epitaph I," which can only be seen by people who buy or rent the DVD collection. I've written about that episode before (about halfway through, and the series ended with "Epitaph II, which as its name implies, is pretty much a direct sequel to the earlier episode. I'm afraid that a large number of viewers of this last episode might have been initially lost by an opening that had no ties to anything they had seen before.

The highlight of the episode, like the first one, was Fran Kranz as Topher, showing depths of acting the show had rarely given him the opportunity to display. Unfortunately, it felt like the rest of the regular cast members were sleep-walking through their roles, even Eliza Dushku, who can chew scenery with some of the best. This was not the result, however, of the actors themselves; I fear the writing of this last episode was the real disappointment, as the show turned to cliché as it came to an end.

I've written many times (and said more often) that endings are the hardest thing to write. Whedon was in a tough situation as he put together the script for "Epitaph II," compounding the normal difficulties of ending well. On the one hand, he didn't actually know if this was to be the final episode of Dollhouse, though he certainly had a feeling that it might be. And so while he attempted to tie things up, he had to be careful not to tie them so tightly that a sudden reversal of fortune and renewal of the show would be impossible because he had, say, blown up the planet. He also had to build off an episode that the majority of his audience had not seen, an episode that was by far the most powerful of the two-season run. The cumulative effect was that he had to live up to what he had done so well before while appeasing the majority of his audience.

The result was not very satisfying at all. After a tremendous build-up describing the potential of the terrifically horrible Dollhouse technology, the last episode made inferences that weren't easy to follow, at least by this viewer. It also radically shook up perhaps the most powerful relationship in the series, that between Sierra (Dichen Lachmann) and Victor (Enver Gjokaj), with a conflict that felt forced and was never adequately explained. The episode also attempted to resolve in one episode the crisis it had built up over two full seasons, such that there should have been deus ex machine warnings scrolling across the bottom of the screen. Fortunately, the episode did not go so far as a true deus ex machina, but the resolution was hurried, even forced so that it stretched believability to its limit.

Similarly, part of the strength of the show had been all the relationships, which due to the nature of the plot of the show, had to be strong as many of the main characters changed personalities every week. That strength was missing in this last episode—conversations were more about things not being said than said, which was a departure. And that felt untrue to the characters we had come to care for. One notable exception was one scene where DeWitt (Olivia Williams) attempted to come to terms with what happens to Topher. There was genuine compassion and sorrow there, which we have often seen in DeWitt, even though some of the decisions she made in the past two seasons were just baffling. In fact, the scenes with DeWitt and Topher in this episode were perhaps the most powerful of this entire season.

Also unfortunate was the decision to put a little coda on the end of the episode. I won't spoil it, but while it was utterly logical, it was also utterly predictable and extremely saccharine, leaving a final impression to the viewer that did not approach the heights the show had reached. The end result was a little sadness that he show had ended but also some relief if this was the potential direction the show would have gone in if the miracle renewal had happened. Honestly, I think airing this last episode was a mistake. Instead, every effort should have been made to ensure that the lost episode, "Epitaph I," was the last taste of Dollhouse its fans would have.

The result is what will probably only be a blip in the history of speculative fiction on TV. It's a shame that management meddled, delaying the show from finding its true voice and thus its true audience. When Dollhouse hit its stride, it was thoughtful and powerful. But when it wasn't on its game, it was capable of producing some real clunkers. I'm grateful to have seen it, as I believe that it represents both the potential of what can be done with the genre and the sad reality it faces when it is generally attempted on network television. This show would have been much better served had it been on a cable channel that would have given it a chance to grow into its potential. If only there were some kind of speculative fiction based cable channel….

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