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Date Posted: 15:58:27 07/30/13 Tue
Author: cjl
Subject: Dollhouse Revisited (S1): Keep the Porch Light Burning

Hi, everybody.

I was watching the Dollhouse S1 marathon on the Science channel on Saturday (part of their “Joss weekend”—get it?), and I started rolling over the themes and philosophical conundrums posed by the series in my mind, and I thought to myself: “Oh. This is going to be a mammoth ATP post.” But then I thought to myself: “But you don’t do that kind of post anymore. You don’t have the time. You don’t have that kind of life anymore.” And yet, coming here to post sprang to mind almost immediately, as if something called to me from a place I’d forgotten or ignored for too long. (More on this later. It ties in, trust me.)

Let’s play catch-up first. I’m fine. (My feet hurt, I need to lose ten pounds, but nothing too dramatic.) I’m still working part-time for the bank, and staying home to take care of the boy. Yes, he’s the “boy” now. Dylan turned four two weeks ago. He’s bright, energetic, a bit goofy, obsessed with cars, and very particular about his pronouns—in other words, exactly what you’d expect from my kid. He’s usually polite and well-behaved, but has moments when you think all your efforts to teach him manners have been completely wasted. During the day, he fills me with energy and joy…and by the end of the day, he’s drained it all out of me from sheer exhaustion. I have one more year before he goes to kindergarten and I go back to work full time. It’s gone by so quickly and yet seems to drag on endlessly. I don’t know whether to be depressed or elated. (This is standard for four year-olds, right?)

So there we were on Saturday, assembled en famille in the living room, when we flipped on the Science channel and saw Eliza running with Harry Lennix in the woods. We weren’t going anywhere—the boy was on lockdown for one of those “moments”—so my wife and I let it roll like it was 2009.

On second viewing, Dollhouse s1 was both more and less interesting for me than the first go-round. Episodes I thought were cool the first time didn’t interest me the second; I found I could look past the formula and dig into the deeper themes; but I could also see Joss and co. bumping their heads against the formula as they tried to explore those themes.

Dollhouse operated on four levels: the first was an action/adventure drama about a young woman who entered into a Faustian bargain with a secret organization, allowing them to store her mind away and use her body as a vessel for other minds, other personalities, for whatever purpose the company and their clientele desired. The second level explored the moral implications of the technology involved, how it could be used and abused, and how the existence of such technology could affect the broader society. Level three explored objectification—how Echo, an empty vessel(?), had the desires and fantasies of her “johns”, her handlers, even her rescuer projected onto her, never touching the essence of the real person.

Which brings us to level four, the one I found the most interesting: What makes a “real” person, anyway? What makes you “you”? Is it your intellect, you memories, your experiences? Or is there something deeper, something that makes you unique, even if those memories were stripped away? Call it residual tendencies of the mind/body synthesis, call it patterns in your DNA, call it how your body was formed and responds to the energies of the universe… call it (ta daa!) the soul. Does any of that exist without the mind?

For the most part, I thought Joss did a stevedore’s job lifting and juggling all those themes and sub-themes within the context of an action series. None of the S1 episode were boring, they were all crisply directly and briskly paced, and the set design and the costuming were impeccable. (We luv u, Shawna Trpcic!) And it goes without saying that if your leading lady is Eliza Dushku, you’re two steps ahead of the game before you turn on the camera. Other than the hostage negotiator in the pilot, I boughIf t into every role Echo played in S1: back-up singer, child psychologist, nurse/newlywed, biker chick, old pro thief, blind seer, etc. etc. She had an amazing supporting cast—especially Enver Gjokej as Victor—equally adept at shifting personae and toggling from drama to comedy to horror in a split second. So I had no problem with the action/adventure part; we have to go down deeper for that.

Level two: on second viewing, I couldn’t work up interest in the sociological critique of Topher’s wonder chair. It took a while for me to figure out what bothered me, but then I remembered that I had the same trouble with Angel Season 5; this particular aspect of the show fell flat as drama. If you’ve got a controversial situation, where the potential for good or evil is enormous, you really have to show both sides of the equation for the scenario to have some juice. When Angel took the deal at the end of “Home”, whatever his motivation (i.e., Connor), I wanted to see him try to use the resources of Wolfram and Hart to do some real good in the world. (Didn’t work out that way.) The cost would be horrendous, of course, but if you don’t show the upside, you gotta wonder why he would even bother. Same with Dollhouse: I wanted to see Topher wax enthusiastic about all the good his technology would do. Imagine eliminating PTSD and hundreds of other emotional and mental illnesses; imagine downloading Stephen Hawking’s consciousness into an android body, giving him the time to solve the mysteries of the universe! Joss spent all of S1 telling us over and over that Topher’s tech was evil evil evil. By the time we reached the endgame in “Epitaph One”, I kind of resented him for stacking the deck. I wish he could have been as diverse and broad-minded in his approach as the interviewees in “Man in the Street.”

Speaking of “Man in the Street”: favorite episode! Besides those interviews, we got that yummy one-on-one between Ballard and Patton Oswalt’s nerd zillionaire, who (finally!) called Ballard on his Prince Charming fantasy. But even here, on the topic of female objectification, Joss ran into problems on a subject that should have been a slam dunk. All during the marathon, I heard a tiny buzz in my head whenever Eliza put on a skimpy/low-cut outfit or straddled a motorcycle or did anything that could evoke a… man reaction. It was the Zen whisper of Joss trying to have his cake and eat it too. Let’s face it: Joss sold the series to Fox based on Eliza’s considerable appeal. It’s unfair to the audience to exploit that appeal and simultaneously scold your audience for enjoying it. “She hot, isn’t she?” (nudges ribs) “Am I right?” (wags finger) “NO! Bad fanboy! Objectification of women is wrong!”

I know Joss would be the first one to acknowledge the contradiction and cop to his own inner horndog, but that doesn’t let him off the hook. (Doesn’t help that the Dollhouse theme music sounds like porn. Just sayin’.) I’m tempted to think that the hostage negotiator in “Ghosts” was Joss winking at us—glasses, hair in a bun, asthma inhaler, but still smokin’—but I’m not sure. Even when she was running through the mud, Eliza looked fabulous. Joss seemed reluctant to let his heroine get truly down and dirty.

Which brings us to the ontological hub of the series: Who is Echo? Is there any “there” there? Short answer: yes, or there wouldn’t be a series. But Joss didn’t just come right out and announce the answer; he was a lot subtler, building the evidence slowly over the course of the season. It wasn’t anything dramatic, either, like repressed memories (that weren’t there, anyway): Joss gave Echo and the other dolls meaningful gestures, simple desires, basic emotions, painting around the negative space where the person used to be (shades of “The Body”!). The strategy culminated in “Omega,” when Echo told Caroline she would keep the porch light burning until Caroline came home. Beautiful.

I have to give Joss credit: what he tried to do here is almost impossible—have the audience root for a heroine who is literally a blank slate. I only wish Joss could have squeezed in some flashbacks to Caroline before the Dollhouse, so we would know what was missing in Echo and feel the absence much more sharply. (It’s no surprise that the emotional high point of “Epitaph One” was when Caroline—not Echo, but Caroline, complete again—busted down the brick wall to bring out the survivors.) Also, it didn’t help that Caroline’s main character trait seemed to be “helping people.” I couldn’t tell if Echo’s more sophisticated responses were Caroline’s inner caritas bubbling to the surface or a reflection of Adele’s mission statement to give people “what they need.”

Overall, this was a lot of fun to rewatch. I hope Science has the rights to the whole series, so I can give you a Season 2 review. Can’t take too much time away from the family, because that’s who I am now.

Keep the porch light burning, Masq. Bye.

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