Author’s Note: I’m currently in the process of migrating old blog posts to this new system. That may mean some links, syntax highlighting, and other details are broken or missing temporarily. Sorry for the inconvenience!
Dollhouse was a disaster of a show. From a controversial premise, loudly argued as both feminist and misogynist, to a wild disparity between network and creator about what the show actually was, it’s a wonder the show lasted two seasons. I don’t particularly want to talk about any of that stuff.
Author’s Note: I may spoil stuff. I feel like it’s hard to talk about what’s on my mind if I have to dance around things. So while I won’t be going out of my way to throw in plot points, if they come up, it’s on your head!
I’ve watched a fair amount of Whedon stuff. I like the snappy dialog, the predictable unpredicability. And before Game of Thrones, Whedon was really the go-to guy if you were looking for somebody to kill off all your favorites.
Dollhouse was a pretty significant departure from the monster-of-the-week style of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Looking at Buffy in particular (simply because I’ve watched it more recently), you could generally expect that each episode would live in its own episodic bubble. The series had a general arc, and each season had its own “big bad”, but the core of Buffy was about individual episodes and their storylines.
To me, it seems that Dollhouse is a big “fuck you” to that idea. The premise of the show would allow you to farm out dolls for weekly isolated stories, but it’s very clear that’s not what Joss’ goal was. He was much more interested in exploring concepts of identity, corporate control, empowerment…much to the network’s chagrin.
When you have an episodic series — one that can work from week-to-week in isolation — you can slowly pick at small pieces of these ideas. But I genuinely don’t know if it’s possible to follow a character arc and explore something truly complex if you have to be ready to welcome new viewers each week. To an extent, it’s only fairly recently that you could portray a serialized story without severely crippling your audience. I mean, can you imagine Breaking Bad succeeding if we hadn’t been able to catch up on Netflix?
Dollhouse is particularly interesting to me because the concept relates a bit to an idea I’m exploring myself. But this show serves as a bit of a cautionary tale. Even once it had been cancelled, the show struggled to pursue its goal. By the last few episodes of the series, you could kinda lean back and say “Ohhhhhhh, so this is what you were going for. Yeah, I probably would have watched that.” But by that point, Dollhouse had been a serialized show wearing an episodic costume for too long. There had definitely been some chafing.
It certainly does seem that using television as a medium for telling long-form stories is really exploding recently. Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, House of Cards…is Orange is the New Black a serialized show? I’m not sure, but I feel like it’d be hard to get into mid-season.
Maybe if Dollhouse had had the freedom to go with its gut right out of the gate, it could be up there with the successful series of today.