Monday, May 11, 2009

I Caught Up to the Dollhouse

And just in time for it not to be renewed, too!

The plan was to wait for the summer and then watch through to the end of the season at my leisure. I mean, I had already fallen hopelessly behind as it was, so what was the rush? Also, just between you and me, I wasn't really expecting to enjoy it. I'd watched the first four episodes and my initial enthusiasm turned to deflated disappointment and finally to perturbed indifference. Yes, yes, there was the fabled Episode Six that was supposed to save the franchise and make everything all better, but I didn't see how any one plot twist could make me interested in a series that had bored me to tears.

But chalk it up to a lazy Saturday (and a rapidly bloating DVR) that I figured I'd bite the bullet and knock off a few of these episodes. I skipped episode 5 altogether and got right to The Mythical and Celebrated Episode Six. And while it didn't turn the ship around all at once, it ... well, you know how I hate to admit I'm wrong. It's because it's so rarely necessary that I do so. But I'll cop to this, because the changes implemented in E6 really did herald a new urgency in the show, and within the next 2-3 episodes, Dollhouse became one hell of a compelling ride. Here's how:

[It should be noted, I'd kept myself mostly ignorant of the developments in the eps I hadn't watched. I inadvertently spoiled myself on two counts where I really wish I hadn't -- the actor who plays Alpha and the identity of "Whiskey" -- but everything else was totally new to me.]

They Solved the Personality Void at the Center of the Show: It had become impossible for me to care about a show where the main character, Eliza Dusku's Echo, wasn't a character at all. Yes, the fact that she's a cipher is the whole point of the show, but that didn't make it any easier to care about her. The show tackled this problem on two fronts: One, Echo's personality/memories/character began to bleed through even after the memory wipes, and more than a few episodes have called on her to essentially play "Caroline." Two, the show became more of an ensemble, with focus on Ballard, Boyd, and even DeWitt.

They Developed the Other Dolls: Not just Sierra and Victor -- though their development was the most crucial -- but also the introduction of November and the various others. As with Echo, the more their personalities began to bleed through, and especially the more they were tied to the other characters in the ensemble, the more I started to care. Here's also where I should rave about Enver Gjokaj (Victor), who turned out to be an outstanding actor and chamaleon (who knew you could even do a Reed Diamond impression?) and one of the absolute highlights of the cast. People that pretty shouldn't be allowed to be that talented.

They Took Olivia Williams and Reed Diamond Out of That Godforsaken Office: I know people who were raving about Ms. Williams since episode one, but I found myself completely adrift during those monotonous scenes in that isolated office where her Adelle and Diamond's Dominic would trade short, ominous sentences. Once we started to learn more about the Dollhouse, those scenes became less and less necessary, and they were actually allowed to enter the environment of the story. That episode where Adelle and Topher are tripping balls in his office flipped the switch for me, and the later episode where her "romance" with Victor is revealed took the cake.

They Made Ballard's Arc Twisty but Forward-Moving: The Mellie reveal was great, but I was glad to see Ballard made aware of it within a couple episodes. He's far from the most interesting character on the show, but I'm glad he keeps within 1-2 steps behind the Dollhouse at all times.

It was beyond just the plots twists in Ep Six that made the show click. It's an unsexy mandate, but it remains true: Develop the characters well, and I'll be interested. Even the standalone plots got more interesting; the storyline where Echo stands in for the dead millionairess was pretty throwaway, but her scenes with DeWitt made it worthwhile. By the end of the season, I was actively gasping (not Victor's FACE!) as the season charged to its finale.

Of course, the show wasn't perfected. Among my lingering concerns:

I Fucking HATE Topher: I'm not sure I'm even supposed to like him, but boy don't I. It's not just that his character does evil deeds -- so does DeWitt and I love her. It's that he manages to be completely obnoxious in a way I think I'm supposed to find cute or charming. I hated Xander Harris enough when he was painstakingly heroic. That's the other thing -- I get that Joss has a house style, but a Xander/Andrew hybrid just does NOT work in the Dollhouse universe. It's a clash of styles that made it hard to completely dig Alan Tudyk's character -- at least early on.

It Still Doesn't Quite Make Sense: I am not a nitpicker with my dramatic TV shows. Not if they're delivering the goods, anyway. But it still seems that at the center of the show, some of the missions they send the Actives on end up as complete logistical wind tunnels. A minor enough complaint.

Ballard Really Is Fairly Uninteresting: God love Tahmoh Penikett and his chest of granite, but if Helo became kind of a Captain America in Space on Battlestar, Ballard is an even duller version here.

Alpha Ended Up Being Kind of Underwelming: I won't elaborate, but ... a little bit, yeah. It has to do with the actor, sad as I am to say it.

And so now, save for an unaired 13th episode that'll surface on DVD at some point, it's all over. That's kind of a bummer -- the show's gone before I even realized I was hooked on it. Even more of a bummer that it's going away just as it had righted its ship.


Claire said...

I was hating Topher up until the last ten minutes of the finale, and then he kind of killed me. I think he's going to turn into a type of Pete-Campbell-on-Mad-Men character: someone who you absolutely loathe at first but by the end just feel really sorry for.

I also think that the show should be renewed solely for the fact that Joss needs to hire Alexis Denisof to play Adelle's long-lost brother.

Kirk said...

I couldn't agree with you more - for me, it turned at that Rashoman-style "Spy in the Dollhouse" episode. Good stuff!

Also, word to the Topher hate. There's just no room for "wacky mind-rapist" in my current universe.

Also, I gotta say, Eliza just didn't seem strong enough to carry the show as the lead. While Dollhouse wasn't even in the same suckiness-league as "Tru Calling," (one of the most hate-worthy shows I can think of), Eliza remains in the same ballpark, acting-wise.

So, yeah - word to all of your points, too bad it's gone!

I think that Sepinwall said this better, but it will probably be nice to see Joss go on to some other project (like something in the Dr. Horrible universe), rather than devote another year to breathing life into a show with so many built-in disadvantages.

pvt. awesome said...

Jumping on the Topher-hate bandwagon here. I know Joss likes the lovable-nerd archetype, but there was nothing lovable about Topher, or his acting.

And I also agree that Alpha was a disappointment. I expected a cold, calculating super genius, not the same old crazy person super villain that talks to himself (one of Joss's other beloved archetypes).

Tom said...

You're not alone in the crew that hates Topher. But I think he captures the "genius who just knows he's better than you" vibe perfectly. He's a guy that walks around a world with people in it who can't possibly understand things the way he does. So he jumps between mildly condescending and rudely condescending depending on how much of a waste of his time he feels the current conversation is. He's like a self-aware version of Sheldon from Big Bang. He's hopelessly asshole-y and condescending, but he KNOWS he's doing it and simply doesn't care.

There are two things that encapsulate the entire character: 1) The scene in the finale when he leaves the room and says "I'm going back to work. Let me know how the whole God thing turns out." And 2) The episode where he gets a doll for one night a year. He's in an isolated world where no one thinks on his level and everyone thinks he's a monster.

I think the character is great. I don't think you're supposed to like him. Geniuses aren't fun people to hang around. And the added bonus that his work is really creepy.

JA said...

And lucky us, we're gonna have more Fran Kranz speaking Joss-speak in Cabin in the Woods as well, so there's more of his acting charms coming our way!

And when I looked him up on IMDb just now the first thing I saw was under Trivia where my eyes, as are their nature, zoomed in on the word "Gyllenhaal" like a laser beam - apparently dude went to High School with My Jake. I HATE HIM FOREVER NOW AND HE HAS TO DIE. And now I've got this whole, "People went to High School with Jake... Jake changed in the high school locker room" thought-process going here that might steal me away for days...

Joe Reid said...

Tom, that's a valuable alternate take on Topher, and it's got me thinking. I wonder if the performance was a bit further away from the standard Whedon geek-boy (I'm really hard pressed to ever go an episode without feeling like he's aping Xander/Andrew/Wash) I would be more inclined to see the character the way you do.

Anonymous said...

"You're not alone in the crew that hates Topher. But I think he captures the "genius who just knows he's better than you" vibe perfectly. He's a guy that walks around a world with people in it who can't possibly understand things the way he does. So he jumps between mildly condescending and rudely condescending depending on how much of a waste of his time he feels the current conversation is."

Don't kill me for saying this, because I loved me some Joss back in the good old days...but this actually kind of describes how he himself comes off these days.

Tom said...

Joe: I saw him more as a non-evil version of Warren. So valid argument on the stereotype thing.

When he gets his yearly doll -- the imprint he chooses is essentially a female version of himself. He needs to create someone to relate to. Like Warren.

Sandman said...

"(who knew you could even do a Reed Diamond impression?)"I know, right? Enver Gjokaj is doing a great job.

I'm not entirely convinced we're supposed to like Topher. I think Whedon might be subverting his whole Lovable Geek thing. Topher's actually pretty despicable, but he can't be arsed to care at all, it seems. And I'd have more patience for his sense of superiority if, you know, his miraculous tech didn't FAIL SPECTACULARLY EVERY DAMN EPISODE.