The basic concept of Dollhouse — a service that imprints custom-designed personalities into people tailored to clients’ wishes, and then erases them afterwards — doesn’t seem to me to be something I’d want to base TV series on, so, despite being a Joss Whedon fan, I pretty much decided I would wait until the show got axed and then maybe see it on DVD.
Circumstances — in the shape of the everyone in the house getting sick — led us to run out of stuff to watch on TV, so Rosanna TiVoed the current episode (“107” in TiVo parlance — season 1, episode 7) and we watched it together, then immediately went to Hulu to see which episodes were available online, and after watching episodes 2 to 6, we paid $1.99 for the first episode on iTunes.
The fact is, I haven’t really cared for most of Joss Whedon’s shows’ underlying premises. Cheerleader who kills vampires. Good vampire who hunts bad vampires and lawyers. Even Firefly‘s basic setup — tramp freighter eeking a living out on the fringe of an interstellar civilization the crew doesn’t much care for — isn’t exactly earthshaking. What makes Joss Whedon’s shows great is his execution.
To begin with, Dollhouse pretty much lays out all of the moral implications of its central idea on the table. E.g. it assumes that the most common service is prostitution and that it’s a job only someone who had no choice would accept (the “doll” is indentured for five years, after which — we assume — their old personality is restored). It doesn’t disingenuously put forward a whitewashed version and then treat the obviously outrageous implications as shocking twists in later episodes. Pretty much every bad thing that you would assume might happen given the scenario is essentially assumed to have happened at some point or another. Indeed, the beauty of the Whedon’s take on the basic premise is that the technology doesn’t work perfectly. Or maybe even at all.
Oddly enough, the basic premise of Dollhouse is almost identical to the recently (and deservedly) cancelled Christian Slater show My Own Worst Enemy. But My Own Worst Enemy fails precisely because it assumes the technology has always worked perfectly (up until now), that there is no tolerance for glitches, and — worst of all — the technology’s main role is completely senseless — in what universe is it helpful to give your agents cover identities, but wipe their skills and knowledge when they’re under cover?
Next, Whedon clearly has a lot of stuff figured out in a way that the writers of Lost and Battlestar Galactica did not. To begin with he’s actually willing to reveal the answers to questions because he has more stuff to follow up with. Contrast this with Lost which never answers any questions satisfactorily, and simply tosses in more random detail (I’ve described elsewhere as “adding another layer to the onion”). I won’t go into details here since this would just spoil it for you.
Finally, this show is just really well written. There’s no fat in the scripts. In the first scene in the first episode (where Caroline is being persuaded to sign on to become a doll) we get to a point where she’s deciding what to do and then BANG action cuts to a scene which may be a flashback to the way she got into her predicament, but turns out to be one of her engagements. This is not a show you can watch while doing something else — blink and you miss serious plot developments. And there’s a lot of care taken with the different personality “imprints”: when they imprint Echo (the main character) with an expert hostage negotiator’s personality, or a midwife’s, or an extreme sports nut, she is totally credible. It really seems like something that would be hard (on writers, actors, and film crews) to do each week, but so far they’re pulling it off.
I do wonder whether Whedon has a five year arc in mind, or started with the assumption he’d be lucky to survive for one season (it is on FOX after all). Certainly the plot is advancing fast enough for a satisfying conclusion to be reached by the point at which Firefly got axed. It occurs to me that he intends to have the initial arc end mid-season having altered the basic premise enough that the show will take on a rather different form beyond that. We shall see!