Lessons from Dollhouse

I’m sure you heard about FOX sacking DOLLHOUSE, Joss Whedon’s current show featuring Eliza Dushku? They won’t get a third season, for the usual reasons – not enough viewers by Fox standards.

If you know me, you know how much of a Joss Whedon fan I am. So, bummer. But I’m not just writing as a fan here. So, as an author, let me add: Bummer!

I think we can learn a lot from this show, as writers. Both from its qualities and from its shortcomings. What makes a series compelling? How far can you deviate from that before it falls apart? How can you make it work if you can’t afford Eliza Dushku?

So, while fandom is gearing up to save the Dollhouse, let me take a step back.

Before the outrage, before the fears that the show might not even get a second season, back at the very beginning, even die-hard Joss Whedon fans had a hard time getting accustomed to this show. I may be wrong, but it seemed that a lot of would-be fans didn’t even know why they failed to connect with it. Some blamed it on the writing, others suggested that Eliza Dushku may have been the wrong choice to star. (Wrong! And wrong!)

Me, I always liked the show, although I didn’t love it right away. At its worst moments, it was a lot like TRU CALLING, and I liked that a lot, too. At its best, DOLLHOUSE is one of the smartest shows around at the moment. (Well, as far as I know. I don’t watch that much TV.)

The unique setting provokes difficult moral questions (whatdoyoumean, there’s a good side to sex slavery and brainwashing?!), and the authors don’t dodge the political consequences a dollhouse would have if it existed. All the characters have unique and believable attitudes about what they’re doing in the Dollhouse. There are a lot of grey areas, which makes this show seem more… adult than Whedon’s previous shows.

But the setting also has one flaw, and I think that’s the problem with DOLLHOUSE.

I understand the network decision to cancel it. Doesn’t mean I agree – I don’t think it’s a wise choice because you can’t always put the ad revenues first. Reputation is a capital, too. But I understand how it makes sense from a network executive’s point of view. (Makes me glad I’m not a network executive.)

A good mainstream show needs a strong lead who connects to everybody around him or her. That’s because when you’re following a show, you follow the characters, not the style or ambition. They’re your way in. Your way in is your way back in, too.

BUFFY had, well, Buffy, a very fine-written character with a well-defined circle of friends and foes who all had one thing in common: Her. FIREFLY, though more of an ensemble show than a strong lead show, has Mal at the heart of the crew (And when the group falls apart, he’s still at the center of it.)

DOLLHOUSE has Echo. Whose very definition is that she’s not really a character. Everything circles and centers around her, but she doesn’t connect to anybody because most of the time, she’s not herself, and she doesn’t even know all those people. As a result, the show seemed uncentered at first. It’s hard to root for a character who’s somebody else each week. You don’t have a history with her.

The writers solved the problem by making Caroline’s personality seep through into Echo’s, via flaws in the tech. Which made it matter on the ‘political’ level, too. See? Told you Dollhouse is a smart show.

But it’s a difficult show. Of course it is. It’s a Joss Whedon show. It’s hard to connect with anybody if most everybody isn’t really a person. And that makes it a lot harder to follow the ‘political’ dimension.