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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (11/23/09) 2:33pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  Sita Sings the Blues
TV:  Dollhouse [1x01-1x04]
Books:  <none>

Sita Sings the Blues
This is the Nina Paley's animated re-telling of part of the Ramayana.  Perhaps it's best known for being released on a createive commons license.

First off, this movie is a blast for animation nuts, just from the number of animation styles the film cycles through.  We start with vector animation of Hindu gods that cranks the psychedelia to 11 and leaves you expecting to smell colors while you watch the walls breathe.  Then it cuts to a Shoebox-card-style domestic scene.  Then it animates a recorded conversation about Indian mythology in a sequence that feels like she took a scrapbook and did stop-motion animation with its various bits and cutouts.

All of this is before we get to the Betty Boopish musical sequences, set to the recordings of 1920s chanteuse Annette Hanshaw.

Let me get be clear about one thing:  there's not much of a story here.  But let's be equally clear:  I don't care.

It kinda-sorta tells a version of the Ramayana, although her interview subjects disagree quite a bit on how it goes.  It's a pretty simple plot -- it has to be, since it only occupies a fraction of the movie's slim, 82-minute running time, and it has to leave room for a half-dozen musical numbers.  It alternates between that and a very simple story from the director's own life.  And then the interview segments are just discussions about the Ramayana.

Usually, I carp about plot problems in movies, but I'm disinclined to do that here.  For one thing, Ms. Paley keeps the story simple, so it never gets vague or confusing, and it never meanders about pointlessly.  For another, the individual scenes work in and of themselves.  The objectives are clear, the conflicts are clear, I know what's going on, and I want to know how it turns out.  If in the end it doesn't really amount to much more than "boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl", that's really alright.

Sometimes a movie that's not really *about* its plot is okay by me.  Most such movies are animated and experimental.  I still have no idea what the overall narrative of Millennium Actress is, but that doesn't stop me from loving that film.  Occasionally I'll enjoy a live-action movie that's very plot-light -- Lost in Translation comes to mind -- but those are few and far between.  My wild guess is that animation directors who make crazy experimental work think very much in terms of audience response.  I'm sure that Don Hertzfeldt watched Everything Will Be OK until his eyes bled, trying to get it so that it *felt* just right.

On the other hand, I think experimentalists in live action tend to work the opposite way -- an auteur starts out with a preconceived notion of (say) what symbolism they want to put on the screen, and they work very hard to create something that fits that desired conceptual structure.  In the end, unless you have the decoder ring, the movie doesn't do anything for you -- and even if you do, sorting it out feels like a dry, intellectual exercise.

But Sita Sings the Blues uses its simple little plot as a clothesline for its wildly-inventive animation, and in the end, it just feels right.

Dollhouse [1x01-1x04]
One of the problems with catching up on TV shows on DVD is the lag time.  Often I start watching a good TV show just as it's getting cancelled.  (See also:  The Middleman, Pushing Daisies, Firefly.)  The latest such dead-on-arrival is Dollhouse, Joss Whedon's sci-fi drama that stars Eliza Duskhu as an 'active,' a woman who gets her brain 'imprinted' with various personalities and sent out on missions for wealthy clients.  (It got axed last week.)

The legend is that the idea for Dollhouse occurred to Mr. Whedon fully-formed in a matter of minutes, while he took a bathroom break from a production meeting with Ms. Dushku. 

And... yeah, Dollhouse feels like that kind of idea.  More specifically, it feels like one of those crazy concepts that comes to you all at once, looks awesome for an hour or so -- and then you think it over and you see how badly flawed it is.  So, you feed it back into the brain's compost heap of ideas.  Pehraps months later, the idea re-emerges in some slightly different form -- you come up with a similar premise, or combine it with other ideas, or do something completely different that touches on the same themes.  And ideally, after this 'mulching' period, it's been worked into a TV show that can actually work.

Dollhouse needed mulching.

Put another way, I look at this premise, and I can see both (1) why it would immensely appeal to Mr. Whedon, and (2) why it's pretty much doomed from the start.

I mean, ideally, Dollhouse can go into mind-breaking, Philip K. Dick territory.  It's analogous to "if Cylons look just like people, how do you tell who's who?, and does it even matter?"  If a Doll has no way of telling she's a Doll, then really, couldn't anyone on the show be a Doll?  Couldn't we all be Dolls?  And if you are one of those people, then do you even have a personality?

To what extent do you even have free will?

You could dismiss this as silly, ponderous sci-fi philosophizing, but these questions matter.  We are all, to some extent, programmed -- by parents, by peer groups, (especially) by media -- so we can all ask ourselves these queasy questions about how much of us is really us.

And of course the sexual aspects of this are front and center.  Let's face it:  like any cutting-edge technology, the first killer app for Dollhousing would be sex.  It would be, like, 99% "give me a prostitute with this personality" and 1% "everything else".  Human trafficking and prostitution (arguably fungible concepts) loom large over the whole storyline.  And if we're talking about a young women getting her personality cut out so she can go be the plaything of some rich old men, well, just try and watch that without seeing all the feminist issues swirling around it.

Mind you, he's smuggling in a chance to explore these topics into a network show -- one on FOX, no less.

And critics have wisely pointed out that Whedon even turns the microscope on himself with this show.  Topher, the boy genius who programs characters in his lab, is essentially Joss.  For all Joss's shows, he's taken hot girls, given them personalities to portray, and to used that to tittilate the audience.  To what extent is that objectification?

And then what does that make the guys who watch this show?  Lord knows, a good percentage of what kept me watching was just to pathetically stare at the eye candy.  (And at the same time, grousing about it:  "No hostage negotiator would wear a blouse with *that* neckline!")

So.  Lots of big, cool possibilities for this show concept.  But there are lots of big, nasty problems inherent in this show concept as well.

For starters, the concept of the Dollhouse is, let's face it, pretty damn silly.  Sure, Whedon does a nice job of hanging a lantern on it in the pilot:  Paul's FBI superiors point out that an underground agency that imprints personalities on people is (1) impossible, (2) wildly impractical, and (3) stupid.  Paul returns with an argument that boils down to, essentially, "Oh, them rich peoples is crazy."  It's good that Whedon tries to spackle over this hole in the plot.

The problem is, Paul is wrong and his bosses are right.

Now, you can argue that Buffy was just as improbable -- vampires exist? really? -- but it drew from accepted folklore, and it never looked too hard at the premise from a sci-fi angle.  (Sci-fi as in, we start from this counterfactual, and sort out all the atlerations in the world that it implies.)  Dollhouse's setup is more complicated and less familiar, so it puts more strain on our disbelief.

It's fairly easy to pull off a premise that doesn't quite make sense in a comedy or dramedy.  The Middleman, for example, has a patently ridiculous premise:  all comic-book villains and schemes are real, and there's one organization, with only three employees, dedicated to fighting it.  But tonally, The Middleman is best described as a "lighthearted romp", so we give it a pass if, say, they own a giant metal ball that spits out all the necessary exposition in the show.

Dollhouse is *not* a lighthearted romp.  It's dealing with heavy, heavy concepts, so it has to take itself very seriously.  So that, in turn, asks us to take the premise seriously.  And that's where the eye-rolling and head-desking starts.  When a show wants you to take it seriously, and the plot is Swiss-cheesed with holes, you have a problem.

And then there's the 'anthology' problem.  This show is mostly an anthology show.  The A-stories are about the disparate adventures that they send Echo on.  One week it's a murder mystery at a pop concert.  Another week it's a kill-or-be-killed hunting story.  And so on.  So if you're not careful, you wind up with a show that has a very weak narrative through-line.  Instead, it's closer a movie-of-the-week -- each individual outing is entertaining, but it doesn't really add up to anything, and that feels 'off' in an age when we're used to sci-fi dramas with continuing storylines.

Now granted, some of the best shows in television history have been anthologies -- say, Playhouse 90 or The Twilight Zone.  But those revered anthology programs are some forty years in the past.  And much as I like the Mutant Enemy folks, they're just not going to stand up to the sci-fi talent behind The Twilight Zone.[1]

More recent shows have leaned on the anthology format a little without ill effects.  The first seasons of LOST were anthology-like in that each flashback story was a different 'genre':  a war story, a romance, a gripping tale about getting a tattoo, and so on.  But that show (1) relegated that anthology element to a B-story, (2) clearly related that anthology element to the A-story somehow, and (3) involved at least one main character in the anthology bit.  You could argue that Battlestar Galactica explored different genres from week to week -- now it's a legal thriller, now it's a battlefront narrative, now it's a political thriller -- but that was all part of a continuous narrative.

Dollhouse has no such crutches.  Instead, (1) it has a new story in a new genre every week; (2) that story constitutes the A-story; (3) it's not part of any continuous narrative; and (4) the lead is a new character each week, only that lead happens to be played by the same actress.

Whedon & Co. do their best to stitch it all together.  The B-stories usually concern political infighting at the Dollhouse, while the C-story follows FBI wacko Paul Ballard in his single-minded pursuit of the organization.  And each episode finishes with some hint that Echo hasn't been *completely* wiped after her mission.  Sure, this gimmick got old and repetitive by 'round about episode two, but it was at least some assurance that we weren't hitting the 'reset' button every week, like some zany 80s sitcom.

There's one last problem with the show concept that's kind of difficult to explain.  Okay, let's set Dollhouse aside for a moment, and pretend we're writing a show called Killer Death Monkeys from Outer Space.

If your show is called Killer Death Monkeys from Outer Space, and your premise is that a group of highly-trained supersoldiers fight off homicidal alien simians, then odds are, your episodes should have monkeys in them.[3]  If you have an episode of KDMfOS that's just a bland romcom, it's going to feel kind of pointless, and a bit like false advertising.[4]

We might call this "the uniqueness property":  ideally, for any given show, every episode of that show should tell a story that could *only* take place on that show.[2]  And we see shows violate this principle at their peril; as one critic pointed out, one of the problems with later seasons of The West Wing was that they focussed on standard soap-opera antics that could have happened *anywhere*, as opposed to political stories that can only happen at the White House.

Dollhouse gets tripped up by the uniqueness problem pretty badly.  Sure, Dollhouse *could* do a Law & Order episode -- oh, look! Echo's been imprinted with a prosecutor's personality! -- but why would I watch Dollhouse to see that?  Wouldn't I just watch Law & Order?  If your show is called Dollhouse, and your premise is about people being imprinted with various personalities, your A-stories ought to be somehow about the Dollhouse and what it does.  Instead, we get various genre exercises that don't really 'belong' to Dollhouse.

The show does its best to tie the A-stories to that central 'imprinting' concept, but it's pretty contrived.  The main problem is that, the engagement only becomes "Dollhouse-specific" if Echo's imprinting somehow goes wrong.  If somebody remotely wipes Echo's personality, then yes, we're telling a story that only Dollhouse can tell.  But then, if the Dollhouse keeps botching missions like that, why would anybody keep hiring them?  Ah, well.  Them rich peoples is crazy, I guess.

So you know going into it that it could do some amazing things, but it could easily get torpedoed by its inherent problems.  It's a high-risk, high-reward chance that you rarely see a network take these days.  (Soon, every hourlong on television will be some sort of acronym-titled crime drama.)  So far, I'm putting it in the 'interesting failure' category.

Side note:  Alpha is a clever plot device for the show.  First off, every time we see a hint that Echo isn't getting "wiped clean", there's a little frisson of fear:  maybe she'll develop a 'multiple imprint' and go berserk like Alpha did!  But also, it gives them an easy plot crutch:  any time the writers need something impossible to happen:  Alpha did it!  Remote wipes are impossible?  Alpha did it!  Fooling the Dollhouse into working for a psychopath is impossible?  Alpha did it!  (See also:  River Tam, Firefly.)

Alpha can do anything, and it's so merciful that he's elected to use his talents to do whatever the screenwriters need to have happen offscreen.

Additional side note:  how the same guy who wrote "Once More With Feeling" and co-wrote Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog wind up with three TV shows that have horrible, bland scoring?  (That would be Buffy, Angel, and Dollhouse -- Firefly had a fine score.)

I don't know.  Maybe folks like Michael Giacchino (LOST) and Bear McCreary (Battlestar Galactica) have set a standard that nobody can live up to.  And perhaps Dollhouse isn't a show like Pushing Daisies, so overwhelmingly unique in tone that it almost can't help but have an amazing soundtrack.  Composerse Mychael Danna and Rob Simonsen are certainly not as bad as John Dickson (Burn Notice), who still holds the record for 'crappy soundtrack for a good show'.

Generally, though, the Dollhouse soundtrack is aggressively bland from the get-go.  The theme song is just a bunch of na-na-nahs atop the sort of soft-rock backing track you might hear on the AM radio piped into a dentist's waiting room.[5]  And from there on out, the music just keeps being aggressively bland.

Dollhouse is a show that could go in several different directions -- it could be that paranoiac Philip K. Dick fever dream I talked about earlier; it could be a light-hearted romp à la The Middleman; it could be a gripping futuristic action thriller à la Alias.  But in each of those cases, the show would need the soundtrack to help create that specific mood.  Instead, we get innocuous musical filler that feels like wallpaper -- and moreover, it feels like the same wallpaper they put up on every other show.  You could put Dollhouse music on CSI, and it wouldn't feel too jarring.

Additional additional side note:  I really never want to see Joss Whedon write about mental illness again.  It bugged me on Firefly:  River apparently had a mental illness that made her speak in pretentious high-school poetry[6]  Since then, I've seen Friday Night Lights depict dementia and The Corner depict addiction, and... y'know, eventually the penny drops:  crazy is not a plot device.  Crazy is not an opportunity to indulge your prose-poetry whims.  Crazy is harrowing and heartbreaking.

So I see Whedon going back to that well with the dolls' default state, especially in the 'remote wipe' situation.  Even apart from the logical inconsistencies -- i.e., if you speak fluent English, you probably understand what the word "prison" means -- it grates on me.

For next time:  I'll watch the first season of This American Life, continue reading David Copperfield, listen to a new audioboook, and continue with Dollhouse

[1] Also, The Twilight Zone was held together more than anything by its format and tone -- it was always a sci-fi story with a clear metaphor for modern life, and a twist at the end, so it always felt of a piece.

[2] This is analogous to this confusing-but-awesome quote from Alex Epstein, about dialog:  "Good dialog is when the character only says stuff that character would say; great dialog is when the character says stuff only that character would say. "

[3] Version one of that sentence began, "If your show is called That Nutty Moose, and your premise is that a wacky talking Canadian moose comes to Detroit to teach the locals about polite living...."

[4] Of course, the paradox here is that many shows, late in their runs, do just that.  See:  "Marooned" (Red Dwarf), "The Body") (Buffy).  Once you get your characters established, then "telling a story that only this show can do" might become "telling a story involving these beloved characters."  And even then, it's a rare thing.

[5] I'm surprised that I don't like this title track.  The musician, Jonatha Brooke, has done good work.  I liked the Story albums I heard in college.

[6] N. B.:  probably a tautology.

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[User Picture]
Date:Monday (11/23/09) 3:01pm
I was decidedly uninterested in Dollhouse until a specific episode which had a very different tone...I'll be very curious to know what you think about that episode and the later ones (I'm trying to be purposely vague about which one it is so you won't have preconceived notions when you see it).
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Date:Monday (11/23/09) 3:09pm
Oh, and I'm glad you enjoyed Sita. :)
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Date:Monday (11/23/09) 3:03pm
I think you hit on a lot of the reasons I never got that much into Dollhouse. The idea is interesting, but the more interesting story ideas require a huge suspension of disbelief...
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Date:Monday (11/23/09) 4:02pm
Dollhouse gets better. I've actually had the problem that I want to introduce people to the show, but am not sure I can get them to sit through the earlier episodes, which are fairly weak. The last DVD of the first season actually has the original pilot. You can watch it, and see how they dismembered it, and reappropriated most of it for later episodes. I feel like the original pilot got the arc plot moving much faster.
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Date:Monday (11/23/09) 4:15pm
At some point I will have to give Dollhouse a try. I had it on the DVR when it first aired, but kept finding myself not watching it, and eventually had a pile of unwatched episodes. When that happens, I normally take that as a sign that I'm not interested, and just delete them. I just couldn't get past my inner feminist SCREAMING about the premise of the show. I think if (a) they hadn't been called "dolls", and (b) there had been equal focus on MALE versions of the "we'll wipe your personality so we can do whatever we want with you" thing, I'd have had slightly fewer problems. But I can't get past it. Yet.

And, yeah, all those storytelling things you said, too. But my inner feminist kept screaming too loudly for me to get to those. :)
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Date:Monday (11/23/09) 5:20pm
Yeah, it gets better. Much better. I was almost ready to drop it after a few episodes, and then... stuff happens, and you're like, oh, this is the show they were trying to be! I want to believe that they intentionally had to ease into it from the more boring side, but after seeing what it could be, it does mostly feel like a bunch of wasted time that could have been better used being awesome.

Side note: the Exploding Kinetoscope blog has an excellent series of posts where they rip the flesh off of every episode of Dollhouse and expose the juicy viscera and suck on the marrow of the skeleton that the show hangs on. Highly recommended, but in reverse order, due to spoilers etc.


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