Monday (12/7/09) 12:36pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.
TV: Dollhouse [1x10-1x12] [spoilers]
Dollhouse [1x10-1x12] [spoilers]
First, let's get "Haunted" out of the way. This was another of the standard-issue "engagement-of-the-week" episodes that harked back to the start of the season, in a not-good way.
I think I've figured out what bugs me about the 'engagement' storylines: there's no sense of glee.
Mind you, I mean 'glee' the emotion, not 'glee' the FOX TV musical.
When you watch Dollhouse
veer into a hostage negotiation, or a cult showdown, or -- as in this case -- a country-house mystery... you get no sense that the writers really *want* to do it. You watch "Haunted", and you never feel like there was a writers' room full of dyed-in-the-wool Margery Allingham
fans who finally -- FINALLY -- get to indulge their inveterate love of Golden-Age sleuthing on the small screen.
Oddly, I'd cite The Middleman
as one of the best examples going of how to do genre-skipping with a sense of glee. When The Middleman
did a ghost story, they knew the conventions well enough to tweak them in surprising ways, they delivered all the by-the-numbers ghost-story scenes with giddy élan, and they packed the show with Ghostbusters
references. You could tell that they were *dying* to show us a haunted house.
But give Dollhouse
a country-house murder, and they clunk along with a deep and abiding sense of obligation. No, let's not draw on the character archetypes we associate with such mysteries. No, let's not create a setting that evokes the Great Old Detective Novels. Let's... *sigh*... let's just keep everything vague and blandly realistic, and we'll get busy setting up just enough plot mechanics so that we can have a false accusation at the end of each act break.
Okay, do we have the bare minimum set of red herrings that we need to ramble through a plot of the appropriate genre? Okay, good. Done. And good riddance.
That's always how it feels when Dollhouse
goes to visit another genre.
Fortunately, right after that, everything gloriously hits the fan and we get back to the techno-thriller that these writers are so obviously dying to write.
The last two episodes -- "Briar Rose" and "Omega" -- got me thinking about how shows act when they're facing imminent cancellation. Yes, Dollhouse
would get a last-minute renewal, but as I understand it, Joss Whedon had every reason to think Dollhouse
wasn't coming back -- and regardless, the man has a penchant for treating every season as if it's his last.
I've talked before about how different shows respond differently to imminent death. Freaks and Geeks
reacted by burning through every arc they could think of at a breakneck pace. Arrested Development
reacted by turning its meta-humor up to eleven. Sports Night
reacted by taking sneering, thinly-veiled potshots at its network. So what does Dollhouse
do under the Sword of Damocles?
It burns through its story capital.
What do I mean by 'story capital?' Basically, I mean 'elements that the audience would like to see resolved.' Story capital can take lots of different forms. It can be a central mystery: say, the "Where are we?" question from the LOST
pilot. It can be an unresolved relationship: we see Dave and Maddie sparring in the Moonlighting
pilot, and we want to know if they'll get together or they'll split up for good. It can be a conflict: at the start of The Wire
, we know that the Baltimore police are trying to take down Avon Barksdale -- will they succeed or won't they?
Once the pilot sets up all this capital, the show will spend its time burning it off. We'll answer the mysterious questions. We'll definitively decide if the will-they-or-won't-they couple will or won't. Somebody will win the conflict; somebody else will lose. It satisfies the audience to get this kind of closure, but then if you run *out* of capital, the audience might have no reason to stick around until the next episode.
In some cases, the story capital will last the duration of the series. For example, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have gone on record that we won't provide a definitive answer to "Where are we?" until the very last episode of LOST
. In other cases, the show burns off capital early on, and generates more capital as it goes. A show like Pushing Daisies
thrived on this kind of forward motion: it burned through a lot of the pilot's capital fairly quickly, but it contually set up new arcs to replace the old ones. (As a result, the end of the second season contended with very different issues from the start of the first.) Shows like Buffy
and The Wire (hey, there's a phrase I thought I'd never use)
are 'seasonal': each season premiere sets up capital (a 'big bad' for Buffy
; a big case for The Wire
), and they burn it all off by the end of that season.Dollhouse
let all the capital sit there for ten episodes, and then Joss & Co. set it all ablaze in the finale. Nearly every mystery they set up in the first two episodes: "Who is Dr. Saunders
, and what happened to her?" "Who is Alpha?" "What's a 'composite event?'" "Will Paul find the Dollhouse?" and on and on and on -- all of that got resolved right here.
That timing is... odd. Even the 'seasonal' shows pick at their capital a little more slowly and evenly over the course of each season. Veronica Mars
slowly explored one major crime in each of its first two seasons, with each new episode providing another piece of the puzzle. Each season of The Wire
plays out like a 12-hour movie, with each episode filling in more of the latest criminal enterprise. Murder One
, I hear, explored a single murder case over each season, slowly working its way through all the corners of the criminal justice system.
Nobody does this "wait around for the whole season and power through everything at the end" strategy.
On the one hand, this season's end-heavy pacing made for a hell of an exhilirating finale. On the other, it made some stretches of the first season feel logy and disjointed. I assume this is the result of FOX meddling. Perhaps the FOX executives cut the first season short. In any case, it seems like the network types kept changing their minds about whether they wanted a serial or an anthology series. (And then, once they had a really kickass serial, they cancelled it. Nice job, guys.)
And where does this bonfire of capital leave us for season two?
Well, Whedon & Co. have done a brilliant job of rearranging the pieces on the table.
Let me explain what I mean by that.
One of the major differences between movies and television is how characters change over the course of time. In a movie, your protagonist should have some major 'character arc' over the 90-odd-minute running time. If the lead is exactly the same person at the end of act III that s/he was at the start of act I, you might have a dull movie on your hands.
On the one hand, this makes movies exciting. Also, it's a hopeful message: you come away from such a film thinking that a significant event really could change your outlook on everything. On the other hand, it strains credibility -- the psychological evidence out there says that, come what may, people pretty much stay the same.
Television works differently. On television, you most often have a cast of characters with very different outlooks, and those outlooks stay constant. You create characters that work, and you tend to leave those characters alone. Then, with each episode that comes along, you can count on those disparate characters responding to the latest events in conflicting ways.
Even shows that are (justly) lauded for their character arcs use arcs that work very slowly. For example, on Buffy
, Willow changes from a tentative geek to a powerful witch over the course of five seasons -- so, five *years*.
So then the question is, how do you keep television from being static and boring? If Paul Ballard is going to be the same "dogged agent who cuts corners and knocks heads to save the downtrodden" no matter what, how do you keep season two from feeling exactly like season one?
One strategy that often works is to, like I said above, 'move the pieces around the table.' You keep the characters the same, but you put them in different positions. GOB is still the same buffoonish egotist he always was, but now he's in charge of the Bluth Company. Geoffrey Tennant is still possibly-insane, only now he's a lauded theater-festival director going into a performance of Lear
. And don't even get me started on the shifting alliances in a hyperactive show like Heroes
So it looks like Dollhouse
has moved the pieces around the table for season two. Paul Ballard is now working for the Dollhouse, tracking down Alpha. Boyd Langton is now the chief of security. Madeline Costly has now returned to her life in L. A.
And so on.
Of course, it could be that I have this all wrong. Sometimes shows will institute major changes, only to 'snap back' to the status quo in the first few episodes of the following season. Unfortunately, the only examples I can think of are all spoilers for other shows -- if you feel like risking spoilers on television from a few years back, click here
. Maybe Dollhouse
will take that approach instead.
Changing gears, it was wonderful to see Alan Tudyk show up in this series. I wish beyond anything I hadn't found out ahead of time that he was playing Alpha. I trust that the reveal in the doctor's office would have floored me the way the "three flowers in a vase" answering-machine message did back in episode nine.
I was amused to see that Alpha, once we finally met him, continued to be a wonderful screenwriter crutch. What skills does he have? He has whatever skills the writers need him to have. Sure, he can break into the Dollhouse facility! Sure, he can build a homebrew replica of the Dollhouse chair! And so on.
Not only that, but Alpha is crazy! Crazy how? Well, it turns out Alpha suffers from a tragic affliction where he does whatever the screenwriters need him to do, even if it makes no sense from a character-motivation standpoint. If Alpha could have broken into the Dollhouse at any time, why did he hatch an elaborate plot involving the murder of an environmental engineer, the rewriting of certain government databases, the transport and hobofication of said engineer, the shipment of an encrypted USB drive to Dominic, and a whole elaborate stage play for Paul's benefit?
Uh... crazy! Crazified! Doing crazy things!
And why did he kidnap a store employee so that he could reprogram her as Caroline, so that in turn "Omega" could kill her?Wizards.
So yes, there's a lot of fridge logic
going on here. It's a testament to Mr. Tudyk's skill that, while he's on screen, we absolutely buy what he's selling us. In fact it was a little depressing to see Mr. Tudyk in full-on 'multiple personality' mode, because you suddenly realized that *that* is the level of versatility that Ms. Dushku was supposed to have through the whole series. Oh, yeah. *That's* what it's like to play distinct characters. Wish we'd seen more of that from the lead.
Generally, though, the Alpha storyline was very satisfying. Thematically, it wound up being another reassurance that there's something to us that goes deeper than the sort of brain reprogramming that Topher manages. I suppose that's more reassuring than the notion that every one of us is only a fragile, ephemeral flicker of weak electrochemical signals. Granted, it was another piece of fridge logic: "let's use an incipient serial killer for our first doll" is up there with "let's build the housing development over the old Indian burial ground" or "let's construct massive, sentient killbots" in the what-could-possibly-go-wrong derby. But still, it paid off a theme that had run throughout the season.
For next time: "Epitaph One", and whatever other extras they have on that last DVD.
Side note: while watching scenes involving Topher, I have a habit of sporadically shouting at the screen, "Stop being Martin!" as the fellow spookily resembles my roommate from college (now a successful scientist).
Additional side note: It's always satisfying to see this sequence: (1) the two good guys get in a giant fight; (2) the two good guys realize they're on the same side; (3) the two good guys triumphantly team up. Hooray for team Ballard-Langton.
Add'l add'l side note: it's odd, how rarely anybody in this story asks, "Wait, am *I* a doll?" It seems like a natural question to ask, and it seems like there would be evidence that your past didn't really exist.
It suddenly occurs to me that there are almost no photos of me from before my mid-twenties.
For next time: I'll continue reading David Copperfield
, continue watching Dollhouse
, listen to a new audiobook, and watch Michael Clayton
and The Mighty Boosh_____________
 Yes, I'll catch up to that show eventually. But seriously: that show is on FOX, right? So if it were any good, wouldn't it have been cancelled by now?
 Side note: I think TV mysteries are really hurt by the crazy six-act structure television has drifted into. Instead of slowly piecing together the picture of whodunnit, you have to have a big! dramatic! accusation! every five minutes. It almost forces you to write something fast and dumb.
 Side note: I find it odd that I found Ms. Acker much, much more attractive as Dr. Saunders than I did as any of her other roles in the finale. Maybe seeing her play a doctor makes me assume that she's smart, sensible, and helpful. (Why I would assume those attributes, when I actually know doctors?) Unfortunately, I bet it's just that she's playing low-status in that role, and I find that unthreatening. Yuck.
 Side note: hey, wait a minute. If they could remotely turn November into a killing machine in episode nine, why was it so freaky-impossible to do a remote wipe on Echo in the bank heist? And didn't they pick the most inconvenient possible way to kill their horrible handler?
contemplative · Music: