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

Monday (11/30/09) 10:19am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  This American Life, Dollhouse [1x05-1x09]
Books:  <none>

This American Life
This American Life is, for my Republican readers, an NPR radio program.[1]  It's a documentary show that tells anecdotes about various ordinary people, with each episode centered around a particular theme.  After twelve years of radio success, Showtime greenlit a season of half-hour television episodes of This American Life -- the same basic format, except on TV, and with two fifteen-minute stories instead of three twenty-minute ones.[2]

apthorpe once summed up the radio show as "nothing I'd cross the street for," and that pretty much sums up my opinion, too.  On some intellectual level, I can tell that they're reporting on interesting, quirky stories.  Perhaps I occasionally wonder how they're going to turn out.  But generally I feel kind of restive listening to TAL -- on the one hand, I'm not picking up any genuinely useful information, and on the other, it's never as gripping as a properly-constructed fictional narrative.  (And on the third hand, it's never as engrossing as a straight-up documentary feature.)

So its podcast episodes accumulate on my computer, un-listened-to.

Then again, perhaps my relative indifference to real-life anecdotes says much more about me than it does about the show, and hints at why I'm generally crap at conversing with people.[3]  If I could turn down the "OKAY I SEE WHERE THE PLOT'S GOING, PLEASE MOVE AHEAD NOW" and turn up the attention to (and appreciation for) inimitable real-life detail, I'd probably like the format of the show a bit more.  I suspect you have to enjoy observation for its own sake for This American Life to really work for you.

In any case, I had pretty much the same reaction to the TV version that I've had to the radio version.  It's straight-up the same show, only with pictures added, and the added quirk of seating Mr. Glass at a desk in various incongruous settings (much like John Cleese at the start of a Monty Python episode).  There are also occasional animations from Chris Ware that are, of course, brilliant.

Apart from that?  Eh, about three episodes in, I wanted to go watch something else.  So:  pretty much the same reaction I have to the radio show.

Dollhouse [1x05-1x09]
You'll recall that last week I had rather unkind things to say about Dollhouse, after having watched its first four episodes.  Result:  a half-dozen people assured me, "Hold on, it gets better."  This jibed with what I'd heard from the critical community, and from interviews with Whedon himself.  The showrunner talked about how Fox wanted, essentially, five pilots in a row to start off Dollhouse, just to make damn sure everybody got well-grounded in the program's universe.

Everyone -- the star, the creator, the critics -- raved about episode six.  Episode six was where everything changed.  And sure enough, episode six came around, and Dollhouse changed from a bland anthology series into Death Note.

Let me back up a few steps.  It can be useful to divide speculative fiction into two categories:  fiction where everybody has the magical whatsit, and fiction where only one person has the magical whatsit.  Put another way, there's the fiction where something is different across the whole society -- say, Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man and its world of clairvoyants -- and there's the fiction where something is different for just one guy -- like Death Note.

Death Note is about one guy who gets hold of a magical notebook.  In this notebook, you can write somebody's name.  Do that, and fifteen minutes later, that person dies.  The story is about people trying to track this guy down.

Here's the thing about stories where only one person has the magical whatsit:  they hurt all the other characters' brains.  The people trying to track down the notebook-guy go through hell -- not only because this criminal could kill them at any time (if he only got their names), but also because... well, what if he writes a means of death that's in the future and made to look like an accident? what if he hands off the book to somebody else temporarily? what if he leaves the book in storage, but tears off one page, and slips it into a hospital sign-in registry?  There are all these 'what ifs' that make the bad guy's actions dizzyingly hard to figure out.

Deep down, the problem is that having a magic notebook is flat-out counterfactual.  it's an artifact that breaks the rules of the universe.

Our brains are designed perfectly well to handle most of the rules of the universe.  Crumple a piece of paper.  Toss it at the trash bin.  In the time it takes you to aim your shot, you're actually doing some tricky second-order Newtonian mechanics in your head.  You can do this because gravity is one of the rules of the universe.  Gravity has always worked the same way, and your whole life -- hell, your whole species's evolution -- has prepped you to account for it.

But when you're looking at the magical whatsit -- the death note, the lone vampire, the wetware-linked hivemind -- nothing has prepared you for that.  If you're the protagonist, you have to think very hard about how to contend with all its implications.  If you're the audience, you really have no idea what's going to happen next.

It's like dealing with gravity if you've never seen gravity before.  Good luck making that free throw.

Slowly getting us back to Dollhouse:  the Dollhouse is a magical whatsit.  And only one agency has the magical-whatsit technology.  They're the only ones that have this futuristic chair that can reprogram anybody to be anybody.  And that breaks the rules of how reality works.  And that makes it very hard for either the audience or for Paul Ballard to work out what the hell is really going on.

Episode five was yet another rehash, only this time with a Waco-like cult compound.  (Eyeball video cameras?  Really?  I guess it made sense in the writers' room.)  And then, episode six:  screw this 'engagement-of-the-week' crap, we're playing Death Note.  They blow through the week's 'engagement' in the first act, and now? now we've got Paul and the Dollhouse going at each other much more directly, and we've got the writers taking their 'we can reprogram people' premise in as many crazy directions as possible.  Who's a doll?  Which intentions are real, and which ones are programmed?  Hell, who knows?

And then there's the rape storyline.  You can raise questions, valid questions, about whether they're just sensationalizing rape for cheap entertainment.  But here, I think they did the right thing.  If you're talking about women being personality-wiped so that they can be pimped out... one could argue that that technically isn't rape, but the question is out there regardless.  To my mind, it seems irresponsible to make a show about this Dollhouse *without* addressing that elephant-in-the-room.

As for the next few episodes, they mostly deliver on what episode six promised.  Sure, "Echoes" gets mired in silly mystery-of-the-week plot logistics, but it also makes good use of the old "Band Candy" trick of 'magical whatsit reveals new facets of all the known characters'.  Sure, "Needs" has a pretty strained premise -- or specifically, a pretty strained last-act reveal -- but the new facts about the actives' backstories and objectives are heartbreaking.  And "Spy in the House of Love" throws perhaps the most Death Note-like curveball we've yet seen at Paul Ballard. 

Paul will have to think very, very hard if he wants to live, let alone win.  And that, I am keen to watch.

Side note:  like everyone else, I'm damn impressed by Patton Oswalt's work here.  I'm surprised it never occurred to me before that he would be a good match for Mutant Enemy.  I love how Mr. Oswalt treats Whedon's heightened language.  He doesn't stumble over the words.  But he doesn't make the opposite mistake, that of just treating these perfectly-honed bon mots as how he casually talks.[4]  Instead, you can see his character thinking up these clever sentences, and you can see his character take a little pride in coming up with them. 

I assume that's Mr. Oswalt's career as a stand-up comic coming in handy there.  I further assume that even when comics aren't on stage, they're coming up with material, turning it over in their minds, and feeling satisfied when a joke, however small, comes together.  So when a comic talks like a Joss Whedon character, they can come across as a human being who genuinely sounds like that.  Maybe more comics will work with Mr. Whedon in the future, if he ever gets another show.

Side note:  I also kind of watched Angels & Demons while I was in Louisville.  But I was reading while it was on, so I don't really have anything to say about it beyond "It was under-lit, slow, and very, very silly."

For next time:  I'll continue reading David Copperfield, continue watching Dollhouse, listen to a new audioboook, and maybe see Michael Clayton.

[1] Kidding.

[2] After the backbreaking work involved in putting the series together, Mr. Glass et al "asked to be taken off TV."

[3] "No.  Please.  Tell me what happened next in your golf game."

[4] Although that seems like the right choice for most of Aaron Sorkin's work.[4b]

[4b] Side note:  apparently Sorkin is doing another 'behind the scenes at a TV show' show?  Hopefully it's more like Sports Night and less like Studio 60.

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