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

Monday (12/21/09) 3:16pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Dollhouse ["Epitaph One"] [spoilers], The Guild [Season 1]
Books:  <none>

Dollhouse ["Epitaph One"] [spoilers]
This bonus disc of Dollhouse contains the quasi-finale "Epitaph One", the usual EPK-like 'making of' featurettes, as well as the original version of the pilot episode.

When people talk about the strengths of Joss Whedon and company, they usually hit the same bullet points:  the witty, cool-sounding dialog; the strong female protagonists; the neat twists on standard genre fare.  What they don't talk about is how well they make episodes that have to fit really weird and difficult criteria.

My favorite example is "Out of Gas", from Firefly.  "Okay.  We want you to make an episode that re-introduces all the characters.  And, oh yeah, Gina Torres can only shoot for one day."  You could argue that the best episodes of Buffy, like "Hush" and "The Body", came from self-imposed restrictions.  ("Hush" had almost no dialog; "The Body" had act-long scenes and almost no supernatural elements.)

And now we've got "Epitaph One."  The basic setup:  "We need one more episode for international sales."  Okay, that's pretty simple, we can just -- "Oh, and we're giving you almost no budget for it, so make it a 'bottle show' that takes place just on your standing set."  Right.  Well, maybe we can -- "This might be your last episode ever, or it might not.  Make sure it either ties up the entire series, or leaves you somewhere to go for season two."  Um -- "Also, you'll be shooting this simultaneously with your on-air finale.  And you'll only have your lead actress for about eight hours."

And Mr. Whedon comes back with "Epitaph One".  It takes place ten years in the future -- a future that, fortunately, doesn't extend much beyond a two-minute glimpse of a brawl in a public square before it goes underground, winding up in the Dollhouse in short order.  We focus on a different group of people (hey! no central cast!), with brief glimpses into the past via imprinted memories.  (They even managed to re-use one last scrap of the unaired pilot for one of the memories.  Genius.)  And they shoot the future sequences on video because, hey, the future looks different from the past, right?

And somehow they even solved the "*possible* series finale" problem.  Trying to write an episode that either might finish the series or might not must be one of the hardest tasks in television.  Donald P. Bellisario failed miserably at it with the last episode of Quantum Leap.  Even Bryan Fuller couldn't rise to the challenge on Pushing Daisies -- he wrote a pretty standard-order episode, and then (when he discovered that yes, they'd been cancelled), he hastily tacked on ten minutes of voiceover to tie up all the loose ends.

The bottom line is, you either end the show, or you don't.  You must end your show with "The End".  If you end it with "The End?", it feels like a cheesy cop-out.  So how do you make a show that *might* serve as the end of the series?

In this case, they do it by treading lightly through the ten years following "Omega", giving us little vignettes that *hint* as to where things are leading.  In the commentary, they discuss repeatedly how they keep the relationships shown in each memory ambiguous, to leave themselves some wiggle room.[1]  So we see these bits and pieces of where these individuals' lives were going.  And we see the big picture of where it all ends:  the whole world burns down.[2]

There you go:  you have a satisfying sense of how it all ends, and you have room to roam through season two.  I wonder if any other shows will ever try this sort of solution for their finales.

I admit, I watched this episode much more for the cleverness of the solution than for the story itself.  The future-plot is a pretty standard-order haunted-house bit, with the 'tech' providing some satisfying twists to the story.  What's interesting is how it sketches out the endgame for Dollhouse.

I really like the apocalypse they create here.  Yes, I know, we get another iteration of "bad technology creates Reavers beaters."  Bear with me.  A couple weeks ago I talked about how there are two kinds of speculative fiction:  the kind where one person has the magical whatsit, and the kind where *everyone* has magical whatsits.  What I like is that, ten years in the future, we've moved from the former to the latter.

To me, this makes intuitive sense, because engineering doesn't go backwards.  Once a discovery is made, it isn't unmade.  Once one person creates something, other people starting making it, too.  In fact, one of the things that's bugged me the most about Dollhouse was just how rare it is for a fundamentally new technology, especially something as far ahead of the curve as imprinting, to be in just one corporation, unknown to the outside world.  Conspiracy theories are fun, but science is leaky, and it tends to diffuse, especially with a ton of people in on the process.

So when we see an apocalypse in which everybody imprints everybody else... well, it feels like that long-held shoe has finally dropped.

And with that, it's arrivaderci, Dollhouse, 'til the season 2 DVDs come out.

Maybe the show was a failure, on balance.  It took too long to drop its silly anthology format.  Its zany sci-fi elements never quite stood up to close scrutiny.  But if it was a failure, it was at least failing at something interesting.

In a Q&A with Ira Glass, Joss Whedon described one of his goals with Dollhouse as -- and I'm going to badly paraphrase here -- getting people to feel good about bad things and feel bad about good things.  In the end, I think that's why this show matters.  Time and again, it sets you up to feel one way about something, and then pulls you up short, making you horrified by what you were cheering for, or less certain about what you'd condemned.

Sure, other shows have played out moral ambiguity before.  Hell, The Wire is pretty much a hundred hours straight of complex moral quagmire -- but I don't know of another show that uses all the audience-manipulation we associate with sci-fi/action to actively keep pulling us in one direction and then another.  Lord knows, the other Mutant Enemy TV shows give their characters nice little black hats and white hats.  LOST, God love it, doesn't so much 'pull you in one direction and then the other' so much as 'suspend you in the air and leave you there for six years.'

The only analogous television I can think of is very dark comedy, the rare kind that alternates between making you laugh uproariously at something and making you horrified that you were laughing at what you were laughing at.

Now, I'm not saying everyone would have this response to Dollhouse.  For example, in "Man on the Street", Joel Mynor has a speech about how he was trying to live out the moment where he showed his wife his new house.  I'm sure many, many people were unmoved by that.  (And similarly unaffected by Paul's blunt reply, "And then you sleep with her.")  I'm sure many viewers go into the show horrified by the very concept of the Dollhouse, and never find the engagements enticing, either from the point of view of being a doll or being a client.

Honestly, that's moot.

What matters to me is that this show is *trying* to steer you into these one-eighties.  It's *trying* to pull the moral rug out from under you.  And to my mind, no other show is doing that on anything like this scale.  And sure, Dollhouse has been axed, but I'd love to see other shows try to play in this particular key.

But the TV business is in its death throes.

And in any case, artistic innovation is rarely as leaky as science.

The Guild [Season 1]
This is the webseries about a guild of World of Warcraft players who finally meet in real life.  It comes from noted web personality and alleged racingpenguins clone Felicia Day.

I admit, I'm more interested in The Guild from a business-model standpoint than I am in the show itself.  More specifically, you watch The Guild, you roll your eyes, and you say, "Duh!  Of *course* that's how you make a successful webseries!"  You pick a niche audience that would delight in having a story aimed at it, you create a story that will require a minimal budget, and you market the hell out of the show.

Duh, right?!

Of course, this is not to say that anybody involved was thinking along those lines.  I believe it was more like Ms. Day had time on her hands, and decided to make a webseries about her erstwhile WoW addiction.  But it makes business sense that The Guild would find such notoriety and success when a zillion other webseries dissipated into the ether.  (Are any other webseries available on netflix?  I doubt it.)

The show itself is pleasant enough.[3]  I admit, I don't play WoW myself[4], so I come at this culture from the outside.  So I only vaguely know an epic dagger from a respawn timer, but the world Ms. Day portrays does *feel* real.  It's certainly a more realistic view of gamers than you'll see in broadcast media, which still seems to have a 50s-hued view of "OMG NERDZ THEY HAZ GLASSES AND SILLY LAFFZ".[5]  And I like that these are very specific characters, not just some batch of humanoids that tumbled out of a central-casting shipping container marked "Video Game Enthusiasts".

Some things work, some things don't.  Like I said, the characters are nice and specific.  The story is straightforward.  Ms. Day's character, Codex, has a clear goal:  get a creepy guy out of her house.  And again, specificity helps here, with the specific collection of creepy things the creepy guy does being downright unnerving.  So they've got a solid foundation to work from.

That said, not all the jokes really connected for me.[6]  The 'cheese-gouging' bit was pure genius, but once you hit the nth joke about Clara's child-neglect or Vork's cheapness, diminishing returns kick in.  The final episode, with a confrontation designed to resemble taking down a big boss (or whatever you damn kids call it) in WoW... it was cute, but didn't elicit more than a smirk.[7]

But it's solid, it's pleasant enough, and it moves quickly.  And while it may be a bit slight as a TV sitcom, it could be world-altering in terms of the TV business.  Time will tell.

For next time:  eh, it's Christmas, so I probably won't watch much.  I might get through the Mike Nichols/Emma Thompson production of Wit.  Hopefully I'll finish David Copperfield and start in on The Arabian Nights.  I'll finish the Jim Dale audiobook of "A Christmas Carol".  And then, I will resume real life and its usual rate of media consumption.

[1] ... although when I watched these scenes, I formed my own opinions about those relationships, and assumed that mine was the only sensible interpretation.

[2] Side note:  I'm not usually big on Big-Thematic stuff, but that development really appeals to me.  I love the idea that the technology that robbed these few individuals of their personality for five years is eventually the same thing that destroys the whole world.  It appeals to one's sense that "none of us are free if one of us is chained", etc.

[3] Saying anything mean about The Guild feels a lot like kicking a puppy.

[4] Having lots of coworkers who were all obsessed with WoW served at one time as a powerful deterrent.

[5] Side note:  this is why I can't watch The Big Bang Theory  without twitching.

[6] The line "Violinist.  Child prodigy.  But *shrug* I'm old now." got a laugh of horrified recognition from me.

[7] Again:  kicking a puppy.

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Date:Monday (12/21/09) 4:35pm
Despite my known distaste for WoW, I watched the first season of The Guild at some point. I had the same reaction as you (including the kicking a puppy part).
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Date:Tuesday (12/22/09) 12:27am
I was pleasantly surprised by The Guild. It's light entertainment, but I laughed enough for the very brief amount of time the first season took of my life.

And I agree about Big Bang Theory. I keep hearing of geeks who love it (and some reviewers have implied that after the first season, the show shifted to laughing *with* the geeks more than laughing *at* the geeks, so it might be worth another look. I did catch a recent episode where two of the characters work on a physics problem, and then commences a hilarious "montage" scene to ...Eye of the Tiger, I think. The amusing part being that all of the shots in the montage are just them staring intently at the equations on the board, thinking.

Epitaph One was a great episode, and I watched the original pilot. I was amused at how many of those scenes they managed to reuse in later episodes. And also a little annoyed. I think the show that started with that pilot would have hit the ground running, and been more interesting more quickly. Instead, it's like they expanded the pilot into 4 or 5 episodes, and then added episodic filler.
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Date:Tuesday (12/22/09) 8:49am
The amusing part being that all of the shots in the montage are just them staring intently at the equations on the board, thinking.

Ha!  That is funny.  Yeah, I can't fault them for the jokes, it's just the queasy feeling that "this is how the cool kids view smart people" that gets to me.

I think the show that started with that pilot would have hit the ground running, and been more interesting more quickly.

I'm of two minds about the unaired pilot.  I agree that, with the unaired pilot, we wouldn't have had this five-episode "holding pattern" where we're waiting for the real story to start.  At the same time, I understand the network note that the original pilot gives you very little idea what a "typical Dollhouse episode" is going to look like.  I feel like after that pilot, if somebody had asked me "What happened in that episode?", I would've said, "I dunno... stuff," and if somebody had asked me "What kind of a show is Dollhouse?", I would've replied with a confused shrug.  And as it turned out, I liked holding off on the reveal that Victor was a doll, and delaying the confrontation between Echo and Paul for a while.


Pilots are hard.
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