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

Monday (11/29/10) 6:41pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Dollhouse [2x04-2x07] [spoilers], Friday Night Lights [3x05-3x07] [spoilers]
Books:  How I Became a Famous Novelist

Dollhouse [2x04-2x07] [spoilers]
Last time, I wondered how Dollhouse was going to split the difference between "vertiginous mindf**k" and "competent action show".  This latest batch of episodes -- "Belonging", "The Public Eye", "The Left Hand", and "Meet Jane Doe" -- leans heavily towards the former.

Season one, especially at the start, felt like an adventure fantasy:  "Wow!  Echo gets to be a new person each week! and go do something cool!  Yay!"  Season two, especially with these episodes, takes the same concept to places that are dark, and disturbing, and confusing.  And maybe it's not a coincidence that Echo gets pushed so far out to the periphery in these stories; through this section, it's less about "one woman learning to own her personality", and more about the terrifying, wide-ranging implications of this technology, and what it tells us about how awful humanity can be.

The backstory for Sierra -- an innocent artist gets obsessed on, gaslighted with pharmaceuticals, sent to an asylum, and wiped for the Dollhouse -- is about as tragic as possible.  And of course, the worst of it is that, minus the sci-fi phlebotinum, this reflects how it is when creepy, powerful men target their resources and obsession on some hapless woman.

The backstory for Perrin -- the Rossum Corporation gives him a partial imprint and grooms him for a George W.-like presidency -- is crazy from a science-fiction angle, but again, you remove that, and you've basically got real life.  Big, evil corporations struggle to build up "their people" and get them in the right government positions.

And the conspiracy that Topher uncovers -- that Rossum is creating a weapon that could imprint any human being, anywhere -- is based on severely kooky science, but it's what a big corporation would pursue.  And, like DeWitt, we'd be unwise to take up arms against that kind of power.

Before, the sci-fi in Dollhouse enabled Eliza Dushku (say) be a pop star for forty-two minutes.  Now, that same sci-fi is amplifying the worst qualities of the worst people, to the point where we start to see the outlines of the apocalypse depicted in "Epitaph One".  Bafflingly, the show has raised the stakes from "Will Echo successfully negotiate a hostage release?" (see 1x01) to "Is all of humanity hopelessly and permanently screwed?"

So everything's going to hell.

Meanwhile, the show keeps throwing us these Philip-K.-Dick-style curveballs.  Perrin realizes he's a doll, programmed by Rossum, but still retaining his own memories, and yet still decides to take down the corporation that made him.  Topher clones his mind into Victor (Enver Gjokaj:  still awesome) and gets into baffling arguments.  Echo finally coalesces into an independent personality, but Ballard can't countenance sleeping with her because (among other reasons) on some fundamental level, she's not real.

How did this show ever wind up on FOX?  I mean, yes, it got cancelled as quick as you please, but this sort of brain-melty, philosophical sci-fi has no business on a broadcast network in the first place.

The batch of episodes isn't wall-to-wall impressive.  The prison break in "Meet Jane Doe" was just another "imprint on a quest" storylines.  And hey, does the imprinted personality dissociate at the worst possible moment?  Yes, yes it does!

But as far as I can tell, that's the only dull spot in an otherwise stellar batch of episodes.  Dollhouse is firing on all cylinders, telling stories that only this show could tell, and taking us to bizarre places that only this show could reach.

Friday Night Lights [3x05-3x07] [spoilers]
I had to look up these three episodes -- "Every Rose Has Its Thorn", "It Ain't Easy Being J. D. McCoy", and "Keeping Up Appearances" -- and even after reading the loglines, I couldn't remember exactly what happened in them.

At this point in the season, most of the storylines function by bringing in guest stars.  Matt Saracen's mother shows up in his life! and he has to deal with that.  Tyra starts dating a cowboy! and she has to deal with that.  The Coach has a new quarterback! and everybody has to deal with that.

I feel like the best storylines on FNL take something that's already going on in the show -- like, "this conflict was always simmering under the surface", or "this character always deluded himself in this manner" -- and finds a way to bring it to the surface.  Instead, they're just taking these guest stars -- who just because they're guest stars, are less compelling than the central cast -- and smashing them into the show to see if anything interesting happens.

Again, the show gives me the impression that, in spite of the stellar work everyone is putting in, the narrative engine has run out of gas.  There is no more "here's the next thing that happens in this story", and so they're resorting to "okay, um, let's trying doing this next".  And a few days go by, and I forgot what it was they were going on about.

Still, it's better than season two.  And some plotlines are working for me.  It still feels improbable that Tami would become the new school principal, but that's generating some nice stories.  I like seeing how Coach and Mrs. Coach (AKA Principal and Mr. Principal) deal with it when they inevitably butt heads on school policy.  And I love that they can finally get at a story I've always perceived in the background of the show -- how can a high school countenance spending a bazillion dollars on football when it can't even afford textbooks?

And the house-renovation storyline is predictable, but maybe it appealed to me *because* of its predictability.  As soon as you saw Tim, Billy, Street, and Herc agree to flip Buddy's house, you knew exactly how it would pan out, and watching the slow-motion car wreck that followed had its own sort of fascinating appeal.[1]

How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely
This is Steve Hely's picaresque about an out-of-work college-essay ghostwriter who gets back at an old girlfriend by cobbling together the perfect "literary novel".  (Mo recommended it to me a while back.)

In doing so, Hely pretty thoroughy skewers the sort of three-hankie, self-important novels that his protagonist (Pete) tries to write, as well as taking some deft potshots at Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, and a smattering of other bestsellers.  He breaks down what makes these novels appeal to the book-world's equivalent of a "mass audience".

I suppose one can't help wanting to analyze Hely's book the same way.  Mainly, you it lets an audience feel superior:  "Heh-heh, them 'smart books' ain't so smart!"  To my mind, the best parts of the book were the ones unconcerned with plot, character, or anything related to story.  I was happiest when Hely-as-Pete deconstructed these popular novels, and then gleefully pastiched together their saleable qualities into gobbledygook prose.

(There are other examples of this 'hall of meta mirrors' effect where the book itself embodies the qualities that the protagonist lampoons.  Say, the casual mention of how you should take the action to a bunch of educated cities with lots of book-buyers -- shortly after this, you realize that most of the story takes place in Boston.)

Towards the end, Pete gets his comeuppance.  So, ostensibly, Hely is telling us this tale of literary sins as a morality tale, along the lines of "stop it don't do that."  And as with all such stories, we're interested in the part where the hero is doing the sinning, and roll our eyes at the part where the hero learns some obligatory Important Lesson.  Plus, this section had more to do with plot, and our empathy with Pete the Character, than it did with literary analysis.

Still, on balance it was a nice bit of light entertainment.  Mo made a good recommendation.

For next time, I'll watch more episodes of Dollhouse, listen to more of A Game of Thrones, and read more of Hard Times (getting ready for the upcoming Dickens show -- w00t!).

[1] On the other hand, the deus ex machina of "Surprise!  We've got a buyer!" at the end didn't feel particularly earned.

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Date:Tuesday (11/30/10) 12:29am
How did this show ever wind up on FOX? I mean, yes, it got cancelled as quick as you please, but this sort of brain-melty, philosophical sci-fi has no business on a broadcast network in the first place.

The more I think on it, and the more I read about it, the more I figure it went something like this:

JOSS: Hey Eliza. Both of us have obligations to FOX that we'd really like to tear up and/or set on fire, right? Why don't we collaborate on a project, sell it as a glossy, exploitative adventure show, and then flip it into something they'll hate? Like, actual science fiction? With a strong anti-corporate message?

ELIZA: Hell yeah. Can we also make it super-meta about the skeevy way actors are treated?

JOSS: That will allow me to have plenty of shots of hot women wearing stiletto heels, so absolutely!

WHEDON FANS: We hear Joss and Eliza are collaborating on a project together! It sounds a little...weird, and we're not sure why they're working for the Devil again, but still, yay! We trust you guys!

FOX: WTF is this shit? We can't make heads or tails of it, but we want you out of our hair so we're making you stick to it. Reshoot it so we've got our glossy exploitative show!

*show begins airing*

SOME WHEDON FANS: So, uh, Joss? This show is kind of...not so good. It is also incredibly rapey. Which is not terribly fun to watch.

ELIZA: No, no, it gets better. Really. Right before we get cancelled.


JOSS: Okay, we're a few episodes in, we're still on the air, let's start fucking with the show FOX thought it was buying.

FOX: Listen, mister, you're getting exactly this many episodes, no more and no less. And we don't want to hear another decade of whining from your internet minions about how we just don't ~understand~ your genius. Put up or shut up.

DISGRUNTLED FANS: Joss? Show's still really rapey. Stopping watching the show, and also considering recinding your feminist credentials.

JOSS: Er, crap. We better lampshade the hell out of knowing that it was really rapey from the start, no really, we totally weren't just thinking about it all metaphorically and missing the real implications. Okay. ...And let's take this short lived, star-crossed show out with a bang!

*Someone pulls the wrong lever at FOX. Show is renewed!*


FANS: Seriously?

FOX: ...We meant to do that.

FANS: Yay? Possibly? Wait, what happened to Sarah Connor Chronicles?

JOSS: ...Okay, no, this could be great. Remember how we ended with a total and complete mindfuck, and then proceeded to basically burn the world down in the unaired episode? Let's go with that for the next season! And also be kind of reminicient of Sarah Connor Chronicles, and let's see, how many BSG cast members and plot ideas can we cram in here...?

FOX: *facepalm* Could we at least have a couple of the stories you told us you'd be telling? Here, have a couple writers from Law and Order: SVU.

JOSS: Scifi mindfuck! Surreal dream sequences for an entire episode! Corporations will doom us all! Looming apocalypse! Twists and turns! NO MERCY WILL BE GRANTED TO THE NETWORK OR TO THE SENSIBILITIES OF FANS!

FANS: ...Wuh huh?

FOX: Yeah, you are so not getting renewed again.

JOSS: I AM TRIUMPHANT!!! And now I am never going to work on network TV again.

ELIZA: Yeah, me neither. Even if I wanted to.

JOSS: Don't worry, my fans will follow me anywhere!

FANS: *still boggled*

OTHER ACTORS: Well, that was...weird, but kind of fun, and god knows I've got a lot of stuff to put on my reel, now. So, on balance: yay Dollhouse?

...Or that's my theory, anyway.
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Date:Tuesday (11/30/10) 9:09am
...Or that's my theory, anyway.

Ha!  Awesome. :)
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