Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse” and the Limits of Innovation

I am a big fan of Joss Whedon’s work. From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Firefly to his version of Much Ado About Nothing, I find his work constantly engaging and entertaining. And so, when I ran across the DVD collection of his TV series Dollhouse in my local library, I was quite excited. I had heard about the series when it first debuted on Fox, but I never got around to watching it, and all too soon it was gone. The series had a reputation as one of Whedon’s more off-beat experiments, and now, finally, I could check it out for myself.

            The series certainly has an unusual set-up. The main character, known simply as Echo, and played by Eliza Dushku, “works” as an operative of the Dollhouse. Her actual personality and memories have been wiped from her mind, leaving her a blank slate, a “doll,” into which a new personality can be downloaded. (The story of the person behind Echo and how she ended up as one of these “dolls,” as the operatives are called, unfolds slowly over the season.) Wealthy customers wanting an adventure of some sort hire a doll, and specify what sort of personality it should have. Each episode follows Echo as she becomes a new persona for a new “mission.” A thrill seeker, a submissive girl-friend, an FBI undercover agent. At the end of each story that personality is erased, leaving Echo a blank slate once more. This premise allows for a variety of adventures. But Whedon has something more than just an adventure of the week series in mind. Bit by bit, he pushes us to think about the morality of all this. Many of the clients want a doll for sexual encounters, others for potentially dangerous or even criminal activities. The dolls have no choice in whether or not to accept a mission. Each of them consented to become a doll – to give up the use of their body for 5 years, but not to any specific types of activities or risks. After becoming a doll, they are passive tools of the operators of the Dollhouse. But how far does that initial consent apply? When Echo has sex with a client, is that something the original personality would consent to? And since the personality downloaded into Echo’s body has been deliberately designed to do whatever the client has requested, is consent even possible for them? As Whedon throws such ambiguous scenarios at us episode after episode, I began to realize that he wanted me to be asking these questions. Whedon designed the show to push us viewers to do more than just marvel at the cool tech and great action sequences. He wants us to think about the issues such a technology raises. I found the show even more engaging because of the way it challenged me to really think about the story and its implications.

            But that innovative approach also undermined the show in key ways. For example, in one episode, the staff of the house discover that they have a spy in their ranks, an agent of the NSA. The staff works to unmask the spy and protect the dollhouse operation. When the staff captures the agent and subjects them to a nasty punishment, I realized that I had just spent the whole episode rooting for the bad guys to win. Twists and turns like that, while intellectually interesting for an episode or two make for unsettling viewing over the long run. It’s hard to figure out how to watch the show when we don’t know what’s going on. Who are the bad guys and good guys? What are we suppose to think about the moral implications of all this? The ground keeps shifting beneath our feet as the series goes on. Worse, the storytelling innovation of having an ever changing main character undermines our commitment to that character. Every episode, Echo gets a new persona. We have to learn who this new character is, what she is like, what she can do. And then, just as we are beginning to figure out who she is, just as we are starting to connect with her and invest in her story, the adventure ends and that persona is wiped away. The character we have committed to vanishes, and next episode we have to start anew with another unfamiliar persona. At the same time, we never catch more than a glimpse of Echo’s true persona, and so we do not get to watch a single main character struggle and grow. But if we can’t connect with the main character, why follow the story?

            I finished the series and pondered these questions as I returned the DVDs to the library. And there I discovered a second season! I had always thought Dollhouse only ran for one season. (I’ve talked with fans who watched the series when it originally aired who also thought the same thing. I suspect that these problems with the story caused many viewers to give up after the first season, never noticing when the show returned.) Of course, I grabbed the second season. When I sat down to watch, however, I discovered that Whedon had made several key changes for the second season.

            In this season, Echo is now self-aware. Even when another persona is implanted in her, the Echo persona also remains. She is also remembering her original life and incorporating aspects of that personality into the growing Echo. We have a consistent hero to invest it and root for, one who is growing and developing. And she does take on the hero role. Echo and the other characters now see the negatives of the dollhouse technology. Indeed, the corporation that controls the technology is obviously intent on using it to nefarious ends. Echo convinces the staff and other dolls, who also show growing self-awareness, to join her in taking down the evil corporation before it can destroy the world. And now we are on familiar story ground. Now we have a band of heroes with a charismatic leader on a mission to save the world. We have good-guys and bad-guys and clear objectives. We have heroes with a quest we can cheer for. I found this season easier to watch. I knew what the overall story was and where it was going. I could invest in Echo and her journey of self-discovery.

            And yet…

            Something was missing. The moral uncertainty. The nagging doubts about who I should be rooting for, the unsettling discoveries that I had picked the wrong side. The arguing with the TV after an episode concluded. All the elements that made the first season so intellectually engaging, that made Dollhouse a show that you had to think about and mull over. While I enjoyed the second season more, I liked the first season better.

            It is that duality that most fascinates me about Dollhouse. The two seasons illustrate different components of a successful story. We need a story we can enter into; we need a character we can connect with and follow and root for. But if the story is too familiar, too clear-cut, we lose interest. We’ve seen it all before. We also want to be challenged, taken somewhere new, presented with new ideas and perspectives that we have to think about. Isn’t that what any journey, literal or imaginative, is all about?

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