Sunday, November 01, 2009

"Dollhouse"-blogging

I was pretty happy about kicking my "LOST" addiction. Now I've hit a new low with "Dollhouse" addiction. For reference, the premise of the show is nicely summed up by wikipedia here.

The most important fact about the show is that it is almost certainly going to be cancelled after the end of its current season. Ultimately, the problem arises from a structural blunder that is fundamental to the show's premise.

"Dollhouse" is essentially a postmodern mix of "masculine" science fiction and "feminine" identity fiction. One aspect of the drama is the trendy notion of science fiction as a mirror for exploring real-life social problems. Here the Actives are specialists in adopting new personalities that allow them to be infiltrated into social situations that involve sex, money, power, and control. A second aspect of the drama is the postmodern mash-up of familiar elements into new configurations. "Dollhouse" makes a point of showing us the same Actives -- codenamed Victor, Sierra, and Echo -- with personality imprints that put them in different relations to each other in every epsiode. The science fiction aspect is the enabling technology which serves to change the personalities of the Actives. This acts as a catalyst that enables new enhancements of technology to take the show into new avenues of social exploration.

The key functional problem of the show is the decision to make the Actives passive recipients of whatever personality imprints their masters selfishly decide to stick them with. The show does this by assuming that all Actives are kept in a mindwiped "tabula rasa" state between missions. This guarenteed that every episode is going to end with an anticlimax, since no matter how interesting and dramatic each episode becomes, ultimately it signifies nothing since the Actives involved will be mindwiped sooner or later.

Aside from low ratings, this problem produced some side effects. First, it turned the identity fictional aspect of the show into a series of one-time stunt personalities: dominatrix-Echo, lactating-Echo, Echo-gets-married-Echo, etc. Secondly, it practically forced the show to start making the imprinting technology malfunction, since this was the only way to give the Actives a dramatically satisfying "memory" that persists between episodes. Of course, since the whole point of an Active is that he spends most of his time in a highly simplified mental state, the range of "memory" that the Actives typically display is extremely limited.

On the other hand, the memories of the non-Actives is not extremely limited, which made them the reservoir of drama that was needed to save the show from its season one calamity. However, the effect of this decision is that "Dollhouse" has efficiently negated its own initial premise. "Dollhouse" was initially a show about the personalities of its Actives. By episode four of season 2, "Dollhouse" is now a show about the criminal minds of the handlers who run the dollhouse. The dramatic effect is now schadenfreude. Watch Adelle serve tea in an increasingly desperate bid to cover up her drinking problem! Watch Topher become increasingly paranoid as the show's technology goes increasingly wacky on him! Watch Dr. Saunders have a mental breakdown on the air! Who is Echo this week? Who cares?

The one aspect of the show that gives me some faith in the process of television production is that every actor and actress with even a second of screen time has been carefully avoiding being typecast since day one (except for Eliza Dushku, that is). Harry Lennix is going to be acting until the day he dies, Olivia Williams' character Adelle DeWitt has no personality traits at all that didn't come with the British accent, and Tahmoh Penikett has been coasting by on his Clint Eastwood impression. The two discoveries of the show are Enver Gjokaj (Victor) and Dichen Lachmann (Sierra), who have been carrying the show on their shoulders. Enver and Dichen are amazingly popular with the fanbase, so look for them to be given better shows as a reward for being second-bananas to Eliza Dushku for two years.

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