There are few things as painful in art as wasted potential. That’s kind of a running theme with shows that are cancelled too soon, certainly, but I mean something more particular. Yes, it was a shame that Firefly was cancelled so soon, but Firefly sprang from the womb pretty close to perfect. There may be less of it than we’d like, but what there is of it is so well-done, and self-contained, that I can’t bring myself to be sad about its premature end. (Having an awesome movie follow-up to give closure helps too.) No, the Joss Whedon show to which my broken heart really belongs is Dollhouse.
Dollhouse is still among my favorite TV shows, but it had all the ingredients to be an All-Time Great. It had a stellar cast, with career-best roles for veteran actors, and what ought to have been star-making roles for newcomers. It had a terrific roster of writers, most of whom went on to helm acclaimed genre shows of their own in the years since. It had mind-bending sci-fi explorations of identity and self-actualization long before Westworld came along and did a lot of the same things (with much more polish and much less humor) to enormous success.
I make the Westworld comparison up front because it’s hard to avoid for someone who knows both. Dollhouse follows the operations of a secret facility that wipes away the minds of human beings and replaces them with new personalities and skills in order to perform any number of different tasks (“engagements”) for various high-paying clients. The people whose original personalities are taken away are referred to as “Actives”, (or “dolls”, informally, hence the name) and when not on assignment their memories and personalities are wiped and they are kept in the house in a completely docile, childlike “blank” state. The central figure in all of this is one particular Active, named Echo (Eliza Dushku), who slowly begins to achieve self-awareness in her blank state, and builds an identity for herself outside of the ones imprinted upon her by the house. Yeah, I don’t know if the creators of Westworld were at all inspired by the themes of Dollhouse, but I certainly would not be surprised.
I guess the other reason the Westworld comparison comes to mind goes back to that part about unfulfilled potential: Dollhouse really needed to be a prestige drama on HBO. It was just too strange, too complex, and too experimental for network television, especially circa 2009. As recounted in the DVD special features (and probably plenty of interviews), Dollhouse came into being at a lunch Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku had together to talk about ideas for the new TV show Dushku was contracted to star in for Fox. The more they talked about what show would be right for Dushku, the more Whedon realized it was also the show he wanted to work on.
Fox ordered the show straight to series, but that’s about where the smooth sailing ended. The first pilot they shot focused on FBI Agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), ridiculed by his peers for believing in the “urban legend” of the Dollhouse and obsessed with tracking down a missing woman named Caroline—Echo’s original self. The plot revolved around the Dollhouse sending Echo on an engagement to stop him from exposing their operation. Fox thought it was too confusing and too deeply involved in lore from the get-go, and another pilot was made that instead portrayed Echo on a more run-of-the-mill engagement that had nothing to do with the Dollhouse itself—she became a hostage negotiator trying to ensure the safe return of a wealthy man’s ransomed child. This set the precedent for the following several episodes, which all followed the same format of “Echo on a normal engagement, something goes wrong, but it gets resolved by the end”. The early concept Whedon had for the show to be able to switch genres every week based on the type of engagement involved was partially intact, but pressure from Fox ensured that there would still be life-or-death stakes every week. Meanwhile, the subplot of Paul trying to expose the Dollhouse was kept to subplot status for the first few episodes, and his first meeting with Caroline/Echo was pushed back to later in the season.
The compromised aspect of these early episodes turned a lot of people off to the show early, and it’s easy to see why. With a show this heavy on sci-fi concepts and lore, it’s difficult to maintain the right balance of rewarding viewers’ close attention to continuity without dumping too much information on them. With television, viewers are naturally going to connect more with the characters they see every week, and the combination of Echo being the focus of the action and her having a different identity every week was a bit of a difficult pill to swallow. As the refrain of this song goes, Dollhouse was a very experimental show that would have benefited from a different atmosphere in which to exist. As a Fox show, it was playing to the wrong crowd with the wrong set of limitations placed upon it. At least if it had been on FX, they could have gotten away with more sexual content.
Okay, so let’s talk about the sex thing. Yes, many of the engagements depicted in the show are sexual. The Dollhouse is, among other things, the world’s most high-end brothel, and the show doesn’t shy away from that. Part of the original mission statement from Dushku and Whedon was to talk about difficult sexual subjects—secret fantasies, consent, the spectrum of human sexuality. (Incidentally, I don’t know if exploring trans issues was something that ever came up in the writers’ room, and I’m sure Fox would have vetoed anything explicit anyway, but this really was the perfect sci-fi concept with which to sneak in discussions about gender identity and dysphoria.) Some of this stuff still got in, to be sure, which is why the show is as good as it is.
Episode 6 of the first season, “Man on the Street”, is often cited as the point where the show really picks up, largely because after easing us in to things in the first five episodes, this one is allowed to break the pattern a bit and include more storytelling about the Dollhouse itself, and Paul’s fixation on uncovering it. This is when Paul finally gets face-to-face with Caroline/Echo, but his first brush with her is only a brief one—he spends most of his screen time with the client of her current engagement, internet entertainment mogul Joel Mynor (Patton Oswalt). His is a recurring engagement in which he orders an Active to be imprinted with the personality of his late wife so that every year he can relive the day he showed her the first house he bought for them with his new money. This time around it’s Echo in the role of his wife, and although she is whisked away by her handler before Paul can get to her, he is left with the consolation prize of a cozy conversation with Mynor himself.
Mynor tells his surprisingly sympathetic story, challenging ours and Paul’s notions about Dollhouse clients, but Paul’s moral compass is still firm: as far as he’s concerned, what Mynor’s doing is still wrong. The show never disagrees with him, but it also never treats Mynor like a straw man. Mynor isn’t simply a Villain, just as Paul isn’t simply a Hero—Mynor himself is the one who points out Paul’s obsession with rescuing this attractive young woman he’s never met has more than a little of the white knight fantasy to it.
A subplot in the same episode concerns the fact that one of the Actives, Sierra (Dichen Lachman) is being raped by her handler. While the show very unambiguously agrees that he’s the scum of the earth, even he has valid observations to make. Before being thoroughly dealt with, he accusatively asks Dollhouse manager Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams, an absolute queen among badasses) if she thought this kind of thing was never going to happen with the blank Actives walking around in such a docile, helpless state, surrounded by staff who are already outside the law just by working there. This guy’s only saying it in self-justification, but that doesn’t mean his observation isn’t valid, and the clear opening for this kind of abuse is something Adelle is clearly troubled to admit exists under her watch. It also raises the ugly question of where the people running this place draw the line; okay, so sexual activity with an unimprinted Active is clearly beyond the pale, but sending Actives on sexual assignments where the only consent the Active is capable of giving has been predetermined by computer programming? How much better is that, really?
This the kind of thing that made Dollhouse not just good, but special. It was the best kind of science-fiction—the kind that uses speculative technology to pose difficult questions about the way we interact with the world we live in now, not in a shallow Black Mirror-esque morality play, but in a manner that acknowledges the complexities of human behaviors. The fact that the show did as much with these themes as it did is a blessing, because if the unusual narrative aspects of the show weren’t tough enough, few things are going to turn off a network audience like ambiguous morality. Especially in 2009, Fox was not exactly going to dive into that kind of thing with both feet.
This is not to say that Fox did nothing except for cramp the show’s style. As recounted on the DVD commentaries, it was a Fox mandate that the Dollhouse’s secret founders, the Rossum Corporation, were not just running the Dollhouse as a means of funding their philanthropic research, but also to further plans even more secret and sinister than the Dollhouse itself. While I don’t think the show needed to have an action-show-conspiracy-plot to be compelling, that mandate did set a fascinating trajectory for the rest of the show’s story, solidified by the first season’s unaired thirteenth episode, a flash-forward into an apocalyptic future where the imprinting technology that Rossum used for the Dollhouse has devastated the entire world. (More on that in an upcoming Episode of the Week article.)
The other relevant mandate Fox made was to accelerate the development of Echo’s own personality in Season 2, so that the first few episodes of the season see her discovering her own ability to add the imprinted personalities to her own persona while retaining self-awareness. As she puts it in the season premiere, “Sometimes I’m someone else and then I come back, but I still feel them. All of them. I’ve been many people. I can hear them, sometimes suddenly. I’m all of them, but none of them is me.” From the way they’ve talked about this mandate on the commentary track, it doesn’t seem like the writers weren’t in agreement on this point, though. A show where the central character is such a cypher is usually going to test the audience’s patience, especially when the show is about more than “What kind of acting is the star going to do this week?” Though she does quite well for herself as Echo, Dushku isn’t the kind of actress whose physical embodiment of different characters is so entertaining on its own that it can carry a show anyway—like, say, Tatiana Maslany, whose acting was the only thing that kept me invested in Orphan Black for as long as I was.
That said, one actor with that particular kind of skill is Dollhouse’s own Enver Gjokaj. As the Active designated Victor, the unusually handsome Gjokaj eventually becomes the go-to guy for distinctive characterizations and mimicry. Perhaps the greatest single thing about the second season, and possibly all of television ever, is when personality programmer Topher Brink (Fran Kranz) imprints his own personality onto Victor, and Gjokaj gets to bust out a pitch-perfect imitation of his co-star’s manic nerd-genius mannerisms. Perhaps the other single greatest thing to ever happen is “Belle Chose”, the episode during which Gjokaj gets to play both a serial killer and a flirtatious party girl named Kiki, and is impeccable at both.
Victor’s main recurring plot thread is his innate, unimprinted attraction to Sierra, who reciprocates. As Sierra, Lachman doesn’t get to have quite as much character actor fun as Gjokaj, but she gets her share of cool moments (isn’t it great to see the pretty people get their character actor on?), and it’s easy to see why Lachman became one of the go-to actresses for people casting badass villainesses in their sci-fi TV shows after this. I also would be remiss if I did not use this paragraph on the other Dolls to talk about November (Miracle Laurie), a sleeper agent Active planted by the Dollhouse as Paul’s next-door neighbor to keep an eye on him. November was intentionally cast to look more “ordinary” than the other Actives—meaning curvaceous, rather than supermodel-thin—both to play into audience expectations of what an Active would look like, and to subvert those very standards of beauty. Especially in a show that touches so much on standards of physical appearance, and which understandably leans in to the appearances that were specifically in vogue in the late 2000s, having her around to represent for less-skinny beauty is a breath of fresh air.
But not everybody gets to be a Doll. Apart from Paul Ballard, most of the core cast are people working for the Dollhouse itself, which in itself offers an interesting take, since, y’know, the whole concept of the Dollhouse is going to strike most viewers as at least a little bit icky. Yes, ostensibly the Actives’ original personalities willingly agreed to have their brains basically hollowed out for five years at a time in exchange for a big payday when their original personalities are restored, but it’s clear from very early-on that sometimes this consent on their part is dubious at least.
But the people we follow at the Dollhouse are not from the Rossum Corporation itself, they’re just employees and middle management, and the best part of the character study is discovering where each of their moral boundaries lie, and how far they are willing to stretch those boundaries. Boyd Langdon (Harry Lennix), Echo’s handler, is introduced as an ex-cop whose past is murky but whose sense of morality is firm and steady. He’s the one who voices the audience’s moral concerns, and his is the moral compass to which everyone else’s character development is in some way rooted. He is not sand; he is bedrock.
Less concerned with right and wrong is the personality programmer, Topher, the quintessentially insufferable computer genius man-child made improbably endearing by Fran Kranz’s perky, boyish charm. He starts the show with absolutely no moral compass or desire for one at all, just happily smart-ing all over the place with no regard for long-term consequences, but when push comes to shove, he finds in himself a heart as big as all outdoors.
The in-house doctor, Claire Saunders (Amy Acker), has little in the way of moral indignance about her job itself, but she does have a healthy distaste for Topher’s own thoughtlessness. And I’ve already mentioned Adelle DeWitt, manager of the Los Angeles branch of the Dollhouse (did I mention there are other branches?), my favorite of them all. In her is captured the most constant moral struggle of them all, and the most fascinating—because as boss-lady, she’s not in the business of being able to share her doubts. To the staff, to the outside world, she must be the ruthless icy-hearted Head Bitch in Charge, and she is scarily good at it. It’s not that it’s an act, after all; it’s a choice. It’s a way of surviving, both physically and emotionally. Her private life, her regrets and vulnerabilities, all are kept hidden from her staff, and only slowly revealed to the audience—most significantly in the underrated episode “A Spy in the House of Love”, which sees her dealing with both her own loneliness in a position of power, and a betrayal by somebody her right hand man, security chief Laurence Dominic (Reed Diamond). Although Echo’s journey towards self-actualization forms the backbone of the series, it is her and Topher whose character development and moral growth are the heart.
In a show where even some of the “good guys” are so morally compromised, the villains have to be something special, and boy do we get a special villain for the big Season 1 climax. One of the coolest parts of the show’s lore is that an incident occurred several months prior to the events of the pilot in which one of the Actives turned violent in his blank state, and during the diagnostic was accidentally loaded up with all of his previous personalities at once—a “composite event”. The composite personality was now not only violent, but terrifyingly intelligent thanks to the power of dozens of minds operating as one.
This is Alpha, played by Alan Tudyk in a career-best role, and if you like him as an actor, this show is worth watching for his episodes alone. Alpha is a megalomaniac who is both terrifying and funny, (not to mention he looks pretty darn good in a suit) whose multi-faceted super-brain means he can change behavioral gears at a moment’s notice, sometimes without even meaning to. This is the performance that’s led me to spend ten years shouting from the rooftops that Alan Tudyk should be playing The Joker. At the end of Season 1, he uses Paul as a patsy to get him back into the Dollhouse so that he can whisk Echo away to what the show gratifyingly refers to outright as “an evil lair” (that line we owe to writer and Ryan Murphy collaborator Tim Minear, who is just the coolest), and do to her what was done to him—upload all of her past personalities at once, and make her into a super-being like him. From the point of view of Echo, this story about a woman trying to define her own identity outside of the roles others assign to her couldn’t have a better nemesis than what Alpha ultimately is: the stalker wannabe-boyfriend. Just, y’know, more.
In fact, Alpha’s plan to create another composite event in Echo’s brain winds up being his undoing, because while she is every bit as smart as he is now, she still wants nothing to do with him, and gives him the business end of a metal pipe for his troubles. Although Echo seems to be wiped back to a clean slate like normal at the end of the episode, it’s clear that the effects of the composite event are going to have a lasting impression. This is the point that allowed Whedon and company to, as the network wanted, jump-start Echo’s character development in Season 2. Things were really starting to come together in a beautiful way.
And then Season 2 actually happened. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good; but this is where the behind-the-scenes issues really spelled the show’s death sentence. My completely speculative theory is that Fox just didn’t want to be known as the guys who cancelled Joss Whedon’s niche favorite show in the first season again, because although they ordered a second season, they cut the budget considerably, and played some wacky-ass games with the airing schedule—first a hiatus, then doubling up on episodes, then another hiatus, etc. In any case, the budget cuts meant less of pretty much everything. Amy Acker could only be got for three episodes, most of the series regulars were absent from at least one or two episodes for no story-evident reason. Whedon brought in some friends to help out, with Alexis Denisof from Angel and Summer Glau from Firefly featuring in the two major recurring roles, and his Astonishing X-Men artist John Cassaday directing one of the episodes, fan-favorite “The Attic”. Even so, it was an uphill struggle for the creative team, especially with the plot growing more complicated in pursuit of the Rossum Corporation conspiracy angle.
At least the network cancelled the show with enough time for the creative team to make a proper series finale. One suspects they were ready for this eventuality anyway, given the poor ratings and Fox’s past behavior, but the finale—“Epitaph Two: The Return”, a follow-up to the flash-forward episode from the end of the first season, wherein the apocalyptic future setting gets a resolution—still feels a bit rushed. Forty-two minutes is just too little time to establish all of the ways in which our series regulars’ lives have changed in a decade, and it’s honestly a miracle that a finale like this managed to be as coherent and moving as it is.
In the year of us being left hanging forever by the cancellation of The OA (the most painful example I have), I am absolutely mindful of what a blessing it was that we at least got the closure that we got from Dollhouse. It was a show that was ahead of its time, and even though the context was wrong, I still try to take some comfort in how well it was able to do its own weird thing despite all obstacles.