Joss Whedon plays with dolls

>> Thursday, March 26, 2009

I'm not sure it's actually even worth writing about, but it's bugging me.

Last Saturday I was over at a friend's--we were getting a crowd together for an epic game of Arkham Horror--and I found myself subjected to an episode of Joss Whedon's latest-and-not-greatest television show, Dollhouse. This was an experience I'd managed to avoid: I don't have cable, don't have bunny ears; my television is plugged into the DVD player and if I really want to watch a TV show I buy or rent the DVDs (or, ahem, occasionally resort to, er, other methods).

This was something that started as a combination of budget, laziness, and disgruntlement with the cable company (which now, ironically, provides my internet service since I became even more disgruntled with the phone company), and it turned into a lifestyle choice. It's a little amazing that you really don't miss TV, even if it means missing out on some good TV shows or having to wait around to see how a series turns out. You find yourself spending the time you would have spent with the television on in the background doing things like reading or writing, or even something like playing a video game, which is at least an interactive activity.

So I'd managed to not see Dollhouse, which turns out to be not-good-TV that isn't-being-missed. This was episode six, I think I was told, and it was actually written by the man hisself, Joss Whedon, which surprisingly turned out to be a bad thing: plodding, predictable plotting and lousy dialogue aren't exactly things anybody has usually associated with Mr. Whedon, but they were in abundance in the forty-seven minute travesty I was subjected to via the miracle of TiVo.

This isn't meant to be a review of Dollhouse, though, as it is to bring up what I found most disturbing about what I saw (as opposed to the merely disheartening fact of the bad writing)--you can Google Dollhouse, I think, and read quite a few bad reviews written by professional television critics who have seen more than a single episode. And, anyway, I tend to think of first seasons as mostly disposable anyway: relatively few shows have good first seasons, fewer still have first seasons that are better than the second seasons. Writers and actors haven't found their strides, characters haven't really begun to come together, the show's themes or story arcs frequently aren't even clear to the people making the show during the first season. There are inevitably exceptions: Galactica had a spectacular first season that subsequent seasons didn't necessarily live up to, and Carnivàle comes to mind as a show that had a spectacular first season followed by a faintly awful second (and final season).1

Anyway, the fact that Dollhouse was bad was disheartening; what made it vaguely repulsive, and shockingly so coming from Whedon, was the show's treatment of women. The premise of the show, for those who have somehow missed it, is that there's a high-tech whorehouse from which mindless sex-slaves (of both genders, but the show seems, at least from the episode I saw, to inevitably focus on the women) are rented out to johns for pleasure or for more nefarious purposes such as assassination, infiltration, etc. Through the magic of skiffy, the women (and token men) of The Dollhouse can be mentally reprogrammed with personalities (characters they'll play during tonight's adventure), skills (now they know Kung-Fu) and secret messages. For some reason an FBI agent played by Helo Tahmoh Penikett thinks this is bad (gee, really?), and is obsessed with a programmable zombie hookerbot cleverly named "Echo" (see, she blankly "echoes" whatever personality her pimps program her with, so it's... yeah) and played by Faith Eliza Dushku (who is still unbelievably hot, yes, but whose performance in Dollhouse sometimes makes Arnold Schwarzenegger look like Olivier). There's some token moralizing via man-in-the-street interviews and Mulder-or-whatever-Penikett's-guy-is-named, but it eventually rings a bit hollow when the show seems to luxuriate in Dushku and Penikett bloodlessly bashing the crap out of each other or the inevitable bedroom scenes.

And this is where the show gets repulsive. How bad is Dollhouse? Dollhouse is so bad it has you wondering what the hell is wrong with Joss Whedon and whether Buffy The Vampire Slayer was the most misunderstood show on TV--and this is also where yours truly is having the hell bugged out of him, because I may not actually give a shit, frankly, about Dollhouse, but Buffy was appointment television for me for about five years and I still care more than a little bit about it.

See, watching Dushku and Penikett whale2 on each other, and the way in which the camera made love to the whole scene (as opposed to the lackadaisical shooting of, say, scenes that actually furthered the series' plots--"Oh, we'll just put the camera over there and point it at the actors until they're finished talking"), I found myself wondering if Joss Whedon likes watching women being beaten. I mean, there may be multiple fetishes here: he might like watching women hit people, too; but there was definitely a sense of aggression present that somehow didn't seem warranted ("And now she's slammed into the hood of the car, just because"). And that led to me wondering if Buffy, which always seemed like it was a show about an empowered female character, wasn't really a show about Buffy Summers getting hit a lot, rationalized or justified by the fact she's a superhero and can take a few blows to the face every week.

This line of thought also raises another unpleasant spectre: I've long felt that Whedon has an absurd theory of drama that prohibits characters from being happy, but now I have to second-guess myself. Is the reason that Whedon subjected Buffy, Willow and other female characters to various personal indignities because he didn't know how to make a healthy or happy relationship a part of good drama, or because he impulsively had to humiliate, embarrass or emotionally-destroy the women? Even the writing choices that affected male characters--e.g. Xander on Buffy or Wash in Serenity--seem to be choices that affect a female character as much or more, leaving her dead, wounded or in pain in every instance I can think of.

And then I found myself wondering if all of Whedon's creations were all dollhouses: shows in which a woman (an actress) is reprogrammed to be a sex toy, punching bag and dominatrix to be put through various fantasy scenarios at Whedon's whim.

I found that really disturbing thing to contemplate.

The problem is that if Dollhouse maybe isn't a show that hates women, it is a show that doesn't think very highly of them. I suppose that Whedon would say that he's exploring themes of identity, but television shows like The Prisoner managed to construct episodes around somebody having his personality reprogrammed on a routine basis without icky-feeling scenes of physical or psychological exploitation.3 One problem may simply be a gender problem: television shows and movies in which a man changes identities4 are unlikely to deal with the sex angle because we're a predominantly straight culture--but this may beg the question of why, if Whedon is mostly interested in identity, he didn't simply do another show about a man who is reprogrammed every week, as opposed to a show about a woman, or why the woman in question has to be routinely programmed to fuck her employers? In other words, Dollhouse is a questionable vehicle for what it ostensibly wants to do in the first place: this is a show about women-as-toys whether it dresses itself as high-concept or had chosen to openly revel in it's own crassitude like a two-a.m. Cinemax offering.

So I have to wonder how much I still respect Whedon as a writer, tell you the truth. Or maybe I'm just reading too much into what, by almost all accounts, is a really terrible TV show.





1It may be mere coincidence that Ron Moore, one of the geniuses behind Galactica, was an associate producer and writer for Carnivàle during the first season (and wrote the series' strongest episode) but left before the second.

2Or wale; various dictionaries describe the etymology of the alternative usage of "whale" as unknown, but it's hard for me not to believe the origin isn't a misspelling or alternate spelling of "wale"--which has several meanings including to whip or to raise welts (as if by whipping)--that entered common usage in the 18th Century.

3I feel obligated to point out that not only am I not a prude, but I enjoy sex and violence in my entertainment. Including, yes, porn, for which I have a healthy appetite. But even someone who enjoys porn can tell you that there's porn in which participants at least appear to be consenting adults who are enjoying (or pretending to enjoy) sex and porn in which participants appear to be victimized, and that the former is enjoyable while the latter is unpleasant or even revolting.

4SF or non-: similar themes of self identity are dealt with, for instance, in The Departed.



11 comments:

Random Michelle K Thursday, March 26, 2009 at 8:29:00 AM EDT  

this may beg the question of why, if Whedon is mostly interested in identity, he didn't simply do another show about a man who is reprogrammed every week, as opposed to a show about a woman

I can answer that. Dushku had a contract with Fox and wanted Joss to write the show. My understanding is they both wanted a show that would allow her to stretch her acting talents by being someone different every week.

Regarding the sex bit, I heard/read an interview with him addressing the subject, and he said he wanted people to think about how women were treated as sex objects in society--he said you're supposed to be made uncomfortable by it.

There's a lot on IO9 about Dollhouse, I just skim it occasionally.

mattw Thursday, March 26, 2009 at 8:55:00 AM EDT  

I haven't seen the show, and really haven't seen much if any good words about it. I did see somewhere that episode 6 was supposed to be one of the best.

I think Wheadon is completely overrated. Sure Buffy was good, we're rewatching it now, and Firefly was alright. I never spent more than one episode on Angel, and never had any incling to watch his latest creation.

As for shows that have a stronger first season than the second, I think LOST is another good example. The first season was well paced and kept people coming back, and the story was told in such a way that we got to see some of the characters' darker secrets towards the front instead of having to wait. Season two slowed down considerably, but it's picked up from there and we can't get enough.

John the Scientist Thursday, March 26, 2009 at 9:27:00 AM EDT  

I agree with Matt in the hype surrounding Whedon not matching the actual output. He spews out a lotta rationalizations for stuff he does that are either false, or evidence he's not too good at getting his point across.

I was never impressed by Buffy, but that may be disinterest in the subject matter.

I think that last is one more piece of evidence for us being Evil Twins: you're an atheist interested in occult and fantastic literature, I'm a religious person who's otherwise an extreme rational materialist, to the point of not consuming much literature (LOTR excepted) not in tune with that philosophy . :p

Eric Thursday, March 26, 2009 at 9:37:00 AM EDT  

Michelle: unfortunately, from what I saw, it wasn't making me (or anyone else in the room) uncomfortable in the way Whedon presumably intends. I'm not entirely sure you can do a TV show or movie that makes people think about how women are treated as sex objects when your show or movie does exactly that. (Strange how often writers/directors/producers who are accused of gratuitous sex or violence frequently come around to "oh, it's supposed to make you think" when they're called on it.)

When Whedon says you're supposed to be made uncomfortable by the sex bit, I suspect he means the "mindless programmable whorebot" premise for the show, and not Eliza Dushku being repeatedly punched in the face when she's been programmed as an assassinbot. And regardless, his defense sort of loses momentum when you actually see how much the show seems to enjoy its premise. Nor does it help when, apparently expecting these sorts of criticisms, he has Patton Oswalt (of all people) get into a lengthy and not-very-well-written philosophical debate with Tahmoh Penikett over the ethics and morality of prostitution: Whedon would have done better to simply walk onto the set himself with a cigarette a la Rod Serling and deliver a pair of pithy bookending sermonettes if he wants to hector the audience into understanding that all the creepily exploitative sex and violence is really for the audience's own good, to make it think ("This will hurt us staff writers more than it hurts you, but you need to learn that treating women as meat is bad--and now here's Eliza Dushku, who plays Meat...").

I knew about Dushku's production deal and friendship with Whedon, and I can understand an actor wanting to stretch, but it still doesn't really answer the question: he could have written a different show for Dushku, and I'm honestly not sure how much Whedon can stretch an actress when he has a clear obsession with a certain type (see Buffy Summers, River Tam, et al.). Indeed, midway through Ep. 6 of Dollhouse, Dushku becomes a classic Whedon Girl and spends a fair chunk of the episode in that mode, and if the show goes where it looks like it's going, "Echo as Whedon Girl" will become an increasingly dominant element if the show makes it past this season.

Jim Wright Thursday, March 26, 2009 at 1:11:00 PM EDT  

Haven't seen Dollhouse.

Never watched Buffy, just had no interest in it at all. Or Angel.

Loved Firefly and especially loved Serenity. I wish Whedon would do more of that type of thing.

Whedon hits me about the way Kevin Smith does - he did some weird quirky things that were very popular in a small fanatical audience - but outside that he tends to flounder. And seems a bit overwhelmed by his success.

Eric Thursday, March 26, 2009 at 2:08:00 PM EDT  

Buffy had five good seasons (out of seven) and Angel had three (out of five); I'd say both are worth checking out, although Whedon's recent work has me reconsidering whether those shows were as brilliant as I thought. And I loved Firefly (Serenity... not so much), though I worry it would have slid in quality the way Whedon's other shows eventually did.

Unfortunately, John is on to something with his characterization of Whedon's rationalizations: Whedon's frequently said things in the press about projects he's worked on (e.g. his revisions to the first X-Men script) that are not true and/or suggest some kind of failure.

At his best, he writes snappy dialogue and comes up with interesting, multi-faceted characters. At his worst... eww. And sometimes his best manages to slip into his worst: a lot of the problems with Alien Resurrection, for instance, go directly back to the script's Whedonisms (e.g. snappy dialogue that's too cute, "quirky" characterizations that would be all-too-familiar in the Buffyverse).

The biggest difference between Whedon and Smith is, frankly, that Smith's reputation is a little inexplicable. Some of Smith's stuff is good, but none of it is great. At least with Whedon, you can point to something like the Buffy episode "Hush" and say, "That's one of the best hours of television I've ever seen" (and it is--"Hush" just hits them out of the park one after the other: it's scary, funny, weird, smart and original).

Jim Wright Thursday, March 26, 2009 at 6:35:00 PM EDT  

Well, I'm not an expert on Whedon's other work, outside of Firefly and Serenity as I said in the previous comment - certainly not to the level you are.

But I will say that some of the things you point out could be directly attributed to the cast members of the respective shows - the Firefly ensemble worked, those people were instant friends and could play off each other. And Whedon's dialog fit Nathan Fillion perfectly, and in fact a lot of the dialog was ad libbed. That works with varying degrees of success depending on who's doing it.

I suspect the AVP cast wasn't all that good at it - or acting in general for that matter, from what I saw.

And I completely concur with your assessment of Smith - inexplicable is exactly the word. Even he thinks so. But then there is always a market for dick and fart jokes - to use Smith's own dialog here.

Eric Thursday, March 26, 2009 at 7:10:00 PM EDT  

Jim: Whedon worked on Resurrection, the fourth Alien film with a cast that included some pretty top talent: Sigourney Weaver, Ron Perlman, Dan Hedaya and Winona Ryder. And the ensemble should have worked, except they had a pretty wretched script to work with (Whedon claimed, as he often does in such cases, that it wasn't his fault, things were changed, etc.; this could be true but might not be). As far as I know, Whedon didn't have anything to do with either AVP movie.

When Whedon is at his best, writing for an ensemble is one of his strengths: Buffy and Angel were both loved for their ensemble casts more than their leads, and both shows suffered when the writers began to screw up the ensembles in various ways (breaking characters, adding members, etc.).

Despite the questions Dollhouse raises about where Whedon's head is, I still recommend checking out the first five seasons of Buffy and middle three seasons of Angel. I think you'll find a lot of the things you like about Firefly in both shows.

Eric Thursday, March 26, 2009 at 7:17:00 PM EDT  

(afterthought:

You might notice that Alien Resurrection has a lot of Whedon staples, including: an ensemble of outcasts who engage in witty banter, a female leader with superpowers, an sidekick elfin-girl who appears meek and doesn't mesh with the group but who has some kind of special talent and is more than she seems....

Yes, AR features a mash-up of Buffy's "Scooby Gang" and the crew of the Serenity. And manages to Epic Fail with it. Which Whedon pretty much blames Jean-Pierre Jeunet for, as opposed to noticing that he's treading water harder than a Titanic survivor at three a.m....)

Kathy Friday, March 27, 2009 at 8:06:00 PM EDT  

I watched two or three episodes of Dollhouse on hulu, and I couldn't really get into it either. It didn't seem to be setting up one of the season(s)-long story arcs that worked so well on Buffy, although I guess I can't say that without watching more of it. But, I doubt I'll bother--the show just isn't that engaging. I am watching Buffy again, however, and I still think it's one of the best shows to ever grace the little screen. Taken on its own, without the context of Whedon's other work, Buffy doesn't upset my feminist sensibilities. But the pattern you see emerging over and over again in his work may be a little creepy, now that you've got me thinking about it.

Dr. Phil (Physics) Friday, March 27, 2009 at 11:35:00 PM EDT  

I'm still waiting to see where Joss is going with Dollhouse. Because there's a lot of behavior which is reprehensible. And yet...

Tonight's episode involved a drug which could be spread by contact. Watching some of the cast members go unhinged led to some pretty good moments -- and they've now sprung the facts that more of the peripheral characters we've seen are dolls than we might've suspected.

Next week the dolls regain their memories according to the spoiler, er, trailer.

I should point out that as annoyed as I am as the dollhouse as whorehouse, I will admit that vice often drives high tech advancement. A whole lot of video and Internet tech was bankrolled by porn, so why wouldn't programmable people pay the bills by sex? Sad, ain't it?

Dr. Phil

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