Colleen Lindsay has a post here about lessons to be learned from Dollhouse, namely, you can't wait too long to hook your reader, which makes sense and is true, but is not what I want to talk about here.
Dollhouse is only an okay show.
There, I said it. I've seen all the episodes thus far, and Whedon is right--the show did take a huge leap forward when we got to episode six, which was the first episode he really had a hand in (blah blah, compromises with the network, blah blah), but for me it still suffers from the same fundamental problem that it did when it started, namely this:
I am not in love with any of the characters.
I'm not talking about having a "crush" on a character (CALL ME, TIM RIGGINS), I'm talking about being in love. Like, on Friday Night Lights, I love Tim Riggins (obviously), but I also love Tammy and Eric Taylor, and their daughter Julie, and Tyra (OMG, I heart Tyra), and Matt Saracen, and even, sort of Buddy Garrity, God help me. There are a lot of characters on the show, in other words, who I am invested in and adore.
Or, to be more fair to Joss, take, for example, Buffy. On that show, I loved Buffy, and Willow, and Xander and Cordelia and Faith and Spike and Dawn and even, sort of, sometimes, Jonathan.
But on Dollhouse? None. People have critiqued lead Elisha Dushku for her performance, but I don't think it's even that, really (although she's not the strongest actor in the world). It's that I don't care about her character, Echo. Even in flashbacks, Echo doesn't seem like someone interesting or fun or engaging.
Another television example--Veronica Mars. In the first season, Veronica's motivation is to discover who killed her best friend Lilly Kane. A couple of episodes in we get a bunch of flashbacks showing the kind of girl Lilly was. She was beautiful, and fun in a sort of dangerous way (partying, skipping school, multiple boyfriends), and daring, and exactly the type of best friend every girl in high school wishes she had or was. Lilly RULES. Which makes finding her killer all the more compelling to the viewers.
Echo? Is not compelling. In her real life before she became a doll, she was an animal rights activist. And not an interesting one, but a "oh the poor puppies and kitties, WE MUST BRING DOWN CORPORATE AMERICA" one, just like every other animal rights activist that you see on television. She's a stereotype, a cliche. So why do I care if she doesn't have a personality anymore? Her original one wasn't that great to begin with.*
And the other dolls aren't much better. I have minor interest in Melly/November, because she was a really convincing Girl Next Door Who Secretly Loves You And Brings You Manicotti, but the rest of them? ehhh. I could take or leave any of them.
In addition, there's a disturbing subcurrent of sexual violence that's starting to emerge on the show, and that, combined with the rise in male physical action is pushing me into Uncomfortable Land. One of the dolls, Sierra [SPOILERS AHEAD! STOP NOW IF YOU CARE] was raped repeatedly by her handler when she was not on a job, and has some lingering memories of that horrible experience. I didn't mind the rape so much from a storytelling point of view because, as the rapist himself says, "you didn't expect this to happen?" He equates what he did to what the Dollhouse does all the time--sends people out to be sexually violated. Of course, it's a little disengenous to have the critique of the premise of the show mouthed by a guy who's obviously a slimeball and also gets totally killed, like, a minute later, but whatever. Point taken. Dolls will get taken advantage of.
But then we find out [AND AGAIN, SPOILERS] that Sierra may, in fact, not have volunteered for the Dollhouse, that she may have been kidnapped and taken to the Dollhouse by a rich and powerful dude who was upset because she wouldn't sleep with him, and now he gets to rent her out whenever he feels like it.
Whoa, there, Nelly!
Don't get me wrong--it's not like "oh, they volunteered, and so that's totally uncomplicated or troubling for me from a female agency persepctive," but the volunteer nature of the Dollhouse did mitigate some of the issues about choice and consent. Not all, of course, because what is consent, right? That's one of the fundamental questions of the show, what people can consent to and how. But if some rich pervert can sentence you to the Dollhouse? That's just...it's reprehensible. And it better be addressed by episode 13.
So Sierra's become the surrogate "everything bad sexually gets acted out on her since we can't complicate the main character with all of this horrible stuff," which I'm not thrilled about.
And then there's the side issue of how come November, who is a normal sized girl (meaning that, on the show, she's "fat") has to be the one who joined the Dollhouse because she lost her baby?** Why couldn't Sierra (a stick thin exotic looking Asian girl with blond hair) be the one who lost the baby, and November be the one that the rich creep wanted to sleep with and sentenced to the Dollhouse? That, at least, would have been different. (Still reprehensible, though.)
And, to top it all off, there's Victor, the only male doll on the show that we've really gotten to know, who, in the last episode (in which Echo, Sierra, November, and Victor try to escape) got to do everything. Seriously. He's the one who came up with the plan, he's the "leader" of the group, he even got to drive the car, which was not even a manual transmission!*** It was so bad at one point that I said "how come he gets to do everything???" to my television, and I am not a "talking out loud to my television" type of person.
So, to recap:
1. no characters to love, yet.
2. Echo is boring.
3. Sierra is a sexual victim.
4. November is "fat" and therefore only good for having babies and being treated like crap by guys.
5. Victor gets to do everything.
I'm going to stick it out--there are only 13 episodes left, after all, but I'm not optimistic about the future of the show. It's simultaneously too complicated and not complicated enough.
And I know, I know, that I sound all outraged and whatever about the treatment of the female characters, and I'm normally not this ragey about television, like, at ALL, but when this is the story that you pick to tell, then you need to think about how all this stuff comes across, and Joss, who did academic work in Womens Studies, for Pete's sake, should be doing more thinking. And maybe he is and that will come across in the later episodes of the show. I hope.
* I mean, why do I care in the show, obvs. In real life, of course I would care if people had their personalities wiped and were made into, basically, sex slaves. Even if they were annoying to begin with.
** In fairness, I must note that she did get to have sex with her hot next door neighbor, but she was on assignment for that, and was still programmed with the "oh, I'm fat so you'll never like me" thing.
*** I say this because a shocking number of people I know, men and women, cannot drive a manual transmission. That's just sad, people.