Friday, March 13, 2009

dollhouse, reviewed

This post is dedicated to Jason W., who wrote me a very excellent review of the show. If not for the fact that I watch it on Sundays through Hulu, he'd be an excellent IM buddy to watch the show live with. I owe him an email, and my own review. But I though I'd share the TV addiction.

Dollhouse was created by Joss Whedon. Need I say more? YES. Whedon is the reason I started watching the show. He is the only reason I am continuing to watch it. I am not saying that I am a huge TV snob. My taste for high brow, highly scripted TV shows notwithstanding (The Wire, Mad Men), I really love a good drama/comedy, and I have been known to watch those procedural shows with abandon (sign me up for a Law and Order: SVU marathon). I don't even make any pretensions about how I refuse to watch TV. I just refuse to buy another digital-ready TV, and I am lazy about getting an antenna for my 20 inch TV. But I watch a lot of TV on the internet and on DVD. So I know of what I speak.

Dollhouse is good TV. Entertaining, well-designed set, heart-pumping action-filled plots and lots of hot women doing hot things. It is not the best show though. Do not expect it to be nominated for an Emmy. I am waiting for the Whedon to kick in. According to the Onion's AV Club, the show will hit its stride in the sixth episode, as the first five episodes are designed to be stand-alone episodes to hook new viewers. Ok, I can wait for the incredibly complex, multilayered, and drawn out plots that all Whedon fans have grown to love. What I am also waiting for, though, is better dialogue, the completely lacking Whedonesque humor, better plots even if stand alone (some are really lame, like the one with the backup singer), and better acting. Because I am a person who greatly enjoys bad and cheesy movies (Center Stage, Pure Country starring George Strait), it is all the more disappointing when my minimum threshhold for acting is not met. Dang, Eliza Dushku. What is up with you. Why you gotta be like the same girl from Chico in the '90s, actin' like you all tough and shit (see, e.g. Bring it On, Buffy). What up with the lack of inflection, yo? I'm half expecting her to say "aiiight" or something in some episode.

Onto the substantive critique: the main premise of the show is that there's a big company that gets young women and men (so far, the show's focus is on the women) to sign up for a personality wipe so that they can become "actives" and be deployed by the agency as ANYTHING their clients want. Yes, the agency is one big pimp service. Many of the assignments are romantic (read: prostitute), and I swear in a brief camera swing I saw a girl dressed up like a geisha. Ewwwww. There are other assignments, some life-saving. Actives can be deployed as body guards, midwives, super criminals, etc. Dushku's character is named "Echo." It took me till the second episode to figure out that this corresponds to the military alphabet, and I only know that from decades watching Star Trek. Anyway, Echo is "special." She's better able to adapt than other actives. After every "engagement," the actives are wiped clean, and they in the "tabula rasa" state are like children, or severely mentally disabled adults. They are programmed to know how to eat, shower, and enjoy exercise (they gotta keep fit in order to save lives/have sex). But they aren't programmed with any identity other than recognition of their name, their handlers, and innate docility. Apparently, programming them with more leads to bloodshed, which is what happened with an active-gone-psycho named Alpha, who is obsesed with Echo. That is the plot to watch, and that's why I'm going to keep watching. This is the multi-episode Whedonoesque plot I'm talking about, and I'm hoping Alpha is as evil as Buffy's Caleb.

Why Echo is so special I'll never know. I wanted Carla Gugino for this role. Someone with emotional range. True, Echo doesn't need much--her blank state is pretty much like any vacant, vapid starlet, and in her other incarnations she is appropriately sexy and fun and kick-assy. So what kind of acting am I waiting for? I dunno. The other actors around Echo are much better. I love, love Harry Lennix as Echo's handler Boyd, and he has the sufficient gravitas and pathos to convey his moral ambiguity about the project. Also wonderful is Amy Acker, a doctor who was cut up by Alpha and expresses a more personally-rooted ambivalence about the project. Whereas Boyd's is borne of an inner sense of morality, the Doctor's stems from a betrayal of trust.

Two other favorite characters are Topher, an evil genius who does all the programming, and Ms Dewitt (Olivia Williams), who is a cold administrator of the agency and super cool. Jason W. hits the nail on the head by identifying Topher as similar to the Evil Trio from Buffy--because of his moral flexibility, he can't see the evil. He describes the organization as great humanitarians fulfilling people's dreams. He doesn't see what's so problematic about wiping people's personalities, which is tantamount to murder if we identify life as encompassing more than the corporeal body. Blah blah soul blah blah. Actually, I am uncomfortable with the murder metaphor, since I am pro-death. I believe in assisted suicide, for example. Yet this is not the same, and so I will refrain from making such a cautious argument for limiting the definition of life. Ok, this is like murder. What is particularly troublesome for me is the complete stripping of human agency. It's not so much that they're killing people by making them not exist and reinventing them. It's more that with every engagement, they're being forced again and again to do something that wouldn't be in their will to do.

It's the repeat violation of free will that I can't stand. Killing someone is just a one-time thing. In the show, Echo is shown as having "no choice" but to flee her life and start over with the agency, but Jason W. is sure (and I agree) that that lack of choice will be problematized. The rather unsettling premise of the show, that a corporation owns people to use as they see fit (often as sex slaves) is really off-putting, but no one in the agency is portrayed as sympathetic. In a way, at least it's honest. For all the debate about sex work as being work that some women choose, we must question whether such work is really a legitimate choice. Real-life prostitutes have more agency than any of the actives, to be sure. They "chose" to go into this line of work, sometimes they can choose their johns, etc. But is this all really a choice? Without completely denying all sex workers agency, aren't there socioeconomic and structural factors that led to this constrained "choice" between sex work and other work? Given a choice between sex work and other work, would prostitutes choose sex work? Or is all of sex work hard to distinguish from other forms of sex-trafficking, in which the coercive forces are more apparent? If anything, this show does highlight the problematic construction of choice in the modern age. We do make our own choices, for the most part. But our ability to choose and the choices we may choose from are constrained by forces beyond our control, and for some the constraints may be greater than for others. And clearly, in a world where nothing is your choice and you have a complete lack of agency, for however sexy and bad-ass you are, you are the most pitiful creature. So despite my annoyance at Dushku, I am rooting for Echo. Anything to keep Harry Lennix and Amy Acker employed! The guy who plays this FBI guy obsessed with exposing the Dollhouse is ok, too. I need to watch Battlestar Galactica. So far, Ballard seems one note.

Recommended if you like Brave New World + Eternal Sunshine + The Pretender + Buffy + hot chicks.