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On the box

This evening, the Sci-Fi channel aired the final episode of season one of Dollhouse, the latest offering from Joss Whedon. It's been a busy old time for good TV lately, with new episodes of Dollhouse, House and True Blood airing every week, and I'm here to note down a few thoughts about each of them.


House (on Sky 1) is the oldest runner, of course, being in its fifth season while the other two are only in their first. I found it a bit dull when it first came out, but got into it later via repeats, and am pretty hooked now. From one angle, the complaint I made in my first post about it still holds - the basic format of each episode is still very much the same. But the same is true of Sherlock Holmes or Poirot, and what keeps us coming back in all three cases of course is the characterisation of the regulars.

Now that we're part-way through the fifth season, one of the most compelling aspects of the series is the way that the older characters (House, Wilson, Cuddy, Foreman and occasionally Cameron and Chase) all know each other so well from years of working closely together that they are able to see through each others' façades very effectively, and call each other on their underlying feelings and motivations. It makes for some great psychological battles, and at least feels like it is equipping me to understand the people around me in my own life a little better (probably not really, but it is an attractive fantasy).

Meanwhile, the new team ('Thirteen', Taub and Kutner) have created something of a reboot by adding new personalities and new issues to the mix. Of the three, I've found myself most interested in Thirteen - perhaps inevitably, given that she is a woman. I was temporarily thrilled when it was revealed that she was bisexual, but alas the excitement quickly tailed off when her one-night stands with women were explicitly presented as a symptom of how fucked-up she was about the fact that she has inherited Huntingdon's disease. Later, her establishment of a functional heterosexual relationship with Foreman was clearly meant to represent a stage in her coming to terms with her illness. Gah! Apart from that little disappointment, though, her struggle with Huntingdon's does seem to mean that she continues to be the most interesting member of the new team, and is probably the main reason why I keep tuning in each week.


FX have shown four episodes of True Blood so far, and it is starting to grow on me. It took me a couple of episodes to get into, I think mainly because I was expecting it to be in the same sort of adventure-of-the-week format as most of the other TV shows I watch - not just the outright fantastical ones like Buffy and Doctor Who, but also those which centre around the supernaturally talented, like Poirot and House. In fact, though, it isn't - it's structured more like a soap opera or realist drama, with one main gradually-unfolding story, and each episode marked out from the next by a shock reveal which is then explored in the subsequent instalment.

Now I've got to grips with that, though, I'm rather liking it. The idea of vampires in the Bayou has been a bit of a cliché since Anne Rice put pen to paper, and it would be expecting too much from True Blood to look for a major challenge to that genre. There are times, too, when I find it hard to suspend my disbelief about the workability of the central plot premise that vampires have been able to come out into the open thanks to the invention of synthetic blood. We hear on news bulletins which appear to come from places like New York or Washington that public support for vampires is growing, yet what we see of them in the Louisiana setting makes it difficult to understand why.

Nevertheless, the reactions of the conservative small-towners of Bon Temps to finding a vampire in their midst provide plenty of room for allegories of racism, sexism and homophobia, which so far have been quite cleverly and subtly played. And there are some interesting characters: Sookie Stackhouse herself, the telepathic waitress who is our main point of view character, her cherry pie and country wisdom grandmother who insists on referring to her Civil War ancestors as the 'glorious dead', and her best friend Tara, who is clearly a great deal brighter and more self-aware about her social position as a black woman than most people around her give her credit for. There is a feeling that almost everyone in the town has unexpected secrets, rather as in Twin Peaks, which I think is what has really hooked me in. No-one and nothing is quite what it seems, and I'm looking forward to getting deeper into the mystery.


And finally, Dollhouse itself. Overall, it's pretty good. I mean, if nothing else it has Eliza Dushku running about the place being hot and awesome and sexy in a vest top and big boots every week, which is a pretty good base-line to be starting from. On a more intellectual level, the central premise of wiping people's personalities and implanting them with new ones tailored to particular requirements raises plenty of interesting questions about the nature of human identity. What is the relationship between body and mind; does anything remain of our personality if all our memories are wiped; what is it like to find out that this has happened to you? Those sorts of issues are quite nicely explored through a number of plot-lines in which dolls or 'actives' either begin to show self-awareness while in a supposedly neutral state, or in various ways overcome the personalities which have been programmed into them.

I would have liked to see more exploration of the minds behind the Dollhouse itself, though. This isn't entirely neglected - one of the major plot strands has involved an (ex-)FBI agent, Paul Ballard, who spends the whole of season one attempting to infiltrate and bring down the Dollhouse, and does get quite some way in discovering what it is and how it functions. But what about the people who work there, controlling the dolls? Why is Adelle DeWitt, the steely boss with the British accent, so convinced that what the Dollhouse does can be justified as 'helping people'? Is Topher, the resident geek who handles the programming of the dolls, really so enamoured of the technology he gets to play with that it's enough to make him overlook the fact that he is enabling an advanced form of slavery? And what exactly are the circumstances by which people come into the Dollhouse? We've heard talk of 'contracts', and seen November / Madeline walk free at the end of hers, apparently perfectly satisfied about it. But it's also clear that both Echo / Caroline and Sierra / Priya were forced to sign up - so how does Adelle maintain her belief in 'helping people' in the face of this? It would have been nice to learn more about all of this in the first season, but I suppose at least it leaves plenty of ground to be covered in the second.

Meanwhile, the individual episodes are rather patchy. There have been some great ones, like 'Needs' (episode 8), in which Echo, November, Victor and Sierra (the four 'dolls' we have been following most closely) all appear to have suddenly regained their original personalities, to escape from the Dollhouse and to discover various important truths about themselves. But it turns out that it is in fact all a carefully controlled and stage-managed chain of events set up by Adelle DeWitt in order to help them achieve 'closure' on various personal issues, and thus submit more effectively to their lives as dolls in the future. And this is good stuff, because it fleshes out the backstory of the characters very nicely, and brings us face to face with the horrible truth of what has happened to them. Tonight's episode 'Epitaph One', was also frankly awesome. It was more of a post-script than a typical season finale, since it was written to fill out a 13-episode contract after the original pilot had been scrapped. But I think it added a lot to the season. It took us 10 years into the future to explore the logical extension of what the Dollhouse's technology could do - entire armies of enemy soldiers created instantly at the heart of a target society via via a phone transfer. This included some great moments, like a semi-insane Topher, whose ravings strongly suggest that this had been his idea - another instance of him playing around with his technology for the love of it without thinking of the real-world consequences. Seeing the extreme version of that trait in him actually made a lot more sense of how his character has behaved through the series, and made it a lot more potent and dramatically meaningful, too.

But then again, there are some episodes which constitute little more than 'filler' material, like 'Stage Fright' (Echo is posted to protect a manufactured pop star from a stalker; it turns out the pop star has issues of her own; everything is intensely predictable). And there are others which are downright rubbish, like 'Haunted', in which Echo is implanted with the personality of a recently-murdered friend of Adelle DeWitt's, who has been visiting the Dollhouse regularly to have her memories and personality recorded against the possibility of just such an event. Now, this could have been a really powerful story. Imagine waking up in someone else's body to find that your own real body has been murdered, and knowing that you only have a limited amount of time in the 'doll' whose body you are borrowing until your personality imprint has to be wiped out of her again so that she can return to active service. Would you not be horrified, disoriented and devastated? Would you not fight with all your strength to keep hold of the body into which you had been implanted? Perhaps you would - but this character simply sits around making bitchy comments about people at her own funeral, plays detective for a while in a very unemotional manner, and eventually submits perfectly willingly to being wiped out of Echo's body with some vague and fluffy statements about how she has resolved the issue of her murder, watched her family move on and her 'time has come'. The story could have had such a powerful ending, as Adelle DeWitt is essentially forced to kill what remains of her old friend so that she can get back the doll whose body she is borrowing. But it just didn't - and it seemed like a real wasted opportunity to me.

Still, on balance, there's more good than bad, and the unremitting darkness of 'Epitaph One' made up for quite a lot of the more trivial episodes which had gone before. I am mighty pleased it's been renewed for a second season.

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Comments

( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
kantti
Aug. 11th, 2009 10:01 pm (UTC)
We've been watching Dollhouse as well, so I'm quite interested to see your reading of it. Or rather, Paul's been watching them assiduously, and I've been watching them when it works out, which is now all the time since the TV and me are now cohabiting. :)

Although we haven't watched the last episode since it's sat on the Sky box waiting for us to get back from SF.

Some things bothered me about it, but different to the ones you picked up on. One is how titillating the premise is: "Sex slaves! With outfits to match! But it's ok, because they do lots of other things too, and so you're not actually signed up to a story about kinky sex - that's just a background positioning for the current story which involves Deep Meaningful Emotions! But did we mention the thigh high boots?"

The other is how gaping some of the plot holes are. It's all very fun to be steered in a certain direction by clever editing and misleading plot snippets, only to be surprised at the end. On the other hand, when looking back over the story, the reaction should be "gosh, how I was fooled by that!" not "that isn't remotely consistent with the actual situation and was only put there to mislead me." I'm thinking, for example, of the episode where Echo infiltrates the cult and the security officer prevents her from being shot at the end, only to - shock! - try and shoot her himself - why on earth bother rescuing her before killing her? Similarly, it was a surprise when it was revealed that Alpha used Paul Ballard to gain entrance to the compound instead of the other way around, but it wasn't clear why Alpha had required Ballard's involvement at all when the security was so flimsy.

But I enjoyed "Haunted" and "Stage Fright" - they were both lightweight, admittedly, but I thought death after life was an intriguing corollary of the doll premise.I also thought the heroine's reactions were not unreasonable - she'd anticipated her murder and so was therefore reasonably prepared for it when she discovered it had come. After enjoying the temporary extension, she opted to stick with dignity to the terms of the deal she'd made with Adelle, rather than break them and put her friend into the position of having to hunt her down and kill her. And I thought Topher's little reincarnated birthday friend was very touching. In fact, I might have even had a gentle sniffle at that point. :)
strange_complex
Aug. 11th, 2009 10:17 pm (UTC)
Ah, well I hope I haven't spoilt the final episode for you. I don't think I have, apart perhaps from the bit about Topher. There are lots more surprises to keep you watching, anyway!

Regarding the titillation, I guess I must just be happy to be titillated, given my comments about Eliza Dushku! More seriously, though, I could have done with more acknowledgement about that aspect of what the Dollhouse does in the plots. I felt that especially when they ran the plot about Sierra being raped in her neutral state, and I found myself wondering why they were getting so het up about it (apart from the fact that it was one of their employees doing it), given that that is effectively happening to her all the time on her assignments. I guess the sad truth is that exploring that issue too deeply would simply make the series too difficult to sell - but maybe it will come out a little more in the second season, now that the programme has established itself?

As for gaping plot holes, you're quite right, especially about how Alpha got in! Maybe if we looked again closely we'd find that there were some things they had to do on the way in which genuinely required two people cooperating in order to do it... but I'm not very convinced!
steer
Aug. 11th, 2009 10:14 pm (UTC)
Later, her establishment of a functional heterosexual relationship with Foreman was clearly meant to represent a stage in her coming to terms with her illness

It's kept clear that she is still bisexual though and is still attracted to women even though she is in a relationship. It's made clear that the functional/dysfunctional part is wanting a relationship rather than singledom and one night stands rather than hetero/homosexual relations.

I liked season five. There are enough surprises to keep it fresh (do not read spoilers)!
strange_complex
Aug. 11th, 2009 10:23 pm (UTC)
It's kept clear that she is still bisexual though

Hmm, there was a lot of chat about that in the latest episode (the whole conversation about Rocky Road ice cream and so on), but I felt that overall it has been a case of actions speaking louder than words. It may be just a 'coincidence' that her one-night stands were with women and her functional relationship is with a man, but it is also a coincidence which happens to fit in very nicely with heterosexual norms, and does allow her attraction to women to be construed as an abnormality. I would just have liked to see that picture inverted for once.

Anyway, thanks for the spoiler warning. I did spoil myself for some of the developments of season 4 last time round, so will try to resist temptation this time.
steer
Aug. 11th, 2009 11:06 pm (UTC)
Hmm... I'm thinking of a couple of things which happen later in the season (I'm impatient so I downloaded and watched it all). I think in this case the norm that is being adhered to is not "heterosexuality is the normal so great" but rather the "bisexual women are hot" norm. There's an awful lot of playing to the "she sleeps with women and that makes men fancy her more" stereotype. Her bisexuality is treated more as an exotic accessory than an abnormality -- then I guess one would hardly expect House (the character not the series) to treat these things in a sensitive way so it is hard to separate the leering reaction of the main character from the portrayal as a whole.
strange_complex
Aug. 12th, 2009 10:14 am (UTC)
Well, OK, but it still sounds as though there's nothing in the rest of the series that is going to make her portrayal any more positive from my point of view. Her attraction to women and her attraction to men are both portrayed as existing ultimately for the benefit of heterosexual men - and unfortunately that is all too common in onscreen portrayals of bisexuality.
steer
Aug. 12th, 2009 10:34 am (UTC)
This is mostly true I would say and as you say, it is a common portrayal of bisexuality. That said, it is in the nature of the series that facets of the other characters appear as mainly for the benefit of House himself (because that is how he treats them and he is the character with the power). In addition, a character who was not in some way an emotional screw up would not be an interesting addition to the show because the mechanic requires the characters to have psychological flaws that House can manipulate.
strange_complex
Aug. 12th, 2009 10:41 am (UTC)
Yes, indeed. The good news is that the programme does also leave room for characters to challenge and outgrow House, as Cameron and Chase have, for example. So hopefully at some point Thirteen will get to speak out for her own point of view more forcefully (which I recognise she has done to some extent already). Given the nature of the plot-line with her Huntingdon's, though, I can't help but suspect that that's more likely to become the dominant plot-line for her. (Don't tell me though!)
steer
Aug. 12th, 2009 10:43 am (UTC)
Have fun watching the rest of the series. I'm looking forward to the start of season six in September.
katsmeat
Aug. 11th, 2009 10:44 pm (UTC)
I assume the exploration of who's behind the Dollhouses happens in the next season. An expensive, technologically baroque escort agency seems a rather mundane use for the technology. Especially if one assumes the people who run the show have power and money, but will inevitably want much more power and money. The whole set-up rather blatantly screams "front".

I guess "Epitaph One" is a teaser for this exploration. As well as a quite superb episode.
deeply_spurious
Aug. 27th, 2009 11:07 am (UTC)
What did you think of the last episode? I was really disappointed - felt that it sort of killed what had been quite an enticing premise.
strange_complex
Aug. 27th, 2009 11:15 am (UTC)
Of Dollhouse? I really liked it, actually. I thought it addressed more explicitly a lot of things which I'd wanted to hear more about during the rest of the season, and gave a sense of closure without restricting the possibilities too much. I can see how you might feel it killed things off by giving away too much of future plot developments, but I felt it was set sufficiently far in the future for it not to be a problem for a few seasons at least. Besides, if it turns out to really clash with the way the writers actually decide to take the show, I'm sure they will find some way of retconning things - for example by saying that it was all just a client's fantasy with the dolls playing out programmed roles.
deeply_spurious
Aug. 28th, 2009 08:27 am (UTC)
Hadn't occurred to me that they might get out of it by portraying it as a client's fantasy! I think that what I disliked about the final episode was that it brought, I felt, a somewhat crude and rather cliched/done before closure to all of the intriguing uncertainties and moral ambiguities that had been played with so nicely throughout the series. I think I quite liked the fact that things were so ambiguous and that we knew so little - and specifically that they hadn't come out clearly on one side or the other of the moral argument - these things were important to why I found the series enticing, in spite of it's fairly regular plot holes. Now that they have told us everything and resolved the moral argument in a clear and simple way I think it loses much of its appeal. I also felt that the final episode was a bit of a terminator meets zombie film cliche - all a bit too familiar - which is perhaps no bad thing in itself but disappointing in the context of a series I had thought was offering something a bit different... or something.
strange_complex
Aug. 28th, 2009 10:01 am (UTC)
Hmm - your comment prompted me to have a Google and find out whether Whedon had said anything definitive about whether the episode should be considered 'canon' (in the sense of having established things that will have clear repercussions in the rest of the show) or not. He's pretty keen on going round making that sort of statement - that's what he's done with regards to Buffy spin-offs such as novels and comic books.

Sure enough, this page reports:
"While Whedon says "Epitaph One" is canon, he also indicated that since we're told the future history through memories, there's no guarantee that they're 100% reliable."
Which is, of course, having his cake and eating it - just like any creative artist should be able to do! Anyway it sounds like there's still room for the ambiguity which you like, even though the episode made some clearer-than-usual statements about people's motivations and intentions.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

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