Saturday, January 9, 2010

What's Real and the Old Elevator Trick: A (Very) Current Analysis of "Dollhouse"

(This article is SPOILER HEAVY. Stay away unless you're up to date.)

"Angel" had an elevator, too. Remember that? More and more with every recent episode of "Dollhouse,"I am reminded of Whedon's obsession with the corporate conspiracy, namely how much Rossum has begun to resemble super firm Wolfram and Hart, with its elusive 'partners' and 'company heads,' people or supernatural beings that we don't know, apparently don't trust (or trusted to easily), the people we 'least' expect who dwell on the top floors of very tall and shiny buildings, doing whatever it is they do up there, folding their hands together on top of their clandestine desks, thinking up schemes and drinking expensive caffeinated drinks, or existing purely as the essence of evil, hanging out in a bare white room in the shape of a panther or a little girl with a bow in her hair or something creepy like that. I cannot help but think: What's more mysterious than taking an elevator ride to a floor in a building you've never been to? Especially when the person sending you on your elevator ride says something like, "Someone upstairs wants to meet you," and then they don't come with, because they're not invited. Unlike you, because there's something about you that's special, only you're not quite sure what it is yet.

Anyway, the elevator trick is just like that trick in which a character walks into an office (probably on the top floor of a very tall, shiny building), and there's somebody in there talking to that character, but their chair is turned around, and so the character (and we) can't see who it is. We can only hear their voice, which is maybe vaguely familiar, but not enough to raise any flags yet. Then, the mysterious chair-person turn around, and the character (and YOU) are like, "Whoa! It's Jonathan! That geek who tried to kill himself with a sniper rifle in the bell tower at UC-Sunnydale! Wait, what's he doing in that chair?" Yes, what is he doing in that chair? And was he the person you least expected? Probably, but you didn't know till you saw him. And didn't you sort of trust him? Yeah, well, because he's harmless or one of the good guys or whatever. This is an example I took from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," episode 3.17 Superstar, you know, "Buffy," Joss's baby and claim to fame.

Joss does this a lot, and so do tons of writers and directors out there. Think "Fringe," season one finale: Olivia is sent on a strange elevator ride up a tall and shiny building. When she gets to the top, and she meets William Bell, it's not like we've seen this man before and are having one of those smash identity switch brain implosions (like what "Dollhouse" just pulled on us in 2.11 Getting Closer), but the man in question, William Bell, has been the man in question for quite a while, (Who is William Bell? Where is he? That was the foundation of "Fringe" Season one.) and so, naturally, we're expecting to be shocked a little bit upon our discovery of who and where William Bell is. It would not be half as impactful (or surprising) had William Bell just been some random no-name old guy. Or even a robot. No. Abrams does the "pluck and surprise" (a shitty term I just coined, just now), in which he plucks an actor from a current or previous work (ie: Abrams was working on Star Trek at the time), one that fans know, who they'll easily attribute to this current or previous work, and then relies on, not so much surprise (a little surprise), but excitement. Look! It's Nimoy! It's Spock! And didn't Abrams just do a Star Trek revamp? That old dog!

Okay, fine. But "Fringe" is a lesser show than "Dollhouse." "Fringe" is a crowd pleaser, in that it sort of tip-toes "X-Files" territory without taking too many risks, without breaching formula or updating the genre, and also without delving too deeply into its characters or in politics or major issues of today. "Fringe" is like "Lost," only lame and sort of unoriginal, but it satisfies our (my?) weekly craving for procedural brain candy without having to succumb to the bygone charms of "Bones," or the directional failures of "House." Similarly, "Angel" is also a lesser show than "Dollhouse." "Angel" does some neat stuff with redemption and sex and tragic heroes and all that, but once vampire lovechild Connor enters via hell portal, the wheels come off, and I have trouble looking at the screen for too long without finally having the urge to look away in shame. The last season is fine, one-note, but fine, and it has some great moments (a la, Fred's soul is incinerated, enter Ilyria, exit Wesley's will to live), but it's no "Dollhouse."

"Dollhouse" is creepy, and it's better, because it's politically relevant. It examines the backfiring of certain technological advancements, things like human trafficking, slavery, violence against women, pure neuro-claustrophobia (ie: I'm trapped in my own brain), rape culture, our social construction of rape, and a million subtler, less expected manifestations of rape (that's a whole other Media Studies dissertation). These things are reasons "Dollhouse" is being cancelled, because we here in America can't handle our TV getting all mixed up with our politics, and so these types of shows typically only do well on pay cable options like HBO and Showtime. Again, beside the point--"Dollhouse" is better than the elevator trick, or the smash identity switch, or the "pluck and surprise," all of which it has recently or not so recently employed. Now, I completely approve of Joss's choice last season to surprise us with Alan Tudyk as the elusive Alpha. This was exciting. We were all sort of waiting to see who it would be, and I think Tudyk was an unexpected choice (because, I mean, Wash is so sweet and so dead), but a perfect choice (because Tudyk's range is off the heezy), and who doesn't love Alan Tudyk? And it's one of the many throw-backs a disgruntled Mutant Enemy writing staff has given to the failed masterpiece "Firefly." I even bought Summer Glau as Bennett Halverson. I mean, we knew she was going to be on the show, because we read the spoilery news on Whedonesque, and then she was, and she wasn't a doll (even though she would have made a great doll), but something better--a foil for Topher. FINALLY, a way to excavate Topher, because Fran Kranz can actually handle his shit, and also because whenever "Dollhouse" does major character excavation it's always a treat, and it's always well-done, and I'm always ALWAYS impressed.

So the only reason I'm a little bit pissed about the old elevator trick in Getting Closer, and about the major revelation that, SHOCK, it's been Boyd Langton all along, is because we're just being yanked again, back and forth, back and forth, and it is, I'm sorry, at the expense of what "Dollhouse" does when it's at its best: excavate its characters, excavate its politics, excavate the reason it's so good so often. I still hold that the best episode of "Dollhouse" is 1.9 Spy in the House of Love, and not because of any plot twists, or the revelation that Dominic is the infiltrator, leaking info to the NSA, or because of any super-cerebral bullshit concerning the existential nature of the soul, but because of its delicate examination of Adele, our commander, our matriarch, and the smaller, less exciting revelation that she is, in fact, the client Ms. Lonely Hearts, who employs Victor as a companion, not only for sex, but for genuine human connection. Loneliness, the desire for true human connection, true identity among a baffled crowd of masked nobodies--that's what "Dollhouse" is about. It's why Echo is becoming self-aware in these episodes, because she's searching for that connection, that thing that makes us all 'real' and not 'dolls.' It's the reason Ballard struggles now, because he is still 'himself,' but he's not. He's not 'real.'

What is it to be 'real?' Is it the architecture in our brains that makes us real? Well, maybe, on a technical level that only Topher Brink can decipher, but is it not, to the rest of us, the understanding that we created ourselves, that we put ourselves together as a sum of our experiences, our memories, the convictions instilled in us, if not by genetics, then by our own choices, the losses that are particular to us, the gains, the sacrifice, the things that, even in a sea full of people, allow us to be different, to be our own? What makes us 'real' cannot be defined by the plot conventions of the science fiction genre. It cannot be defined at all in fiction, but for individual examinations of characters that are, in fact, real (Adele, Topher), as opposed to examinations of characters that are not (Echo, Dr. Saunders).

With this, we come to understand the foundation of the show, and the science fiction plottery becomes ancillary, as it should, because Whedon's shows are never about their outer story (Vampire Slayer fights vampire, related big bads; Thieves ride in Space Ship, thieve; Vampire with soul masquerades as Private Investigator, fights evil; Morally ambiguous corporation builds super computer comprised of human brains to take over world). They're about the arcs of basic human connection and what happens when we can't get it, how desperate we become without it. Buffy sleeps with Spike, alienates her friends. Angel isolates himself for fear he'll, again, lose his soul. Captain Reynolds tries not to be in love, because there's baggage, acts all macho instead. Adele sleeps with an active. These are all people (or vampires) attempting to connect with one another and failing and the desperation that ensues. This is what hurts so bad about Joss Whedon's work. Nobody's ever really happy, but isn't that, like, the way it is anyway? Even without Mutant Enemy manifesting it for us on the screen?

It's just, okay--"Dollhouse" is cancelled. Everybody knows. So what gives with the tendency toward all-out closure, driven by plot? The show is good enough, JOSS is good enough, so why not just character sketch for six episodes? Allow for an open ending? Why not just show us the terrifying truth about the Dollhouse and Rossum, give us some exposition on, you know, Anthony and Priya and Caroline and Madeline, and leave Epitaph One as nothing but resonance? Leave it a quiet, sad truth, not a "shape of things to come," a shape that, as now-dead Clyde reassures us in the Attic, can be prevented if only Echo can get out and stop things with her fancy new personality, if we just tack on a ticking clock for some instant, watered down tension in an already doomed situation, if the show becomes a slave to plot progression and, as a consequence, watches its character integrity perish by the wayside.

Because we're doomed. It's certain. Echo can save us, maybe, but even with Epitaph One as a fabulously rendered reference, we still don't know. That episode is so good precisely BECAUSE we don't know. We don't know what Safe Haven is, or if it exists at all. If the contents of the episode are any indication of the future for our wayfarers, then everybody is probably going to die anyway. All we have is this broken building, this beautiful shot of dilapidation and desuetude. I like it. Leave it like that. Let it rest already. "Dollhouse" is a sad, dark show. That's why it's dead now. So show us what will be lost, not the plot points we must follow if we wish to prevent that loss, because what's lost is always much more resonant and interesting when we know what it is, not simply that it's lost. And what I mean by what's lost is, again, what's 'real.'

The show is ending. I don't know why we need a wild goose chase, complete with elevator rides and identity twists to get there. I'm thirsty for character. I want to know more who. I've had it with the what. "Dollhouse" is going down, and so there's no need to wrangle more viewers or to satisfy our desire for closure on Rossum. There is, however, a need for complete vision, something "Firefly" never got, because it was decapitated with zero notice. And complete vision can't be reached through plot alone. So maybe Rossum comes down, or maybe it doesn't. Does it matter if we don't know who we're losing? Or, for that matter, what is gained? So this is why I wish season one would have just been it. Let it rest. If I'm left with nothing but Epitaph One and then all that wonderful characterization of Adele and Topher and resonance of tomorrow--then that's all I really want anyway. I'm okay with sad endings. I'm okay with the apocalypse, as long as it's done well.

What I'm saying is this: Joss, you don't need to distract us anymore. There's no need for sleight of hand, for trickery. No need for fireworks or a big bang in the end. If anything, you've earned a little stagnation. "Dollhouse" is more effective when it ends sad and quiet, just unplug the ventilator. There's enough built, enough exposed already. The surface is raw. Anything is going to hurt now. So let resonance and residual vibrations take it from here. And again, that's just me. I'm a masochist with story endings. I like my characters to hurt, and I don't like plot-driven anything (which is part of why I'm boycotting Avatar), because I don't think that it's what happens that stays with us in the end. It's the impact. It's the who. Who is being impacted, and how have their lives (or un-lives) been changed forever?


Temby said...

* SPOILER NOTE: I'm assuming you've seen Sixth Sense. I reference it briefly below so fair warning. There's also spoilers for House, Chuck, Supernatural, and Angel, for any readers.

You really spun that into a post much different than I was expecting. I want to comment a bit on your comparison of the Boyd turn to the Alpha reveal, and then I'll try to hit other thoughts your blog post raised.

You group them both together as "identity twists," a broad category of devices designed to shock the audience with new information about a character.

I'd bet these have proper names, but Google's coming up empty and I can't remember ever reading a proper breakdown of them. This might be because the most common medium in which you see them is television, and I haven't read a lot of academic television analysis. Naturally, in my own head, I have names for them. I generally think of the major ones types of identity twists as Reveals, Shocks, and Turns.

Tudyk's debut in "Briar Rose" as Alpha was a classic Reveal -- a new or very little-used character is revealed to be THE GUY, a central character known only by reputation to the audience and, perhaps, the rest of the characters themselves. Chuck's dad being Orion is another prime example.

These are easiest to pull-off. Their character has been previously built up -- they're just stepping out of the shadows. We have no attachment to their original character, and the mythology built up around their real character usually explains their disguise, whether they're a hero or villain. It's a relatively minor bait-and-switch, and is often required depending where the plot is going -- after all, how else is Alpha going to walk right into the Dollhouse, but in some form of disguise?

Shocks are the old Sixth-Sense, "BRUCE WILLIS IS DEAD/A GHOST" trick -- an established character discovering information that changes the way you view everything to date, that both he/she and the audience were unaware of, but that every other character knew already. House's hallucination of detoxing with Cuddy last season is another example. Dollhouse has used this one as well, when we first found out that Saunders was actually Whiskey, a doll.

These kinds of twists don't change what we think of the character as a person; their actions and behavior remains unchanged, because there was no deception on their part. Rather, they shift the ground beneath the character, changing the trajectory they (and we) thought they were on. The major pitfall for a Shock is that it must be absolutely consistent with what we have seen the character do to date, and how other characters have interacted with them. If we find out Saunders is a doll after seeing her in the range of a remote wipe device, it falls apart. If she came into contact with the drug in "Echoes" and acted high (like normal people) rather than glitching (like dolls), then it falls apart. If there's been absolutely zero foreshadowing, it falls apart.

Turn refers to face/heel turns in wrestling because I was a dork who watched that shit for a couple years in Junior High, but it's a really great descriptor for twists like Boyd's. Turns are, as you'd expect, when we (and usually the other characters) discover that an established character's agenda is precisely the opposite of what we'd been led to believe. Cordelia's actually been possessed by a man-eating, thrall-inducing God! Ruby was trying to unleash Lucifer all along! And, apparently, Boyd is actually one of the head honchos of Rossum!

Turns are by far the hardest to pull off. The character's newly-revealed agenda must be consistent with their past actions as well as those of any of their allies aware of their hidden agenda. Assuming there's still story to tell after their turn, you also have to have a plan for this twist -- far too often, the character devolves into a simplistic mustache-twirling bad guy or perfect superhero good guy.

Temby said...

God, that's a lot of words to define a few terms.

Anyway, I don't mind seeing a show use Reveals, even multiple times over the course of the entire series. Depending on the context and execution, they can be very versatile, and are pretty difficult to mess up too badly. I loved the Alpha Reveal in "Briar Rose. I will say that I'm honestly not a huge fan of Alpha afterward though, in "Omega" and "A Love Supreme." That's mostly because the infamous Alpha turned out to be a whiny doll in puppy-love with Echo, and that his "composite event" was an accidental imprint-dump rather than something like Echo's development into an entity separate from Caroline or any particular imprint. The actual reveal of Alpha in "Briar Rose," though, was superbly executed.

I like a good Shock every now and then, so long as it fits with what's come before. Saunders/Whiskey was well foreshadowed, and led to some great moments (although not enough) watching her struggle to understand who she was in light of that discovery.

The thing about a Turn is that it is a VERY high-risk high-reward. Again assuming there aren't any consistency issues, a Turn will certainly make or break a character, season, and even entire show. If the moment is executed well, and if the turn ultimately ties into the themes of the show, all without rendering the character completely one-dimensional, it can be absolutely glorious. The only show that comes to mind as especially good at this? Veronica Mars, especially Season 1.

Of course, Angel and many many other shows have done big Turns, and failed miserably. But ultimately, you have to see how it plays out before you can really evaluate it. My first, gut-impulse on Boyd's Turn is that it's probably half-baked. I'd have to go back and watch, but I don't really feel like the foundation is there for it, and the preview doesn't reassure me that it will tie into the show's themes, or that this new Boyd will be anything other than a one-dimensional Big Bad. But I won't know until I see it.

Final note: the other risk of doing any -- or several -- of these types of identity twists within a single show is that, as you note, it can make the viewer feel as though they're being yanked around. But speaking for myself, there's nothing I love more than being yanked around -- by a show that knows what it's doing. A show that can deliver on character examination, mull over interesting themes, AND take me on a roller-coaster plot ride is the total package.

Joss' problem has always been that the roller-coaster tends to go flying off the tracks. Always has: Buffy, Angel, and it appears probably Dollhouse (Firefly never had the chance, but as much as I enjoyed Serenity, it gave me a feeling that it would have as well). But ultimately, I'm not going to fault the guy for trying. Even if this Boyd revelation falls flat, I've still enjoyed this season of Dollhouse more than the Hooker of the Week tack we got in season 1. Same goes for Buffy and Angel too.

Temby said...

Additional Odds and Ends:

"Superstar": It was terrible, but the use of the chair trick -- while bad -- was far from the worst thing about the episode. Jonathan was in it, and was, therefore, the worst thing about in that episode.

Social/Political Relevance of Dollhouse and Character Excavation: I can't completely agree with you here. It has certainly tried to examine these issues. But it hasn't always done it well ("ESPECIALLY now that we have a BLACK PRESIDENT" might be one of the worst lines I've ever heard), and it began examining those issues more as it became more plot-driven, not less.

Same goes for character excavation. Take one of the examples you cite. Bennett a foil for Topher? Doesn't happen without a plot driving interaction with another Dollhouse. On the topic of Topher, his interactions with DeWitt in the last few episodes have been fascinating -- and don't happen without the pressure and tension that the Rossum plot places on both of them.

Ending the Show: I understand your complaints, especially since, as you mention, the show's toast. And Joss had to know that from the moment they got renewed last year, frankly. So I'd have no objections if they'd gone out by spending most of their time this season exploring the characters and the moral/social/political/philosophical issues of Dollhouses -- mainly because they did so little of it, early on.

But as I'm sure you've picked up on by now, I don't hate plot. I hate stupid plots. I hate plots with gaping holes in them. And I generally dislike anything that focuses primarily on plot. Ultimately, plot should enable and complement character development. Characterization is what we remember, what we treasure most -- when fictional characters feel like real people that we know.

To use a horrible car analogy... a novel/movie/show is a road trip. Plot is the car. Characterization is all the photos you take along the way. If you drive straight to your destination and back, you probably had a boring trip and have no mementos left to remember it by. If you refuse to drive at all because you hate cars, you've just got a lot of photos of your house and haven't really gone anywhere. If you want to have a good road trip, you've got to do two things: start driving... and make sure you pull over as much as possible to take in the view.

Tarah said...

Yo--thanks for the comments! I don't think you're disagreeing with me about anything here, especially not the whole character excavation thing. I sort of wrote this knowing much of it was rushed, but what I mostly mean by Dollhouse and character excavation is that it rarely EVER gets it right, but when it does, I think the show has never been better. IE: Adele as Ms. Lonely Hearts, or that confrontation scene in "Vows" that focuses on Saunders and Topher. Much of what I'm interested in when watching TV or reading a book is how the respective auteur handles happiness, the singularity of happiness, the importance in having something of one's own, and how different characters strive to achieve these things, their agendas, their desperation. I saw much of this in "Dollhouse," and this is what I cling to. I've been so thirsty for characterization, because sometimes it's just nailed! and now they give me hack plot devices and pure laziness instead. So I get pissed.

I think that "Dollhouse," in its entirety, is TRYING TO FOCUS ON TOO MANY THINGS. There's all this politics, which I agree, it never really nails, but it does sort of gesture toward (ie: rape, the politics of rape), and I sort of agree that Dollhouse would have been a much better show if someone would have just made a damn decision on what it's actually ABOUT. I never quite know what we're tackling, but it is certainly a show about many things. And now, everyone's like "Oh no! We're running out of time!" and so suddenly, they're choosing to run with this crazy conspiratorial plot shiz, that I'm not totally sure I'm down with.

"Buffy" did the same thing in the end. So did "Angel." Whedon cannot let anything rest, and that feels so YOUNG too me, so immature, but we'll see, and who am I to say? But I do think he is a romantic, and that he needs to give in to these tendencies, and to his strengths! He has real strength with character, and with setting up a scene, and then just setting the camera on two characters and allowing them to speak to one another. Or just look at one another. Allow for some quietude, some stillness. His best scenes and best episodes are always those that feature scenes of quiet passion, grief, joy, companionship--When Joss exercises restraint, there's nothing better. IE: "The Body," "Hush," "Amends," "Spy in the House of Love," even "Epitaph One." All of these episodes have to do with stillness, fear, yearning in one way or another. The real tension lies beneath the surface, some place we can't touch or see. We can only feel. He's got to give into this. Because he can build a world, yeah, but he's not so great with plotty stuff. Like you said, the wheels come off. Things go batshit.

Tarah said...

Also, yeah, and I like your terms. I'm writing about all this from the point of view of a fiction writer, and so, naturally, I really don't know lots of TV writing terms, just fiction writing terms, and so I invent things, and also, I really don't want so much plot. So I categorize it and criticize it, because plot is just too easy. Plot is the easiest thing to write. I'm much less impressed with fancy twists and reveals than I am with real, solid foundational characterization, internal moments, and resonance. So that's what I want and think about, and so I'm supremely annoyed any time a show that has the CHOPS to attack this type of work goes, instead, what I consider to be the lazy route--which is pure plot, pure A to B, lacking agenda, barreling ahead with only one thing in mind--the answer.

But "Dollhouse" is a good show. It's been so inconsistent, so up and down, but I just think of that scene when we've got Adele and Victor and the desire there. The show could have been so much better with a good dose of focus. I tend to look at each episode like a short story, and certain episodes stand out so clearly from the rest--but they're never the plotty episodes. I'm just that way. I like it when my characters are good and unhappy, and when they're sort of stagnating, or trying to scratch their way back into their own lives from the outside. Adele was always my favorite character for this reason. Then Topher, of course (There's a lot to Topher that's just never tapped. It's disappointing). This is also why, I think, I like "Mad Men" so much (which can be supernaturally slow at times, almost like pulling a cow down the street in a wagon), and why Friday's twist, to me, was so painfully predictable and so lazy. Oh, I just got so mad!

Tarah said...

ALSO! One More thing--I agree that we NEED plot, to some extent, especially in a show like this. Of course! I just think that "Dollhouse" is relying a little too much on its fancy little plot in the end, and it's all at the expense of its characters, which is all I was trying to get at here. Not that we need NO plot, just less, or that plot (outer story) should be backseat to character (interiority). I like your example of plot points driving Topher and Bennett together, too. Because I realize this, but I just don't write it. These were plot points, but I don't point them out, because they were sort of ancillary to Topher finding someone with whom he can actually share some genuine human connection. This wasn't plot for plot sake or anything like that. I think back to that scene in, oh I can't remember which episode, but it's season 1, when Topher imprints a doll every year on his birthday just to sort of hang out and do these small, sweet things that he enjoys. His loneliness is one of the greatest of all the untapped goldmines in "Dollhouse." And then when Saunders kills Bennett--his reaction. Very resonant. SO credible, because it's so consistent with that loneliness we've become so accustomed to. He thought he had it, he did, he did, but now it's gone forever. We understand a little better now, his descent into madness.