Dollhouse: Season 1 Post-Mortem

The excitement that surrounded the announcement of “Dollhouse” was understandable. Fans of Joss Whedon had been looking for his return to genre television since the unfortunate cancellation of “Firefly”. The fact that Eliza Dushku, a longtime favorite of Whedon fans from her time as Faith on “Buffy” and “Angel”, was going to star in the show was a huge benefit. The only concern seemed to be the writers’ strike and that it would air on the FOX network.

It didn’t take long for the news to become unsettling. First, there was the announcement at the 2008 network upfronts that “Dollhouse” would be a mid-season replacement series, with a total of 13 episodes. Then there were the stories of studio and network interference, the complete scrapping of the original pilot episode, and questions surrounding the premise of the series as a whole.

To say that the series debuted to tepid interest from professed Whedon fans and the general public would be an understatement. It didn’t help that the new pilot episode was not the best introduction, and that it raised several concerns from the fans that did watch it. A good portion of the audience was put off by a series that seemed to be advocating sexual slavery and organized rape.

While the topic was eventually addressed within the context of the series, the treatment was a bit of a mixed message. While it was acknowledged that Echo, the main character played by Eliza Dushku, was often being used sexually without her conscious agency, she was still often presented in a titillating manner to the audience. In fact, there are many instances where the female cast members, far more often than the male cast members, are displayed in revealing clothing to add fan service and sex appeal.

There is also an undercurrent of commentary on the role of writing and acting talent in the entertainment industry. The Dolls can be seen as the actors and actresses who, while they desire to make their own choices and decisions, are often typecast by the expectations of an audience that wants them to be sex objects. The metaphor is imperfect, but several aspects of the series seem to fit that interpretation (particularly Caroline’s comment about contracts in the season finale).

But therein lies the problem. The audience is being taken to task for their part in perpetuating these elements of society, on several levels, while being presented with a show that lists as its main strength the notion that its young and hot lead actress will be taking on a myriad of unexpected and sexy roles. It’s subversive to a degree, but perhaps not to the extent that Whedon and Dushku would like to think. There’s no doubt that the series is supposed to make us uncomfortable, as we wonder at the ethical implications of it all. But the metaphors and subtext all ask the question: aren’t we, as the viewing audience, ready and willing to treat our performers the same way?

Perhaps Whedon, after those ongoing production struggles began, understood the challenges and contradictions, and intelligently chose to structure the first season to tell a relatively complete story arc. In that respect, this first season of “Dollhouse” is very similar to the first season of “Buffy”. Not too many people remember how uneven “Buffy” was that first season, and how unlikely it’s renewal had been. The survival of “Dollhouse” was even more miraculous, given the trigger-happy executives at FOX, but any sense of comfort should be mitigated by the knowledge that the renewal is just for another 13 episodes.

Despite its flaws, the first season of “Dollhouse” earned a Critical Myth Rating of 7.3, which is just above average. That’s not a bad beginning, when compared to the first season of “Buffy” (6.7) and “Angel” (6.8). Whedon and his writing staff have a second season to take what worked and retool the series to address its weaknesses. Whedon’s track record


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