Dollhouse 1.3: "Stage Fright"

In my review for the pilot episode, I mentioned that part of the basis of the series was a metaphor for Hollywood performers in general. In essence, the conceit is that the masses look on actors, actresses, and even writers/creators as vessels for their own wants and desires, dismissing the talent's personal goals and dreams in the process. Creative types yearn for the freedom to stretch and grow, while their fans (and the media) demand more of the same.

This episode is practically designed to highlight that metaphor, from Rayna's monologue on her status as a "factory girl" to the repeated use of a song about freedom. Rayna feels so trapped by the expectations of her fans that she wants to die. Setting aside the character's own mental instability, this is clearly a commentary on the "bread and circuses" nature of the entertainment media.

It's a risky move, to say the least. It's no secret that Joss Whedon is already catching criticism for straying too far from his "Buffyverse" material, and there are a number of fans of his earlier work who openly dismiss this new series for its premise or its early flaws. Whedon seems to be telling those fans that they are wrong to feel that way, and it's not a subtle retort. How this kind of chiding is supposed to work in the show's favor, of course, is hard to fathom.

This metaphor is also, presumably, meant to apply to Eliza Dushku. Fans have been screaming for her to reprise her role as Faith since the end of the third season of "Buffy", and it's no secret that many would rather Whedon and Dushku pursue that direction rather than this new concept. Considering that Eliza is one of the executive producers and helped create the series with Joss, it's not a stretch to suggest that she was on-board with the metaphor. After all, the series is all about someone who has her personality wiped clean so others can use her to fulfill their fantasies.

All that being the case, this episode contributes to the impression that Whedon and Dushku want it both ways. They want to rage against the machine and stop being pigeon-holed, but what is the bottom line? Eliza may play various roles that challenge her creatively, but so far, they all involve making her eye candy. It's hard to justify criticizing an audience for type-casting an actress while servicing those exact same expectations! (And on a very shallow level, it was certainly true in this episode, and the part of me that is a typical male fan of Ms. Dushku, I was well-pleased.)

To be fair to Joss, the series premise is far from static. This isn't just a show about Echo going on missions, where the writers hit the reset button at the end of the day. Echo is becoming more and more self-aware, and that provides some measure of continuity. The more self-awareness she regains, the more personality will shine through, and the more the audience can invest in her success or failure to overcome the programming. (In retrospect, this is probably what FOX wanted Joss to do: speed up the process. If so, they were exactly right.)

This is probably why everyone involved with the show continues to say that the series hits its stride several episodes into the season. At the current pace, that's when Echo would likely be more assertive, and when the ongoing plot threads will begin to dominate. And that's when the notion of fighting the Dollhouse and all it represents would presumably kick into high gear. In the long view, these early episodes (and the most egregiously sexist) will likely make more sense in context.

It helps to place focus on other characters, the ones who will presumably become the support structure that Echo will need in her eventual rebellion. Ballard's investigation may be moving at fits and starts, and it may seem doomed from the start by actives like Victor, but he could be quite the potential ally. For that matter, if Boyd were to allow his conscience to express itself more, he could help Echo fight bac


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