Saturday, April 4, 2009

"Echo?"

The April 3 episode of Dollhouse, "Needs," was another in the good column for me. I have a few quibbles, but this felt like a solid mid-range example of a high quality show. 

It's pretty clear now that we've been watching two shows. The first ran for five episodes and was a high-concept show about a girl who got a new personality every week. Fox loved that show, but its execution was sort of half-assed. Plots were often pulled out of the Big Bin O' TV Clich├ęs, and while they were often filmed with verve and had a few nice twists, they were still nothing to inspire cultish adoration.

Then this second show started up. It's an ensemble drama, about people in a secret business where zombified volunteers get new personalities every week. Some of them have been brainwiped, some of them are doing the wiping, and some are trying to figure it all out. It's a much better program, because it can attack its subject matter from multiple angles.

My few little problems with "Needs"? Spoilers, hereafter.

First, while I liked the idea that they need to give the dolls some emotional closure, it seemed like the way they went about it was pretty dangerous. I don't know that the handler with broken shins and the one who was strangled half to death will appreciate DeWitt going with that plan. They should talk to their union reps.

Related to the broken shins, that fight scene was not nearly as well shot as the kitchen kung fu fight from a few weeks back. It was jerky and hard to follow. However, the final fire extinguisher to the knees moment went over well. I was watching the show with about 20 people (Go Browncoats!) and a collective "OHHHH!" was heard after the impact.

We also found out that Sierra was apparently not a willing conscript to the Dollhouse way of life, even if the rest of them were. Seriously, why did the show decide she'd be a perpetual rape victim? If she gets shoved in a refrigerator just to make Victor upset, I will not be happy.

Which leads to my final quibble. Sierra strongly implied that she didn't achieve closure at all: she wants to go back and get some real revenge. I doubt that Echo/Caroline can ever quiet whatever it is inside her that makes her want to set people free. And Victor? You don't get over being in love. Not just like that. So their little vacation may have given them some temporary closure, but for at least three out of four, I doubt they'll stay quiet for long. I'm not sure if this is a real complaint or not, because it may be intentional on the part of the writers.

On the plus side, it's always nice to see Amy Acker back, and her character represents another weird paternalistic face of the Dollhouse. 

So far we've seen DeWitt as this arch, patrician figure who seems to feel that what they're doing is in the dolls' best interests (despite seemingly knowing that Sierra was kidnapped?), a means justify the ends philosophy. Mr. Dominic sees them as pets, or machines; he's effectively dehumanized them. Topher doesn't think about it much, and when he's forced to he babbles and can't justify himself at all.

The doctor, on the other hand, wants to protect the dolls from the big bad world. She obviously feels it would be better for them not to remember things. As I'm sure she might wish for herself.

Outside the world of Dollhouse, the TV show, things are not going well. It was low in the ratings again. But I want to know something more basic: is Dollhouse profitable?

Battlestar Galactica had fewer viewers than Dollhouse for every episode it aired after the mini-series. It seems to have averaged around 2.5 million viewers a week. Meanwhile, Dollhouse has been averaging between 3.5 and 4 million viewers. I know the costs for maintaining an entire network are different from those involved in running a cable channel. But BSG also involved a very large cast, lots of specially constructed sets, explosions and a whack of CGI. Dollhouse, on the other hand, is cheap like borscht. It has fight scenes and gunfire, but only a handful of sets. No CGI. No elaborate prosthetic makeupe. No wirework. It's the cheapest show Joss Whedon has ever made. 

So here's the thing. I don't want to know if Dollhouse is beating its competition. I want to know if it's actually just breaking even or turning a profit for Fox. And I'd kind of like to know if it could do the same, say, at a cable channel whose name means venereal disease in Polish.

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