The problem with Dollhouse

Is, in a nutshell, that it isn’t funny.

The element that makes Buffy, Angel and Firefly so good is their ability to weave comedy and drama in a way that doesn’t suck. The lines are genuinely funny, the drama is genuinely intense. You care about the characters, they care about each other.

That last one, about caring for each other, is key. It also has to go both ways. There has to be trust between characters, and shit, actual relationships. I’m not talking about sex, I’m just talking about actual relationships, where people actually communicate with each other because they enjoy doing so, not because the situation they are in or the job they perform requires it. They enjoy themselves.

Let’s take a short moment to dissect the first few minutes of the Buffy pilot to show you what I mean.

Ignoring the cold start / title sequence etc, you know the show is actually starting when they do the classic punk-rock-plus-cherry-picker-camera-show-outside-high school shot (you’ve seen it in nearly every teen movie you’ve seen I’m sure). So, after requisite setup:

  • Buffy’s Mom communicates to her daughter showing affection. Holy crap it’s a relationship!.
  • Then a joke between them. Holy crap there’s some comedy!
  • Introduce Xander skating past, gets distracted by hot chick (Buffy) and then crashes headlong into a rail and falls over on Willow. Holy crap there’s sexuality and physical comedy!
  • Xander and Willow communicate with each other, as (for the moment) platonic friends, while also being witty.

That’s, like, two whole relationships, wit and comedy plus hints at character development and we’re what: 30 seconds in? Even counting the cold start etc that really only makes it 5 min or so.

I could do the same with Angel and Firefly (and will do so for a shiny nickel!) but I won’t waste your time. If you do this with Dollhouse (I started writing it then found it too spoiler-laden) you find either one-sided or angry/negative relationships, bitter humour if any at all and no actual ‘comedy’.

Dollhouse is based around a place of employment and it’s 100% that. Everyone there obviously has their own demons and not one casual or social word is said between them. Everyone is an individual character that I’m sure is very interesting in their own right, but there is no interaction. One character might not like what another character is doing, but he certainly doesn’t share that with anyone else.

It reminds me of how people write characters when they have cabin fever. Nervous smiles, stressed looks, keeping to themselves, on edge, never giving what they really mean away, never letting down their defences.

You could argue it’s actually pretty good writing and directing, and that’s fine, I would agree. You could argue that it’s a perfectly valid format as well, and I’d agree their too. Angel went very much this way post season 1 and I think it worked great. It worked for me because it was, as mentioned, post season 1. It was also with an established set of characters from Buffy which already have histories and relationships.

Joss has always been good at setting people up and knocking them down. People are always happy in some amounts before his drama hits and shits all over them, but not here. In Dollhouse, there is no joy, only bitterness at a job you hate well done. Everyone hates someone and no one likes anyone. Plonked in the middle of this is Echo, pure innocence (of course with a hidden past) who will obviously evolve to be something more. But she hasn’t yet and so good television it does not make.

It certainly could turn out to be good. Battlestar Galactica pulled a similar stunt in the form of always being depressing and some people enjoy that show, I certainly did in parts. Angel did to, as I mentioned earlier. It’s hard to judge after only one episode, but I’m hopeful that it will develop past what it is now to the sort of fare I’m so used to Joss providing.

Worst comes to the worst, I can just kick off another Buffy marathon ;-)

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