No, I don't have a breaking bulletin about the threat from swine flu. Or even anything political to say. Just an ordinary observation on what, until the last couple of weeks, I thought was an all too ordinary television show.

When Dollhouse premiered on Fox, I tuned in because I had been a big fan of Joss Whedon's previous series -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. But Dollhouse seemed completely lacking in the thing that had made those other shows so enjoyable. Where was the clever word play and inventive coinage of new adverbs? Where was the cluster of buddies ready to take on the dark forces of the world? Where was the fun?

Instead we were dropped into a place where our main POV character, Eliza Dushku's "Echo," literally has no internal life. She's a "doll" reprogrammed each week to fit the needs of the moment. The people around her are definitely on the dark side of gray, if not utterly evil, and the only person trying to pry open the mysteries of the Dollhouse (Tahmoh Penikett, familiar to fans of Battlestar Galactica as "Helo") is outcast, alone.

Each of those first few weeks gave us Echo in a new outfit (here she is as innocent school girl, here a leather and chains dominatrix, here as sporty action chick). But it all seemed... kind of cheap. Shallow. Not up to the cleverness of Whedon's previous work.

And then I got it. And when I got it, I was embarrassed that it took me so long to get it.

Dollhouse is meta-fiction. The whole show, and I mean the whole show, is commentary.  It's not about guys with a brain washing machine who can make someone behave how they want. It's about what it means that guys with a brain washing machine use that device to satisfy shallow, mostly sexual, fantasies.

And the commentary doesn't extend just to the device of the show. Whedon is reflecting on what it means to have a television show. The brain washing device is an analog for television that's as old as the medium. Give someone a chance to build a whole program full of new characters and what will they make? Mostly characters that are a reflection of their creators or which define some "dream girl / dream boy" who meets their needs and has no internal demands. Easy sex, eye candy, and no commitments. Tune in next week.

That's why the two characters on the show who most reflect Whedon's previous programs aren't Echo or the detective who is trying to stop the Dollhouse. They're November (Miracle Laurie), another of the "dolls," and and geeky programmer guy, Topher.  

November is the only character who mouths the kind of "Whedonesque" language from Buffy and Firefly, but she does it in scenes where the viewer and Det. Ballard are fully aware that she's a doll placed there to distract him from reaching the truth. She offers exactly the kind of doe-eyed sexuality and cutesy conversation that's calculated to draw Ballard in. She has a tolerance for any level of neglect. She's an object, not a partner. She's a trap, Ballard knows it, and he still gives in to what's easy.

Meanwhile Topher serves as Whedon's own analog in the Dollhouse universe, using the machine as a toy and "spicing up" characters to his own amusement. He even creates his own special birthday present in the form of a girl who wants to play all the games he wants to play, and who matches him line for line on the knowledge of all his favorite films.

What Dollhouse tells us is that, like the customers of the titular facility, both television producers and television viewers are generally ready to settle for shallow self-gratification. They want characters that mirror their own desires.

But, especially in the last two episodes, Whedon has dropped non-too-subtle hints that there are better things you can do, both with a brain washing machine and with a TV show. Characters you can assemble that have more meaning than a Chatty Cathy sex doll. Whether Whedon can really deliver on that idea -- or whether Fox will let the show hang around long enough to get there -- is an open question.  But after weeks of setting there with my finger poised above "off," prepared to let this show drop into the void, I'm glad that I saw what was really up before my finger hit the button.

Because many of the clues to what Whedon inserts are dependent on knowing something of his previous shows, I can't say whether people who weren't fans of Buffy/Firefly will get it. Or maybe I'm just dense and the rest of the populace was keyed in from day one.

But I suspect that there's still a lot of folks who think the point of this show is watching Dushku in her underwear. I think -- I hope -- they're going to be shocked.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sat Apr 25, 2009 at 05:02 PM PDT.


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