Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse”
Gets it right Gets it wrong
Complex storyline, intriguing premise, constantly ups its game. High ratio of tits and ass occasionally detracts from storytelling.

To appreciate the problem with Joss Whedon, you need to appreciate how TV works. You may have been confused into thinking that TV is a distribution method for entertainment – how networks get your favourite shows to you – but you couldn’t be more wrong.

TV is a vehicle for generating revenue, primarily from advertising. It costs a stupendous amount of money to create TV shows, but if a show is popular, then networks can charge even more stupendous amounts of money for showing targeted advertising during that show’s run. It’s no coincidence, for example, that the breaks in Desperate Housewives are loaded with ads for shampoo, washing powder and women’s insurance.

The point is this: while we, as TV consumers, rate shows based on how much they entertains us, the network executives rate shows in terms of number of bums on seats. They have to. That’s the product they sell to advertisers.

The cast of Dollhouse

The cast of Dollhouse

Therefore, a successful show is one crafted from its inception to draw massive crowds. And for that to happen, you need to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Thus, we get spammed with shows like Idols, The Apprentice, Big Brother, and any number of “reality” shows. Understand, I don’t mean to run these shows down – but I’m making a point about them: they’re all relatively cheap to produce, and they all draw large crowds despite containing no real narrative.

Now, Joss Whedon is a story teller with grand ambitions. The hallmarks of his work are complex characters, lightning banter, and deep, tangled story arcs. He likes to play in the “what-if” space: imagine if X were possible, what might happen?

And so he gives us Dollhouse, a twisted tale of science fiction, drama and intrigue where a faceless corporation can design personalities and imprint them into bodies, giving their elite clients the ability to order custom people on demand.

Having set up the paradigm, he spends only a few episodes in safe territory before pulling the rug from under us and starting to explore the dark side of what could be possible in this scenario.

Boyd gets annoyed

Boyd gets annoyed

This is gripping, cerebral stuff. By the sixth episode it’s apparent that there’s a bigger story going on here than what you were led to believe in the opening chapters, and it’s a darker, much more complex story than you were expecting. It’s A-grade science fiction mixed with A-grade drama.

Yes, Dollhouse is in its first season and there are certain clunkinesses that would in time be worked out – the overemphasis on sex is one personal issue (I know Tits and Ass helps ratings, but it rarely advances the plot).

But here’s the thing: this show in all likelihood will not get the chance to develop. Why? The ratings aren’t up to par. It’s not pulling the kind of viewership that a show like America’s Next Top Thingy would, so we can’t sell the same amount of advertising space on it. Which means it’s not an effective TV product. All indicators at this time are that it’s not being renewed for a second season.

See the distinction? It’s a good – potentially great – show … but it’s a bad TV product.

And that’s the problem with producers like Joss Whedon. Ultimately he and his sidekick Tim Minear are doomed to failure because they’re incapable of making mass-market crap. I think it’s sad.