Poor old Joss Whedon, he just can’t seem to cut a break nowadays. Blogger Steve Gaythorpe looks back on Joss Whedon’s past shows in an effort to uncover why this keeps happening.
The signs weren’t good. Fox took Dollhouse off the air for November, the month when channel rankings and ratings are measured in the US, saying it would reappear in December. And now it’s official Dollhouse is dead. Though we were surprised when it got a second series to be honest, weren’t we?
The reasons for the lack of success will be debated by wiser minds than mine for many years to come, but I thought I’d get the ball rolling by looking at the Whedonesque nature of Dollhouse as compared to his other shows; Buffy, Angel and Firefly. How is it different, how is it similar? The titles below, for me, sum up what to expect from a Joss Whedon show.
It is one of the first things that a student of Whedon learns is that he has a unique writing style, full of pop culture references, witty banter and delicious twists and turns. Those were obviously introduced and developed in Buffy and honed and improved in Firefly, which to my mind is the peak of Whedon’s work so far. Angel lacked the humour of Buffy and was patchier in many respects, but still had moments. Dollhouse has occasional flashes of verbal brilliance, but we are lucky if we get one great line per show.
Buffy is about the growing pains of a teenage girl in small town America; Angel is about a killer coming to terms with his past; Firefly is about friendship; Dollhouse is about identity theft (yawn). The problem with Dollhouse is that the theme is dull.
It may be that we are too close to see the theme clearly and the distance of time will make the picture come into focus.
With Buffy Whedon introduced a new type of hero to the TV screens, a strong, independent young woman. Dollhouse carries this on, sort of, Echo is a strong, independent young woman – though she chooses to have her memories wiped and her body abused because her boyfriend got shot! Adelle is a strong, independent woman who runs the Dollhouse with a ruthless will of iron, who uses Victor when she is feeling lonely; Dr. Saunders is really Whiskey; Mellie is really November.
Are we being told that women have to play many roles in the modern world? That society prostitutes them all? This may be a deliberately grim view of the world, but it is a dangerous route for a man to take and can look misogynistic, and it is only because it is Whedon saying it that we let him get away with it.
Angel and Buffy, Willow and Oz, Angel and Spike, Willow and Xander, Willow and Tara; Angel and Cordelia; Wash and Zoe, Mal and Irana, Kaylee and Simon; Echo and Ballard, Echo and Alpha, Sierra and Victor, Victor and Adelle.
Whedon has never been afraid to tackle sex, sexuality in shows that aren’t necessarily just about relationships. He introduced the human to the genre, which is all too often lacking. As with the other Wedonesque traits the sexuality is muddled, pale and a bit grim, and not good grim, just a bit unpleasant.
Whedon, for all his feminist credentials, has a peculiar attitude to prostitution. In Firefly, Inara, an intelligent, strong woman, was a high-class whore, unapologetic, suggesting that it was a good career choice. Dollhouse is about the prostitution of these men and women, but it is often seen as a joke, or excused in some other way. Whedon seems more bothered by the abuse of these people’s minds rather than their bodies.
Buffy kicked ass! Angel snapped necks and ripped out throats (or could’ve done)! Mal and his crew brawled! Dollhouse does Tai Chi all over your muddy-funsting bottom! That’s not fair actually, the whole pace of the show is slow, and it is punctuated by some very well choreographed simulated violence; the fight between Ballard and Echo in the first series was brutal! It’s just not as “ass-kicking” over-all as his other shows.
Sense of Humour
Buffy and Firefly were packed full of witty lines of dialogue and action and events that were full of humour; the humour in Angel was less subtle and more forced. Dollhouse has one or two characters that introduce humour, most notably Alpha, but the show does not have that same human sense of fun, life is dark and light, it is atonal, with rare spikes of fun.
Great Support Characters
Willow was sexier than Buffy; Spike was a better vampire than Angel; Cordelia and Wesley got better lines than Angel; the past lives of Sierra and Victor are more intriguing than that of Echo. Wash, River, Book, Kaylee, and Jayne were more interesting characters than Mal, Zoe and Inara – though the ensemble held together better than his other shows. It is a common characteristic of his work that the minor/support characters are usually more interesting than his leads, and it remains true with Dollhouse.
Yes, both Buffy and Dollhouse had sexy strong women lead characters, who look good half-naked in magazines, Firefly and Angel had attractive male leads, who also looked good half-naked in magazines, but the more intriguing character arcs belonged to Willow, Xander, Cordelia, Wash, River, Adelle, Whiskey and November.
It is easy to blame Fox for all Whedon’s woes, they do have a reputation for killing off shows. It’s a running gag in Family Guy. I don’t understand how liberal shows are made by what, to me, is such a right wing, reactionary studio. Or is that just Fox News? As I say it is easy to blame Fox, and many will, for interfering in the show, not getting the show, or whatever. Under those circumstances, why don’t you move to another studio? Am I being naive?
Pre-production tampering, meddling during the production or not putting the show out during the right slot are all familiar stories of studio interference. The day/time slot effect is interesting: Buffy was first broadcast on a Monday at 9pm then moved to a Tuesday at 8pm (in the US); Angel was broadcast at 9pm on Tuesday (series 1 & 2), a Monday (3) and Sunday and Wednesday (4 & 5); Firefly was broadcast on Fridays at 8pm and Dollhouse was broadcast at 9pm on a Friday. Buffy averaged 4.52 million viewers over seven series; Angel 4.2m over five; Firefly 4.7m for its one series; and Dollhouse is sitting at 3.73m for series one and 2.26m so far for series two. Yes, Firefly was an hour earlier but it still did better than some seasons of Buffy, most of Angel and all of Dollhouse! If anything all these figures prove is that “Nobody knows anything”.
It is true to say that Dollhouse’s viewing figures have been effected by new technology that didn’t exist when Angel and Buffy were broadcast, but that is just an excuse. When it comes down to it, the show isn’t as good as Angel, Buffy or Firefly.
Personally I think that Joss Whedon should give TV a rest for a while. With Shellshock and Dr Horrible he has proved he rocks online, his comic books are ground-breaking and his next film, The Cabin in the Woods, should be a hoot, if for nothing more than seeing the very talented Bradley Whitford (Josh in The West Wing) do something Whedonesque.