Tuesday, January 18, 2011

In the Dollhouse

30 September 2009

I thought I was going to be somewhat disappointed by the premiere episode of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse on 13 February 2009, but I wasn't. I liked it quite a lot. The set (which rivals the Serenity set of Firefly) was magnificent. The episode was full of typical Joss Whedon themes—existentialist and social ethical themes revolving around conscience, identity, role playing, fantasy, gender, belonging, created families, patriarchalism, and corporate power—and touches—foreshadowings of things to come. Eliza Dushku was superb in her switch from biker girl to infantile Echo to damaged profiler. I never suspected she had such range in her. Olivia Williams and the rest of the cast were wonderful as well. And there was even a bit of humour in a very serious show. Over the course of the following five episodes my admiration for the series has only increased. Patience has paid off as the contours of the show, its complexities, its arcs, its conspiracies, its manipulations, its investigation of human fantasies, and its interrogation of gender and storytelling fantasies in particular are coming more clearly into focus. It is clearly Whedon's most Hitchcockian show yet.

While I was not disappointed in the show I am disappointed with some of the reviews. There have been some excellent reviews of Dollhouse. Those of the ever perceptive Cynthia Fuchs (PopMatters) and Heather Havrilesky (Salon) in particular standout. Some of the other reviews, however, should make us reflect on the nature of contemporary literary, film, and television criticism and the ideologies and values that underlie it just as the dominant modes of academic analysis of literature, film, and television should make us reflect on the social and cultural factors that construct criticism in the ivied halls of the academy.

Alessandra Stanley's review in the New York Times is as shallow as a typical US movie and television show and not worthy of a newspaper that is supposed to set the standard for arts reporting in the United States. Tom Shales's review in the Washington Post is a mumbo jumbo of snark, missed opportunities for thematic analysis, and so full of contradictions—dissing Dollhouse for its formulaic qualities (uh, dude, its a genre show, genre is formulaic on one level) while seeming to praise the work of "rip off" artists David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino (the latter ironically borrowed heavily from Buffy in Kill Bill)--as to be somewhat amusing. Misha Davenport's review in the Chicago Tribune damns Dollhouse for its lack of humour apparently assuming that every Whedon show must be a retread of Buffy. Davenport seems to want to wipe away the fact that Dollhouse is an adult show with a very different set of characters and a very different sensibility from Buffy. Alan Sepinwall's review in the Newark Star-Ledger takes Dollhouse to task for its lack of realism making, in the process, a mistake many amateur and armchair critics make. Literature, TV shows, and films, as many before me have pointed out, make their own realities, make sense in the context of their own manufactured worlds. The notion that fiction has to be like real life (something not even documentaries can accomplish) is, to say the least, silly and sophomoric.

And then there are the slew of blogger reviewers (I am giving them their five minutes of fame here I suppose) who complain that the show is not like Buffy and thus they are giving up on it after viewing only one, two, or three episodes. What this suggests, apart from the issue as to whether Whedon should simply spend the rest of his life remaking Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is that the fine art of patiently allowing a television show to unfold over you is a lost art for the post George Lucas and MTV generation, a generation that seems to have become walking, talking TV dolls who embody the if it doesn't catch me in three minutes and thirty-two seconds I am not going to watch it even if it is an arc or novelistic television show. My favourite of these blog posts, however, has to be that of a commentator at hulu.com (if memory serves). After seeing the first episode this blogger remarked that Dollhouse was clearly misogynistic (without even entertaining an Ibsen/Dollhouse link). And here I thought prophecy was dead.

I liked Dollhouse very much. I intend to keep watching it. Joss Whedon never fails to touch me both intellectually and emotionally (quite an achievement for an auteur in a film and television world dominated by the juvenile and by juvenalia). It touched me in ways that shows like Alias and Fringe never can. Frankly, J.J. Abrams increasingly limited role in Lost is the best thing that ever happened to that show. I haven't been able to stay interested enough in any Abrams product because they seem all surface and no depth to me. This all surface and no depth, all style and no story, tendency in US cinema and television, is, of course, a dominant trend in a media system dominated by an obsession with the 15-34 demographic.

Even the so called US “art” cinema, a cinema which includes the films of both Lynch and Tarantino, is dominated by this all surface and little depth mentality. As critic Jonathan Rosenbaum pointed out much US art cinema is a cinema for audiences blissfully unaware of the innovations of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s European art cinema, a cinema which both Lynch and Tarantino mine extensively all the while depoliticising it. I will be able to stay with Joss Whedon's Dollhouse just as I stayed with his Buffy, Angel, and Firefly. Whedon's work is more than just eye candy. It is also candy for the nerd cinephilic mind. And I am a nerd and cinephile.

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