I know a TV producer who prefers shows that operate at both a metaphorical level as well as a direct, visceral storytelling level. Good example of a metaphor show? Buffy the Vampire Slayer, created by Joss Whedon. It's about a high school girl called Buffy who slays vampires [does what it says on the tin, and then some]. Her calling as a slayer makes her special - and, therefore, an outcast. Other outcasts flock to her side, inevitably.
In early seasons of Buffy there's a Hellmouth under her high school that attracts supernatural entities, and through which different foes and threats can escape into the world of mortals. So, what's the metaphor? High school is hell, just like being a teenager can be hell if you don't fit the mould. No wonder Buffy attracts such a loyal audience, it's the ultimate wish fulfillment show for outsiders. [Plus it's witty and well made, natch.]
Of course, having a metaphorical layer doesn't guarantee a great show. Grey's Anatomy was a guilty pleasure of mine for its first two seasons [Izzy and Denny the first time round did for me, grud knows what it must be like the second time of asking]. There the metaphor is also about high school, although on the surface Grey's Anatomy is a medical drama. It opens with new interns arriving for their first day - like students at a new high school.
They compete for attention and the approval of those teaching them. They strive to excel in learning. They fall in love, have crushes, form cliques, fall out of love, suffer unrequited love, gossip, bitch and have sex - just like high school. The only difference is these students are in their 20s, not their teens, and they're trying to save lives through medicines, not get good grades and graduate. But the metaphor is pretty apparent.
[Anybody who never spotted this just needs to watch the season two finale, where a teenage girl is dying. [Or something. Honestly, I'd lost the will to live myself by this point.] Anyways, to fulfill her last wish the entire hospital is transformed into a high school prom. And the cast dress up as teenagers going to a prom. Subtle stuff, I'm sure you'll agree.]
So, what's all this got to do with Joss Whedon's new show, Dollhouse? I've been trying to figure out the show's metaphor. Whedon is no mug [although making a deal for his new creative offspring to be broadcast by Fox after past experiences does suggest a tiny blind spot], so I figured Dollhouse had to have a metaphor layered beneath the surface. Don't worry if you haven't seen any episodes of it yet, I'm not going to go spoiler-crazy on you.
There's a lot of thematic dialogue with characters talking about issues raised by the show's basic premise. Slavery, sex workers, pimping, wish fulfillment, interventions, mind control, sinister corporations - they're all in the mix. But I'm starting to think Dollhouse is a metaphor for creating a new TV show. The central character Echo is the expression of that metaphor, a woman who gets wiped after every mission, becoming a blank slate.
In the typical US TV drama writers' room, the walls are covered by white boards. These get filled with plots points and story beats as the writers flesh out storylines for a new episode. When the script is written, the boards get wiped clean, ready for the new episode. Echo is an 'active' in Dollhouse, one in a group of characters with no control over the missions they get. They get assigned, plugged with all they need to know and despatched.
In US TV drama the writers are much at the mercy of the network corporation that buys their show. They can't control where or when their efforts get screened [if at all]. They struggle to fulfill the network's wishes, battle with executives who intervene with notes, sometimes even feel like they're pimping their writing talents for a wage and a job. Any of this sounding familiar yet? But the real clincher for me was a recent run of episodes.
Dollhouse has had an unhappy development history [as did Firefly, Whedon's last show at Fox]. The initial pilot was rejected, the first five episodes were turned into standalone stories to satisfy the executives and there was much internet grumbling. Whedon lobbied audiences to consider episode six a new beginning, where the show proper would emerge from its troubled gestation to flower afresh and hopefully find its audience.
But the dialogue in subsequent episodes says different things at a metaphorical level. In the show there's a plan to give Echo and the other actives a wish fulfillment fantasy to overcome a glitch in their personalities [metaphor says: series reboot]. Sinister corporation reps [metaphor: Fox] worry that Echo [metaphor: Dollhouse] is broken, and she will have to be sent to the place for failed active, the Attic [metaphor: cancelled].
But there are those within the Dollhuose [metaphor: Whedon and his writing team] who insist that Echo isn't broken, she's still evolving [metaphor: give us a chance]. The jury remains out on Echo's fate, but rumblings from across the Atlantic suggest the end is nigh for Dollhouse as a series. Ratings aren't great, the show still hasn't found a winning formula [in my humble opinion] and all its travails don't bode well for the future.
I've no idea if the Echo-as-show metaphor I'm perceiving is intentional, incidental or merely the product of massive over-analysis on my part. [Probably the last of these options.] But you never know, there could be something in it. Onwards!