Friday, April 17, 2009

Make Mine Metaphorical: Dollhouse thoughts

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!


Neil said...

Awesome, you're so right! Joss does his stuff in the right way. Let me suggest something else - Serenity holds the same metaphor.

The Browncoats are Joss. They're trying to do their thing. But the Alliance (Fox) gets in the way. So who do the Browncoats (Joss) turn to? Mr Universe (Universal Pictures). You can't stop the signal and Mr Universe helps them get it out.

Joss loves his metaphors - the finale of Buffy season 4 is superb - all the characters having dreams - filled with layers there. Joss even takes the piss out of it himself by introducing the Cheese Man in every dream. I spent ages trying to figure out why he was there - what he represents. Then I listened to the commentary - he's just there for fun - he represents nothing.

Neil said...

Just posting again so I can follow comments - forgot :)

Maggie said...

That's brilliant. Joss is Echo, putting all these faces on. Especially since Echo has a hero complex that even comes through her mind-wipe. Seems like he wants to make shows that on top of being entertaining really do something to change the world for the better. So puts himself through this hellish process for that purpose.

I wish Echo had a higher purpose. From what I can figure, she was in trouble and had nowhere else to run. She kind of has the hero/savior thing going on...maybe it'll lead to her taking over for Adele one day, since we're getting hints that the *whole thing* has some kind of higher purpose.

I love ANY show that makes me think this much.

joelmead said...

I've watched five episodes of Dollhouse and I'm afraid it reminds me of an updated Charlie's Angels. Dushku isn't much of an actress and the dialogue (presumably butchered) is stilted and weak, as are some of the performances from the rest of the cast. But it's hard to tell if it's been murdered by Fox or if it was just an idea that was never going to work on screen.

Kriztov said...

Dollhouse will get canned. Joss will instead turn it into a successful film and fans will petition Fox indefinitely to get it back on air (without success).
Place you bets... NOW!

David Turner said...

That. Was. Great.
Never watched Dollhouse (though adore Buffy and Firefly), but enjoyed that analysis.
My fave summation of Buffy was after she slept with Angel and he became Bad Angel:

"I've slept with my boyfriend and haven't heard from him since. Now, either he was just using me, or he has become the embodiment of pure evil. But either way, why doesn't he call?"

Piers said...

While post-structuralism states that the position of the reader vis-a-vis the meaning of the text is superior to authorial intent in all cases, and therefore your reading of the text here is as valid as any other, nevertheless:

You're reaching.

Grant said...

I keep reading things about Dollhouse with people asking "why would Whedon keep working with Fox?", when the answer would (albeit superficially - I don't know the actual reason) seem to be because Fox is a network willing to take the risk on things like a space western.

Anonymous said...

The fact that you're even thinking about it on this level suggests that it's going to get cancelled. Americans don't really get clever and sophisticated television. Firefly and Studio 60 get cancelled but The Ghost Whisperer is still going strong.