"First hurdle in my business is the people who will not accept the change that's already happened." -Joel MynorSo, does "Man on the Street" change the way I think about "Dollhouse," about series television, about the classical tenets of storytelling and the merits of Aristophanes versus Brecht? Did it, in fact, cure my lactose intolerance?
Well, no. But even if we're focusing on its ability to reconceptualize "Dollhouse," it had a nearly impossible task. Because of the expectations that come with Joss Whedon's name, because the first five episodes of the show had been problematic in one way or another, and because Whedon and Eliza Dushku had given interviews suggesting that this would be the episode when the series came together (a PR strategy that even Whedon acknowledges may not have been so wise), nothing short of the "Buffy" high school graduation (which had three seasons of backstory to build on) was probably going to satisfy.
But "Man on the Street" was a marked improvement over what's come before and it, coupled with the eighth episode, "Needs," which Fox also sent out for review, have me feeling like I might want to watch this show for any reason other than affection for previous Whedon shows.
What was improved about it? In no particular order...
It was, simply, better-executed than what had come before. More action involving the man-mountain that is Tahmoh Penikett. More and better comedy (particularly Echo-as-Rebecca's "Porn!" panic when Ballard raided the house). A "Manchurian Candidate"-esque climax to Hearn's attempted hit on Mellie that, even if you suspected Mellie might be a doll, was still very effectively done. A great guest starring turn from Patton Oswalt. Overall, it was more entertaining than any of the previous five shows.
It better set up the larger arc of the series. I think we have to assume for now that what Echo told Ballard right before she shot the cop wasn't yet another game that DeWitt was running on him. As Joss said on the conference call (when someone asked him whether we would find out if Topher or Dr. Saunders or any other Dollhouse staff were really dolls themselves), "We have to pull ourselves back and say if we make this a lie within a lie within a lie within a lie, people are just going to start slapping us." At some point, we have to accept some things that happen at face value or there's no point in watching the show, and this seems like one of those moments.
And if what she tells him is true, then we know a lot more than we did before -- not only that there's someone inside the Dollhouse working to bring it down, but that there are Dollhouses all over the world, and that fantasy "is their business but NOT their purpose." I don't think it's a coincidence that the final talking head of the faux-documentary within the episode is of the professor explaining, "If that technology exists, it'll be used. It'll be abused. It'll be global. And we will be over. As a species, we will cease to matter. I don't know. Maybe we should."
Among the many premise problems people have pointed out over the last six weeks is why anyone who had this technology would waste it on what's essentially a high-priced escort service. But what if the Dollhouse's current business is simply a lucrative way to beta test the tech before the people who control it use it for some grander, vastly more nefarious purpose? Then you have Ballard, and Echo, and the mole inside the Dollhouse (my money's on the Liza Lapira character, since it would need to be someone capable of reprogramming one of Topher's imprints in a very short period of time) and maybe Boyd working to stop that larger plan, as opposed to Paul just trying to rescue Caroline and shut down this one place. That's much more interesting than seeing how Echo's latest mission goes awry, isn't it?
It more strongly acknowledged what a bad place this is. Outside of the plausibility issues, the biggest complaint the show has gotten is that the people who run the Dollhouse are monsters, but that the show doesn't always treat them as such.
Even outside of Echo's comments to Ballard, there were frequent nods to the skeeviness of the enterprise. We discover Sierra is being raped by her handler, an abuse that's only possible because of what the Dollhouse has done to her. Joel Mynor gives this eloquent speech about how much it means to him to have a doll like Echo help him live out the perfect moment he never got to have with his wife, and Ballard immediately punctures his balloon by replying in disgust, "And then you sleep with her." While a few of the documentary interviews feature people who would love to hire the Dollhouse (or work for it), there's more than enough disgust coming from the rest, and from other parts of the episode, to make it clear that the show itself doesn't view the Dollhouse as some kind of cool fantasy. When I asked Whedon on the conference call about the way the premise makes me feel uncomfortable sometimes, he said:
It makes me uncomfortable. I’m not going to lie. But for me, it’s part of what we’re dealing with. We’re dealing with people who have power and are abusing it and people who don’t (have power) and are trying to regain it.A comment like that, coupled with all the larger arc elements of this episode, makes me feel much better about where the show is going.
Now, there are still problems. Unless the writers are planning to give Topher some kind of come-to-Jesus moment before the end of the season that he's a monster, then he's a really unbearable character who comes across as if the show thinks he's supposed to be funny when he really, really isn't. And there are still plausibility problems about why dolls would be hired for half of the jobs we've seen. But this one was much better, qualitatively and thematically, as is "Needs." So even though my cat allergy has not subsided, I think I'm back in -- for now.
A few other thoughts:
• I really liked the moment when Topher tries to figure out what cop trick Boyd used to figure out that Hearn was abusing Sierra, and Boyd says, simply, "You do the work." Unlike the people he works with, Boyd isn't about cheating or quick fixes -- which makes his presence in this place increasingly difficult to reconcile. Joss said we're going to find out, if the show comes back, that Boyd's not so pure as he seems-- he couldn't be and work here.
• For the most part, "Dollhouse" has been deliberately light on the trademark Whedon meta-humor, in part because it doesn't feel appropriate to this world, in part because the only character capable of delivering it is Topher, and he's a big creep. But I did like the post-coital moment where Mellie asks Paul, "Is this the part where you dress me up and use me as bait? Because those movies never end well?"
• Okay, martial arts experts, here's my question: if Ballard is every bit the bad-ass he's been shown to be so far, coupling tremendous skills with that big frame, what are the odds someone Echo's size, even imprinted with equal knowledge, could stay in a fight with him? The Dollhouse doesn't give people superpowers, after all, but I have to assume there are disciplines where size doesn't matter, even if the two opponents are of similar skill levels.
What did everybody else think?