Monday, October 05, 2009

Dollhouse, "Instinct": Mother's milk

I spent the weekend in Philadelphia celebrating the 125th anniversary of my college newspaper (and marveling at how much better the 34th Street website looks than it did back in my day), so I only got around to "Dollhouse" this morning. Some quick thoughts coming up just as soon as I get the ventriloquism upgrade...

It feels like a fool's errand to talk about the long-term of a show with such microscopic ratings, but an episode like "Instinct," coupled with the parts of the season premiere that didn't work, are reminders that "Dollhouse" still has some foundational problems. The series is capable of offering knock-out episodes like "Epitaph One" or "A Spy in the House of Love," or even great storylines like Whiskey's struggle last week, but until/unless the show shifts away from its current format, it's never going to totally click, even for the increasingly-tiny audience that's sticking with it.

There were some interesting ideas on the fringes of "Instinct" - that Topher has figured out how to use the brain to effect changes to the body, that retaining elements of all her personas is really beginning to mess with Echo's head, and that retired actives still have a relationship with the Dollhouse - but the main story suffered the same problems that most Echo-on-a-mission episodes do.

First - and this is a problem that all anthology shows (or faux-anthologies like this show and "Quantum Leap") suffer - there's rarely enough time to make the guest characters and their world interesting enough in an hour, particularly when Echo is herself a new character each week. The client's rationale for hiring a doll was actually a rare occasion when an engagement made total sense (who else could provide complete maternal devotion to the baby and then have no problem walking away from him?), but I was never engaged with him or the circumstances.

Second, we again see that the Dollhouse is just terrible at contingency plannings. I recognize that Echo is supposed to be an unusual active, and therefore adds more wrinkles to her missions than, say, Sierra, but there are too many times where we see the dolls go rogue - sometimes while interacting with other dolls - for the Dollhouse to not have figured this out by now. As an evil organization that may one day bring about the end of the world, it's pretty incompetent.

But unless the DVR numbers turn out to be huge, it doesn't really matter, does it?

Still, what did everybody else think?

31 comments:

J said...

"The human mind is like Van Halen: If you just pull out one piece and keep replacing it it just degenerates."

Ingrid said...

I completely agree with your review. I am surprised that they keep sending Echo out on missions when she always messes things up one way or another. If another active was this erratic, s/he would have been sent to the attic a long time ago.

Medrawt said...

I thought this was a stronger overall episode than the premiere - better no Bamber than a Bamber underutilized, I guess? - but I agree that the show is straining against itself and the MoTW constraints, even when the MoTW actually makes more sense than the usual Dollhouse mission (and walks the delicate line between sympathetic and creepy).

On the other hand, the last few episodes (including the broadcast finale from last year) have been pushing the conceptual stuff into places I'm thrilled to see it go; if part of what Whedon is doing is engaging in a long argument against (or at least complication of) the idea that we can really be treated as (to evoke Buffy) a "tabula rasa", all the pending cononundra about what happens to the increasingly fully-fledged personalities that crop up in other people's bodies is a great twist of the knife. At least for me.

Also, I realized with this episode that I think Dushku is honestly very good at playing Echo, if not her various imprints; I don't mean this in the vaguely insulting way people mean it about Keanu Reeves, but she completely sells me whenever she's playing blank and confused, and she handles the unique experience Echo is going through nicely. Not to dwell on the occasional Alias reference, but Jennifer Garner could do a much better job of playing an Active than Dushku has; the show should play to its strengths and emphasize Echo the Doll. (If your imprints are only interesting when they break anyway...)

Medrawt said...

Two other quick (!) thoughts and then I'll shut up for a while -

(1) I totally meant to write "conundra" and not "cononundra" but maybe I'd ahve been better off writing "conundrums."

(2) One fanwank that the show could easily adopt to explain the persistent use of a malfunctioning Active is that since Rossum's research intentions are legit, DeWitt and Topher are intentionally letting Echo play out the string to gather data. DeWitt knows that something interesting is happening, so it's a small leap to say that she keeps imprinting Echo explicitly to move that process along.

Matt said...

I liked that the show is bringing the funny now (the line J cites in particular had me chuckling for a good while) and that it's recognizing and exploring the moral complexity of the Dollhouse concept, but it's still not there.

There are substantial hints, it seems, that the show's getting yanked, possibly as soon as this week, though I expect they'll finish the 13 episode order, both for contractual purposes and because it'll sell decently on DVD.

jenmoon said...

I wasn't too into the mommy plot, but it certainly made sense to have an Active do it, for a change. It seemed to me that the point of this one was to emphasize to Ballard that these feelings are real, and the suffering is real, even if you get a wipe afterwards.

I wonder if Madeleine's personality got altered a bit to be more tranquil and thus that's why she isn't so upset about her daughter any more.

barefootjim said...

In a weird way, I thought that it was the worst episode that they've done. At least during the first five, they had the "this is what FOX wanted" excuse, but now that Whedon's set up a rich universe with a dystopic endgame, the missions better be wayyyyyy more interesting than this.

Especially with the cheesetastic lightning and power outage during the "climax." Sheesh!

I think that rather than Quantum Leap, a better analogy might be The X-Files where it seemed like after they discovered that were actually here, they'd spend six episodes chasing ghosts.

Finally, I totally agree with @Ingrid -- why do they keep sending Echo out on missions? Right, because Dushku is the star.

KriZia said...

First off, Medrawt - who are you and where can I hug you? :)

I'm a huge fan of intellectual shows, and I consider this to be one of them. And despite my determination to stay on my side of the "belief fence," I'm starting to sway to the side where people believe Echo should not be the focus of each and every episode. While I like her as a main character and think that her imprints and engagements could be one of the main focuses of the show, we need to start showing some of the other characters. This is the second episode in a row where they haven't been in the dominant foreground. Yes, Mellie/November/Madelaine was a very refreshing breath of air, but it was such a small portion that it wasn't enough to satisfy me. I'm really missing Victor, Sierra, Topher, Adele, etc.

Joss Whedon mentioned in various interviews that he now feels like they're past the part of questioning whether Eliza can play this role. Well, that's great - but show me a little bit of something else too. And I 100% understand show creators not playing into the hand of fans after listening to their comments, but for goodness sakes, if EVERYONE is practically saying that Eliza should be pushed a little into the background, then by all means, DO IT!

Heck, do whatever you have to do to save the show's ratings. Obviously, Echo-centered plots every episode are not cutting it. It's really starting to scare me that the Dollhouse conversation has shifted to "it's definitely going to be canceled, let's just see how many season 2 episodes actually air." However, I do think that you can't blame the ratings solely on the show - it's on a Friday night, first of all, and second, look at who it's up against: Medium and Ugly Betty (just starting). Those shows have pretty large followings and I'm sure their fan base is tuning in especially because they're upset it got pushed to a Friday night slot and they don't want it to be canceled.

Side note - I did love seeing elements of what I believe Joss' Cabin in the Woods movie has, in this week's episode. The image of Echo with a baby in one arm and a knife in the other was very creepy :)

meopta said...

For me, this was an excellent week because Sen What's His Name spoke for the viewer - (this is human trafficking, etc) and there was a great moment where you wondered what was going on with the wife - had she been injured, is she an active? Also, this is the first time a client acknowledges that he was wrong to hire Echo, the first time we see an active apologized to by the other person complicit in the crime. It pointed to Dollhouse finally walking away from the failed Charlie's Angel concept and toward a more dramatic cog in the machine brings it down or dies trying story line.

Cost wise, the Dollhouse really doesn't make sense when it leaves prostitution behind. Unless he spent his wife's entire life insurance policy, I don't see how that guy hired Echo, Sierra, and their team for an indefinite baby raising time period. Topher alluding to his cancer cure via brain changes was a nice tie to the research angle.

I think this was a much stronger episode than many, several plot points were advanced and the potential struggle of the season nicely framed. (I don't think this is going to double post, but blogger is acting oddly)

Sparkx said...

I disagree that the engagment made any sort of sense. There is no reason that the Dollhouse would assign two of their most valuable actives to an open ended assignment like this. The baby wasn't going to take in all that nurturing and love over a weekend, right? Considering how much money Echo and Sierra could be bringing in on short engagements in that time, there is no way anyone would be able to afford dolls to do that gig.

And yes, we can blame the ratings on the show. People keep getting back to it being Friday night, and up against Medium, etc. But that doesn't explain the fact that Dollhouse was tied for last place on all 5 networks in the adult demo, and only had more viewers than Melrose Place last week. Every other new show on ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, and CW(!!) had more viewers and demo. Friday can excuse low ratings, but nothing can excuse the numbers Dollhouse is putting up.

Karen said...

Is it just me, or would there not be a problem in having someone come in extremely temporarily to bond with a baby and then removing her... for the baby, I mean? After the engagement was over, what was supposed to happen to the kid then - be farmed out to other temporary caregivers, or was the father hoping he'd eventually change himself and do the necessary bonding?

Anyway, didn't like the episode much at all, and hated the idea of programming an active to lactate. Ick. I've been reading the alarmed postings on Whedonesque and elsewhere that Dollhouse might be cancelled sooner than later, and while I'd love to see Summer Glau and Michael Hogan before that happened, and while I love the cast of the show, the show itself is just not something I think I'd miss... and I say this as a total Whedon fanatic. OK, maybe not total anymore. Dollhouse just doesn't really do it for me. Although if it keeps going, I'll watch it. Go figure.

tony libido said...

For me, the show continues to be incoherent and even worse, boring. I think addressing the 'foundational' nature of the problems is correct.

As others question, how is this guy (well off in his McMansion, to be sure, but not hyper-wealthy either) paying for 2 actives ongoingly. And worse, does he live in a vacumn? How does he explain this girl to his friends, parents, neighbors. Same as last episode, is Ballard paying for a months-long placement? how?

I don't think the shows ever really worked. And over-praised episodes like "Man on the Street" have consistently been over-hyped because (and I'm right there with you) IT'S JOSS & there must be some core of excellent beneath the problems. Epitaph exists in it's own world and when they renewed the show I imagined the only way forrward was a complete re-thinking to tell that story. Instead the 1st 2 out of the gate have been the same old assignment-gone-glitchy messes.

Karen said...

there are too many times where we see the dolls go rogue - sometimes while interacting with other dolls - for the Dollhouse to not have figured this out by now

That was this episode in a nutshell to me. What on earth is Topher doing, including experimental, untested innovations (like glandular level change) on an Active who has glitched in nearly every single engagement she's been sent on? Maybe Sierra would have been a better choice: she functions the way an Active is supposed to.

There were so many problems, most of which have been noted in the comments--just how long was Daddy planning on having the baby bond to Echo and how on earth was he paying for it; what was the plan for disengaging the baby from Echo down the road--but one problem with the way they DID execute it was the immediate bonding that occurred between Daddy and Baby as soon as Echo glitched. He couldn't even stand to hold the kid before. I'm not saying that the emotional crisis of Echo's glitch might not have inspired the bond to occur at last, but there could have been a moment when this was demonstrated.

I'm sorry it will be cancelled, but this isn't like Firefly getting cancelled--a great show that got dicked around by its network. This is just not that good or well thought-through a show. This is Joss's Studio 60. Hey, we all get one.

meopta said...

Tony -

I agree on the rethinking, it's why I came back despite my serious problems with season one. I think the problems with Dollhouse can be summed up in two episodes - Alpha and Omega. Alpha was a fantastic episode, and it set a new direction, but then Omega swept in and destroyed everything Alpha was building. I unlocked my thoughts about it at the time -
http://meopta.livejournal.com/521078.html

I feel like Whedon has either never really decided on the show he wants to make here (and I'm a fan, not a hater) or he didn't realize what he was making until he was in the middle of it and can't quite let go of what it was to figure out what it is. If the season had opened with the political speech and unspooled from there - with a serious move to take down the Dollhouse and explore it's reach - that would have been potentially awesome. It's the Omega he can't shake that dooms Dollhouse.

(ironically, my verification word is purify)

MattB said...

This show is starting to feel like it is regressing into the "engagement of the week" mode.

It's a real disappointment after the way last season ended to see it turn back to this. Not at all what I was hoping for this season.

I think the writers made a tactical mistake in having Ballard join the Dollhouse - it feels like all of the tension in the show, with his search for answers, has now vanished.

Hatfield said...

Sigh. This show is doomed, and it feels like Joss is in denial about that in the way he parcels out the larger story points. I guess you have to write for a whole season, but it's really disappointing that so many of the awesome ideas the show in general and "Epitaph One" in particular have brought up will likely never be seen, or at best be part of a DVD marathon.

I'm with everyone else in wanting more Victor (Enver may be the best actor on the show), Saunders, Ballard, Sierra and even Madeline. I really liked Paul's discomfort in seeing her and getting to know the real person whose body he was sleeping with all unknowing last season. Sigh.

Question for the group though: did they ever actually resolve the mole in the Dollhouse plot? Reed Diamond was exposed as being NSA or CIA or something, but he claimed he wasn't the mole who had been messing with Echo's programming, and I don't remember getting an answer. It wasn't Alpha, right? So if that's still out there, they should really get back to it.

Jack said...

I actually thought this was a great episode as far as the Echo thread was concerned. If they have to stick with the "active of the week" assignments, I felt this was how it was done RIGHT.

That is, I thought the central conflict of her assignment wasn't due to something strange going haywire for no reason--a bump on the head messing her memory/programming, a client going unexpectedly homicidal, something external entirely, etc--but very much due simply to what Dollhouse programming IS.

Ie, it was an exploration of mental memory vs physical memory, for one: the whole idea of whether our identities are all body or all mind, or a mix, and how do they interact?

It was also interesting to me to see the client struggle with accepting this stranger as his wife. I'd often wondered about other people's ease with that, and it was good to see this guy unable to see one person and hear another and just take it in stride.

And though I also thought it was extremely unrealistic that Dollhouse would be THAT BAD at bringing back an active (or would let it go that far) Echo-as-active discovering bits and pieces of her created existence and its limits was interesting to me.

Actually I think what also drew me more to the story this time was that I found Echo's marital dissatisfaction fascinating, as well as the interaction between her and her "husband." I *assumed* they just implanted the guy's wife in her, close as they could make it. But he didn't see his wife, and couldn't treat her as such. Thus, it made me wonder: did she then go off-script? As he was making his wife scared and threatened and heartbroken, did the husband "recognize" his wife in all this, or did she essentially become a new person, who would not have existed otherwise, since the original wife's husband would never have been so distant, unresponsive, unloving, etc? (Not to mention ordering to get rid of her.) The paranoia, the violence, the mood swings--were these there before in the wife's character? Or were these the reactions of a personality implant finding itself programmed for a role that was not panning out as planned?

Billiam said...

Personally, I thought this stand-alone was much more interesting and well-done then most of the stand-alones from season one.

The ratings make me sad though. This is a pretty significant drop from last year, right? That surprises me. It also makes me wonder how the ratings of Terminator would be doing.

Jesse said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jesse said...

I agree with Sparkx—this engagement made no sense at all. It blows my mind that Alan—or anyone for that matter—wouldn't immediately have the same thought that I did, "So, Echo is just going to be the mother for the rest of the baby's life? Or, if not, she's supposed to provide temporary motherly love?" This was a horrible, horrible episode, or, at the very least, not the way to make a mediocre show better.

Girl Detective said...

No they never exposed the real mole, just that Adele thought they'd caught it when they took out Reed Diamond. I think the mole is Adele.

I hated this ep. I can't stand "baby in peril" storylines. It's cheap tension and drama, like an alcoholic starting to drink again. Lazy, lowest common denominator plot point.

JJ said...

To address concerns towards why Echo would be on an engagement like this, for this amount of time: The Dollhouse has a ton of actives on various different assignments (and that's just this particular house, servicing one area with what could be tens of actives). Business is so plentiful (as aluded to in the premeire) during this time of year that it makes sense that a well-paying customer would be able to farm out Echo and Sierra for a long-term, open ended engagement. Considering the unique circumstances of Echo taking on the role of a mother, and the necessity of providing emotional support via another programmed Active, this engagment makes perfect sense. It's simply the type of arrangement that would be more compelling if it were given a two hour format to flesh out the concepts.

The "engagement of the week" concepts make sense from a ratings standpoint, considering how deep the mythology here is; new viewers need some type of "pop" format to the show in order to remain engaged enough to want to continue watching. The problem is, this format detracts from what the show is capable of coming, and you get the feeling that cancellation is so inevitable, that they need to cut to the chase and really tackle the main story arc of Echo and Ballard taking down the Dollhouse, and the eventual tie in to the events of Epitaph One.

As far as the plot of the episode itself, I can buy the idea that this guy, a super-affluent engineer, could afford to bank-roll Dollhouse long enough. In fact, it may just be a flat fee, instead of a pay as you go type of thing. Also, they seem to indicate in conversation that the arrangement was temporary, for as long as the father felt he needed to get over resentment towards the baby over his wife's death.

I continue to find the most satisfaction with these types of episodes in the explorations of what makes a human being human, and how much of our functioning has to do with our personalities and character, how much is "soul", and how much is purely physiological. Considering the propositions they raise here, you start thinking about the ideas of mind over matter, and how much we can really do with the mind. Especially considering how much of it we haven't tapped into yet.

Anonymous said...

Your comparison to Quantum Leap was insightful. Looking back QL was a bit of a procedural: Where am I? Who am I? What do I have to change to leap back home? The creators made it easier for the viewers by dropping Sam into the plot of popular movies.
Bad epis of Dollhouse drop Echo into plots of TV Movies of the Week.

Puff

Matt S said...

the show will be axed immediately (meaning replaced ASAP by a rerun of House or Bones or something) the second that the rerun (THE RERUN) of America's Next Top Model over on the CW starts beating it.
That's just not something that Fox can abide--DVR ratings, DVD sales, etc, Fox doesn't wanna be beaten by the CW network's reruns.

(Bad enough that new eps of Smallville seem to be beating their 8 oclock shows--not that anything can stop Til Death at this point---that'll just end up moving to Sundays before The Simpsons---prob once football ends....hell fox has 17 eps of it on the shelf from last season alone---fox has plenty of Til Death to go around!)

If Fox does end up making all 13 ordered Dollhouse eps----expect them to either be burned off in June---or well see it on DVD.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the first episode of this season. Thought there were interesting developments in this but was bored. I don't really care to see her develop into a fully aware being as in I don't need to see it - at least not in this slow execution. I'd rather they just jumped into the future and implemented flashbacks ala LOST than this poor rehash of season 1.

WE ALL GET IT. ECHO IS BECOMING AWARE. BUT NOBODY REALLY CARES. Just stick with the fucked up future and slowly reveal us how it all happened through dope conversation while moving towards the teasing end game - is all lost or is there hope for a better day?

Stacy said...

Yep, this show is done. I can easily see episodes of House doubling both the demos and the ratings. Fox might have low expectations and Dollhouse might be super cheap, but from a PR perspective, they are not going to keep a show that could easily be the lowest rated show on network television. (Including the CW)

And honestly the show is just not that great. It has some pretty good actors and actresses who I think deserve better.

Anonymous said...

Being a fan of Joss Whedon, I appreciate his storytelling skills and think Dollhouse is best when relying on story over character. Given the nature of the show, the characters change from week to week, but the overlying theme is the backbone.
Although I don't necessarily agree with the comment (argument? declaration?)that Eliza Dushku is capable of playing the role, she is most definitely NOT capable of carrying the series and TPTB should utilize more of the cast more often. Besides, it speaks volumes that Joss Whedon was compelled to defend his star's acting skills. No defense is necessary for something that can stand on its own merit.

Nigel said...

One thing I'd noticed that I havent seen mentioned, is that Mellie/November hit her head when Echo was freaking out.

Last week we saw Echo hit her head, then she started getting flashes of her previous engagements.

Could this be the start of an issue for Topher? (And perhaps how they bring Summer Glau's character in to the storyline?)

Or did no-one mention it because it's so obvious?

As for how long the show is going to last.... I hope it lasts for a while (if the quality gets back to Epitaph One levels) but even this site doesn't have a load of comments on the episode.

Anonymous said...

Gosh. I liked this episode but apparently I was in the minority. When Ballard sat down in the memory chair I kept wondering if a part of him was attracted to what it promises people-- escape, loss of memory. also the whole second-life theme was interesting. Two dolls talking to each other in the park-false reality on top of false reality. and I always go back to Topher being the Joss character on the show. Being put in a position of manipulating beautiful women for profit. I think he is trying to ask questions through Topher about how to handle the concepts of feminism and identity while still trying to please the higher-ups (Fox network) of the world.

Anonymous said...

Why doesn't Topher program the actives to ignore the menacing omnipresent black van? WHY?

Anonymous said...

Sigh, I fail in motivation to watch next week. Epitaph brought me back but that just set my expectations at a sensible middle and it's seriously failing.

Even the benefit of seeing Topher punched once a week is not enough satisfaction for all his smarmy WRONGness.

Job made no sense, security is apparently as good as it is over on House, totally cheesy on the 10 seconds of lightning out of nowhere deal, GAH!

-EmeraldLiz