Saturday, May 2, 2009

episode: dollhouse, "briar rose" (1.11)

I recently bought a wonderful book by Dan Gilbert called Stumbling on Happiness, which essentially looks at various ways people encounter, define, and categorizes feelings and levels of happiness. (It is by no means a guide on obtaining happiness, but rather a psychoanalytic exploration into the human condition.) I just finished a section on subjectivity and happiness, and what is relevant to my review of Dollhouse is that (1) these past few episodes are superior episodes, but (2) only when comparing them to earlier episodes. I am still not convinced that Dollhouse is a good show (and deserves a second season), but I am certain that it is getting better. Instead of reviewing this episode as a stand-alone, I'm going to look at the specific issues(*) I have with the show, all of which could have been avoided if Whedon and Co. had merely written second drafts.

(*) Admittedly, I seem a lot angrier than I actually am. I do enjoy the show (well enough), and there are some good things to recommend it. I just feel like Whedon and Co. could have a much stronger show on their hands if they had thought more about the characters and less about the overall arc of the season. Well-conceived plot means very little when you're surrounded by egotistical and ever-changing characters. There's no foundation on which I should build my Care House.

1. Ballard: At the beginning of the series, I think both Agent Ballard and Boyd Langton, Echo's handler, were supposed to be the characters with whom the audience would identify. Ballard -- played, as much as I hate to admit it, kind of one-note by the otherwise fantastic Tahmoh Penikett (Helo from BSG) -- was an FBI agent seeking justice. Who wouldn't support that kind of selfless and morally righteous mission? Well, Ballard became obsessed with finding and freeing Caroline -- his own Briar Rose complex -- and lost his badge, as well as some of the moral righteousness. Ballard is now a character who is so self-involved and hellbent on finding Caroline that it's more about his sexual infatuation with her and less about the ethically-challenged purpose of the Dollhouse. As someone who does not find grotesque infatuation charming, I have to admit that my emotional attachment to this character is waning. And this thought is continued with the star-crossed pairing of...

2. Ballard and Mellie: Now, I like the idea of Mellie, but I find the actress who plays her (Miracle Laurie) to be so annoyingly sweet that she actually leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. Also, the misogynistic undertones of her scenes are alarming -- especially considering this character comes from the mind of Joss Whedon, who gave us Buffy Summers and Zoë Washburne, two of the greatest representations of modern femininity. Last week, Mellie told Ballard that she would continue loving him even if he didn't love her back (though not in these words), and that she would basically allow him to take whatever he needed of her. Those are words of an emotionally abused woman, no? Of course, this statement comes after Ballard discovers she's an active doll and so the scene has a level of sadness to it -- the audience knows her love for him is an imprint, and isn't it sad that "November" won't ever know that love(**) -- but then BALLARD SLEEPS WITH HER. He has angry, passionate sex with her, and it's just downright creepy. There's nothing sad about her situation. There's nothing about this pairing that makes me root for Ballard in any way, shape, or form. Did he feel betrayed by Mellie (and by extension, the Dollhouse)? Sure. Was he angry? Yep. But he flat out took advantage of Mellie/November, and it made me physically ill.

(**) It would have been a very intriguing development if Mellie had killed herself post-Ballard's rejection. What if her handler hadn't saved her? Because he did save her, we don't really have an objection to the Dollhouse because we know that the handlers will always be there to protect the actives. But what if he hadn't saved her? What if she took pills or put a gun to her head? The show can be ethically ambiguous, that's fine, but there should be less glorification of becoming an active. We see these dolls living a wonderful, zen-like existence, free of worry or anxiety. Why wouldn't someone sign up for that? So what if Mellie had killed herself? Then the loss of subjectivity and conscious decisions become the major ethical focus.

Fast forward to this week's "Briar Rose" episode where Ballard discovers November in the sleeping pod... and then leaves her there. I'm sorry -- WHAT? Ballard is far too obsessed with freeing Caroline, a woman he hardly knows (which thus points to his infatuation being sexual), that he can't also attempt to free November? "Mellie" may be fictitious, but certainly Ballard feels some physical connection with the body who shared his apartment and his bed. Surely Ballard looks at the body of November and recognizes something familiar. Surely Ballard would opt to save her over Caroline. Surely... oh wait, no. Why? Because Ballard has been turned into a one-trick pony. He has been oversimplified and reduced to a one-track Caroline-inspired mission. And I just can't support these writing decisions. Whedon and Co. could have done so much more with his journey.

3. Eliza Dushku: I've said it before and I'll say it again. Dushku should not be center of this show. She's not a versatile actress, her delivery is almost always awkward (and can't be funny to save her life), and her body has become a site of exploitation by the good execs at FOX. Out of all of Dushku's outfits, this one pissed me off the most. (Seriously, I almost broke my TV I was so angry.) But Dushku's not entirely at fault for her general mediocrity; Caroline's a boring character to play. Seriously, the main doll -- the one that we are supposed to care about the most -- signed up for the Dollhouse because her boyfriend was killed during a save-the-lab-rats mission? Wait... she cares about animals? That's how Caroline is introduced to us? Even Mellie had a better backstory (her child died). Dushku plays Echo well with childlike simplicity, but she's not a strong enough actress to pull off a new personality every week -- and I don't think I want to spend an episode with Caroline again. At this point, I don't care if Caroline ever makes it out -- and isn't the whole point that I care about her making it out?

4. Topher-as-Xander/Wash: According to what I've read throughout these "series of tubes," everyone unanimously hates Topher. I think Topher was conceived as a Xander (Buffy) or Wash (Firefly) character. He's supposed to be manic, insecure, and offer the most comedic relief. The problem is Topher is more intellectually-insecure and less emotionally-insecure, so he just comes off as being preoccupied with himself and his own creations. Almost everything he says is either technological exposition (brain scans, imprints, etc.) or some reference to his genius. It's pathetic and it's annoying. Even last week's episode, where Sierra is imprinted to be Topher's friend, was intended to humanize him and it just reminded us why he doesn't have any friends. Like Ballard, he's too much of a one-note character. I have nothing against Fran Kranz, but he doesn't have the self-deprecation of Nicholas Brendan or the (purely genius) comedic delivery of Alan Tudyk (who should, from here on out, be cast in everything).

5. Where's the Whedon-Funny? "Briar Rose" is the first time I've laughed at an intentionally comedic moment on the show, and almost all of my laughter was a reaction to Alan Tudyk. (One particular storyline from Firefly that always makes me laugh -- "There's obeying going on right under my nose!") In fact, Tudyk as Kepler was so outright entertaining -- and do I dare say magical? -- that I was not looking forward to the inevitable upcoming twist. (I learned that Tudyk was coming on board to play the elusive Alpha, but I was so convinced of his performance as the ecologist Kepler that I hoped perhaps the internets had tricked me and Tudyk was actually signed on to play a hyper-paranoid god of comedy.) Some highlights:
Did you know Earth Day was last week? Earth gets one day.... You know what I think? I think that once we die out, in a couple hundred years, Earth is gonna have a People Day.

We're here? So soon? Let's go around the block! This is like one of those buddy-cop movies where you're the hard-boiled cop and I'm the guy who hates buddy-cop movies!
7. Without a screen surrogate (the "emotional center"), the Dollhouse is just creepy. Boyd is now the head of security -- after Dominic was sent to "the Attic" -- and now he's no longer Echo's handler. Without that paternal relationship, I have no reason to care about Boyd or Echo. And there are some rumblings that Boyd is some sort of spy, which, to me, would be a lazy justification for why a "good" guy is working for the "bad" Dollhouse. (I feel like the labeling of people and things are way too simple, and further, the constant switching back and forth between good and evil is mentally exhausting. Kind of like the Benjamin Linus debate on Lost.) So... Ballard's a sick bastard (who only cares about Caroline, for whatever unknown reason), and Boyd has been advanced in the professional ladder at the Dollhouse. I really don't know who I'm supposed to care about... or why. Is the Dollhouse creepy? Sure, I think so, but I have a Masters degree that provides me with terms like philosophical zombie, objectification (instrumentality, denial of autonomy, fungibility, dehumanization), and sentience. But the Dollhouse can be used for good (which was attempted with the "Briar Rose" story-of-the-week and certainly with Miss Lonelyheart's storyline), but it seems like the possibility of the conceived Dollhouse being good is so unanimously wrong that the writers are not going to flesh out a storyline in which we root for Adelle DeWitt. She's cold-hearted and lonely and cruel... but couldn't she be trying to make the world a better place? Couldn't she believe in that? Are we ever going to see an episode where the merits of the Dollhouse far outweigh the creepiness factor?


Michelle said...

I believe Topher is more like Warren than either Xander or Wash. He's immature, he lacks a moral foundation, and his storyline from last weeks episode mimicked Warren's in I Was Made to Love You from Buffy Season 5.

Sadly, I agree with most of your review. The saddest part for me is that Boyd no longer holds the paternal role that I liked so much at the beginning. And yeah, it is pretty creepy the way Ballard left Mellie in her pod. WTF was that about?

keyser soze said...

Your connection to Warren is very astute and makes a lot of sense, but I can't tell if Whedon wants us to like or dislike Topher. Topher has a lot of qualities of the "Whedon Geek" (Xander, Wash, Jonathan), but it's so easy to dislike him. I wonder if Topher has a Warren-esque sadistic to him...?

As for "I Was Made to Love You," good eye. The big difference, of course, is that Warren created a sex machine, whereas Topher just wanted a friend with whom to share a birthday cupcake. The comparison in plots is good -- I agree that both were trying to humanize these lonely characters -- but knowing what happens with Warren later on, it's hard not to look at "I Was Made to Love You" and see nothing but a creepy ick factor.

Lastly, with Mellie, I blame this on lazy writing. Before Ballard goes into the Dollhouse with Kepler, he makes the comment that Mellie told him she couldn't be trusted... blah blah... that he would have to come back for her later. And I just don't think that served as a reasonable justification for leaving her behind.

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