Monday, October 26, 2009


I have debated for a long time about whether to discuss this television show, and this past Friday's ep has decided the course now. Though ideally, I tend to edit this blog through the filter of "what if my niece(s) ever read this?", and technically, this post will be innocuous in terms of wording, the particular piece of pop culture at hand is actually frankly disturbing, and at least references stuff I'd never recommend for family entertainment.

But ...

When its remarkably exploitive ads first appeared on Fox last year, "Dollhouse" gave me several fits of the screaming heebie jeebies. Then I found out it was a Joss Whedon product.

I don't happen to number among those people for whom "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is a serious obsession, but I definitely was a fan, and I didn't even hate the notorious Season Six. I know enough about Whedon to appreciate his ensemble (this is a guy loyal to his acting troup and his crew, and I can dig that), to enjoy the dickens out of his smart humor, and to be able to give in to whatever adventure he's up for, even those which conventional wisdom dismisses as too-too, or not quite exactly right. I trust him, it's fair to say - to at least consider the implications of the naughty stuff he uses for television.

The extremely exploitive hook for the show - images of the sultry face and body of lead actress Eliza Dushku - is used to bring one into DH's "world" ... and then it is used all over again to DEAL with the implications of this exploitation (and to deal with the hook itself , for that matter; this show unabashedly uses its own tools to examine the way certain tools work on people, and it's not afraid to see that entertainment's workings on people aren't always pretty).

For those who don't know it, DH is a show about very very very pretty young people (unsurprisingly, largely female - but, surprisingly, including some significant male characters) who essentially sell their lives for a contracted period of time, to allow their consciousnesses to be uploaded and stored outside their bodies ... which then may be used for "engagements" of various kinds. As wish-fulfillment TV goes, it's pretty heady stuff.

The show never flinches both displaying and analyzing the inevitable aspects of pr*st*tution and sl*very this setup presents. It lays out in stunningly queasy detail the DH world, and the people (blank and otherwise) operating within it. Precautions are taken for the "actives" (their professional designation - only in slang/urban legend are these pretty young people referred to as "dolls") to protect their physical wellbeing at all times. A spa-like atmosphere of absolute physical luxury is maintained to house the actives when not on assignment, and every engagement is monitored on multiple levels. Clients and scenarios are screened, failsafes are prepared for both progress and outcomes of each deployment. Actives are even given military designations - Alpha, Echo, Sierra, November, Victor ...

As a world-building geek fantasy, it's entertainingly deployed itself. And the show never forgets its own role as an "active", sent out every week on assignment ... nor does it forget for whom. This show is not exclusively, but very particularly designed to "get" a certain kind of fanboy audience. The cast includes women who have become cultural bywords for a certain kind of guy, who are physically formidable specimens of feminine appeal, but who very specifically have a cache' with legions of Whedonites. I cast my comments specifically as male-oriented, not because Whedon products - and this show - is unaware of other kinds of attraction, but becuase DH knows, and knows well, its unique connection with this particular brand of male audience. It is arch beyond arch, and doesn't spare for one moment every drop of appeal it can wring out of its various levels of "cred" for this audience; all the while subverting the very magnets its using by pointing out what it is doing.

Season one Episode Six, famous in its own right for being the point where everything kicks into gear for the series, uses its very audience for its weekly guinea pig - positing a client, Patton Oswalt, who embodies much of what DH's, and Whedon's, target audience represents. He's a geek.

Keep in mind - I'm a geek-o-phile, here. I've dated this guy. More than once. I love him.

But I am aware of his un-self-aware prurience. I have used it myself on occasion, vamping to my own smaller audiences with my tongue only a little bit poking at my cheek.

And THIS is the part that speaks to another kind of wish-fulfillment, but one for another post. Stay tuned.

See what I did there? Exactly what DH does.

The great thing about this show is, it challenges the heck out of you to deal with your own tacit participation in the shocking kinds of exploitation on tap here, but it doesn't come up with pat answers, and it never resolves anything. No questions as complex as the gender and power dynamics at play here raise CAN be answered in a one-hour TV show - nor should they - nor is that even necessarily a problem, at least within the realm of watching DH.

The thing about DH is that it doesn't absolve itself any more than it does its audience, and when it deals with its own morality - and definitive lack of it - it is at its very best. This show challenges, but it also entertains like mad, and never MORE so than when it is pushing on its own bruises.

That's a really remarkable, dizzying thing. The dialogue, when it counts most - when a character attempts to assert any sort of moral superiority as they operate within this terrifying system - is at its absolute height. No scene is ever better than those depicting the man-kicks-dog dynamics of "what must be done" because of the constraints and inherent inhumanities of a system like DH's. And Friday's show abundantly illustrates this. And it was entertaining as h*ll to boot.

I've never in my life watched a show of DH's like for brutality, humor, sickening lurches, an ever-deeper and always entertaining ensemble, and absolute second-to-none entertainment. It makes me angry at times, but not *at* its production. It makes me roll my eyes happily, when it gets gleefully dippy - something it does extremely well, and effectively. It GETS me, hard, when it punches without pulling at all. I think I like it more personally than I ever did Buffy, and may even find it more entertaining to boot. I can't wait to see more.

Here's hoping the thousands of voices like mine will be heard.

Because Fox is looking at dumping the whole thing. Add this to the list of creative and challenging television one might never have thought could ever get made in this country, but did - and then tanked far too soon.

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