Joss Whedon, 2009-2010

Last time I wrote about how Breaking Bad fell into a trap endemic to American television series: it kicked off with a nifty beginning, but then instead of proceeding to the ending, turned into a shaggy dog story as renewal after renewal stretched out the middle indefinitely. Dollhouse didn't have that problem.

No, Dollhouse had other problems. Before it even began, the creators found themselves in conflict with Fox; the original pilot was tossed and replaced with a significantly inferior one; the second episode sucked; and by the time the series finally found its footing, its ratings were, like, under the toilet. It came as a major surprise when the show got picked up for another half-season, and it was pretty well understood that, barring a miracle, that would be that: Whedon and company had thirteen episodes to tell their story. The pony failed to appear, the show was canceled, and thus we got to see what happens when TV writers have to cram several years' worth of storylines into two months' worth of shows rather than the other way around. It was kind of exhilarating.

There was one episode in particular that was rather striking, and I got about halfway through the first draft of this paragraph before realizing that perhaps not everyone reading this has seen the nineteen episodes that preceded it. So, a quick recap. The premise of Dollhouse, as introduced in the first season, is that under a skyscraper in Los Angeles is a complex inhabited by a few dozen "dolls." These are people who have signed over five years of their lives, during which their minds are wiped. They spend most of their time in a seemingly lobotomized state, participating in various spa activities and having affectless, simplistic conversations ("I like pancakes"). But every so often one or more of them will be summoned to the big chair that imprints them with different personalities. Most often they are designed to be dream dates for ultra-rich clients, but they also frequently get loaded up with combat skills and sent on black ops missions. The protagonist was a doll named Echo, played by Eliza Dushku, and initially the series looked like an inverted version of Quantum Leap — instead of her mind jumping from body to body, Echo's body played host each episode to a different mind. As the basis for an anthology show, that premise could play out indefinitely.

Jump forward to the seventh episode of season two. In the previous installment, Echo, minus an imprint, had removed her tracking devices and escaped. The story resumes with Echo still in doll state, trying to survive, having a run-in with the cops, recalling an imprint, getting away. We jump forward in time. Now Echo, no longer in doll state, works at a hospital as a nurse. When she returns home we learn that she's spent the last three months training with Paul Ballard, the FBI agent who had tried to expose the Dollhouse for most of season one. She also now has the ability to recall any of her previous imprints at will, though she's prone to crippling headaches as a result. As she and Paul try to rescue an abused female prisoner, it becomes pretty clear that this was meant to be the status quo for an entire season. Partnering with Paul, gaining the random-access ability, the headaches... all of these would have been slowly introduced over the course of several episodes. There would have been many altruistic adventures rather than this one jailbreak. But with the show canceled, the entire story arc instead begins and ends in under an hour. And while covering all that ground in one episode may have been a little too fast, I couldn't help but think, man, better one than twenty-two. That was another premise that could have played out indefinitely, but we had the idea and it was time to move on.

You might well ask, what's the point of watching the series at all, or any series for that matter, if it's such a chore that you'd rather watch as few episodes as possible? And to me that question calls to mind Pattern 25, which suggests that movies and TV tend to be experience delivery systems more than they are stories. What experience did Dollhouse promise that kept us tuning in? Well, what was its most successful moment? My answer, and from what I saw on Twitter that of a lot of other people as well, would be when the mind of scientist Topher Brink was loaded into the body of the active called Victor, allowing actor Enver Gjokaj to unleash a scarily dead-on impression of actor Fran Kranz. One commenter on my list called it the best impression he'd ever seen anyone do of anyone. It really was as if Topher's mind had jumped bodies. Dollhouse needed more of that.

For one of the criticisms of the show early on was this: who wants to follow a bunch of characters who act either (a) radically different than they did last week or (b) like they're under hypnosis? I do, actually, but for those who find this a problem, I think I have a solution. Here's how I would have done Dollhouse, assuming that I owned the network and didn't have to rush everything for fear of being canceled before the setups could pay off:

First, every actor cast as an active would have to be a chameleon like Gjokaj. That means Dushku would have to go — she always seemed like the same person no matter whom she was playing.

The premise would not be given away for quite a while. At first all we'd know is that there's a mysterious agency that supplies people to perform all manner of services. Each episode we'd meet a new operative in the lead role, and each would take place in a wildly different genre: one week you'd get a war story with lots of stuff blowing up, the next a lighthearted romantic comedy, the next a tale of high-stakes international diplomacy, etc. This would be the most difficult stretch to get through, because these episodes would have to stand on their own — without the behind-the-scenes sequences to add interest, they'd have to be really good. But then, perhaps just in time for November sweeps, we'd get the watershed installment: one of the previous actors would return, this time playing a different one of the characters we'd met. Like, maybe the shy girl from the "socially inept dotcom geek finds true love" episode returns, only this time she's the one in Afghanistan shooting down helicopters. Do one or two of these, and then finally the big reveal with the sleep pods and the communal shower and the imprinting chair. And then we'd start seeing multiple actives per episode, each time with shuffled personalities.

How would this solve the "acting different every week" problem, to the extent that it's a problem? The answer is that there wouldn't be different characters every week — there'd be a consistent group of characters we'd get to know, only each week they'd be in different bodies. They'd be rolled out slowly, but by the end of the season I imagine we could have a dozen or two. And so when, a couple of years down the line, one of the actives gained the ability to call up any of the personalities she'd been imprinted with, it wouldn't just be a line when she said "I have forty people in here with me." It would be forty people whom we knew, a lot better than we ever got to know Eleanor Penn or Esther Carpenter.

As a measure of how cool this could be, consider the DC Comics character Black Alice. Introduced by Gail Simone in Birds of Prey #76, she is a teenage goth with the power to transform herself into a goth-girl version of any magical character in the DC Universe. She first changes herself into Dr. Fate, then Zatanna, and that's cool enough... but then comes the part when she catches her boyfriend cheating on her, and as she storms away he chases after her, telling her that she brought this on herself and otherwise berating her, and after a few panels of this she wheels around and, stretched past her breaking point, shouts: "SHAZAM!" And as I read this, I thought, "Oh, shit." Because I don't know much about the DC Universe, but one thing I do know is that that word means one hellacious power-up. In retrospect, it was the only way that scene could have gone, but because DC has thousands of magical characters, I never saw it coming. The sadly untapped power of Dollhouse was that it could have done the same sort of thing. Even with only a few actives and a couple dozen imprints, you'd have enough potential combinations to keep the show running for many seasons. Much as Black Alice remains interesting because every appearance there's the chance to see the goth-girl version of Amethyst or Wonder Woman or the Spectre or...

One of the elements of interactive fiction that makes it simultaneously fun and daunting to create is combinatorial explosion: every time you add a new verb you have to figure out how it should affect every object, and every time you add a new object you have to figure out how it should react to every verb. And you have to figure out how these interactions should differ depending on which character is performing the action. And in which location. (For instance, one of the fun parts of programming Narcolepsy was figuring out how all the different non-player characters should react when you squeeze the talking iguana in their presence.) Dollhouse could have taken advantage of this: every week we could have thrilled to new and unexpected combinations of actives and imprints. "Squeee! They put Topher's brain in Juliett this week!" Now, would my version have been been any more popular with viewers or, for that matter, with Fox execs? No idea. But I would have enjoyed it more.

And that's what I have to say about Dollhouse. Shall I go now?

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