Monday, October 18, 2010

Dollhouse Season 2 and the State of TV

I am just plain fascinated by the TV landscape these days.

Well, let me revise that: Mostly I’m fascinated by TV viewers these days, and how much the landscape of TV has changed as the big four channels do anything an everything to hold onto the fractional number of viewers they still have.

To wit: Veronica Mars. Easily one of the best TV shows of the last ten years. Top ten probably, and at the very least top 20. But so-so ratings, so they canned it. Off the CW.

Today, as I type this, the highest-rated show on the CW doesn’t even approach the number Mars was getting at it’s lowest point.

And yet, no one will fund a Veronica Mars movie. Or a Veronica Mars TV movie. Or a web show. Or anything related to Veronica Mars, because there just isn’t that much interest.


It’s reading things like that which cause me a twinge of sadness when I think about one of my favorite shows of the last couple of years: Dollhouse.

You might ask how I decide what constitutes a favorite show, and I’ll go ahead and tell you: My willingness to put down cash for it once I’ve watched it already.

I enjoy TV, to a certain extent, but I’m reaching a point in my life where I’ve come to realize there are certain things I’m just never going to go back and watch again. This includes most of the shows I’m watching right now. How I Met Your Mother. The Big Bang Theory. The Vampire Diaries. Glee. Modern Family. I like these shows. I like them enough to give them my time even though trying to scratch out an hour a week to watch them is getting harder and harder (it’s called parenting, folks).

But I don’t feel compelled to own them. I don’t feel compelled to bring them into my home on a permanent basis, in hopes that I can check ‘em out again. I have no interest.

Dollhouse was different.

People were hard on Dollhouse from the get-go, based on the fact that it wasn’t awesome right off the bat. Frankly, that didn’t surprise me. Both Buffy and Angel, Whedon’s best-known work, were slow to perfect themselves, and Joss Whedon had complete freedom to make whatever he wanted there.

With Dollhouse, that wasn’t the case. Fox bought Dollhouse, sunk a bunch of cash into it, and then wanted… something else. And Joss was nice about it. He admitted what he felt were mistakes. He shot a new pilot. He made changes to the format.

Then he shut the whole thing down, so he could “think.”

I’d like to imagine that somewhere in there, while he was “thinking,” he was actually calling Fox and telling them that what they wanted wasn’t really a sustainable show. He was making Charlie’s Angels, but with mind-wipes. And mind-wipes are creepy. They are.

I’m guessing Fox didn’t want to own up to that, and Joss gave them a choice – they had to let him actually create a real show, or Joss was going to walk, because he couldn’t make a weekly Charlie’s Angels with mind-wipes.

And Fox said, “Whatever, we’ll make our money on DVD…”

And Joss did a bunch of interviews that went, “Hey, starting with episode 6, things are going to be good, you’ll see!”

And everyone toed the party line.

The thing of it is, Whedon was both right and wrong. (At least, this fictional Whedon I created in my own head, here.)

Dollhouse was a good show, right out of the gate. The mind-wipes were creepy, yes, but The Weekly Adventures of Echo were fun and twisty, and there was clearly a bigger story around the edges of the frame.

Then the first season ended. And ended again on DVD. And the series was over. Until it was, shockingly, renewed.

At which point, all the details of the ending had to be explained again, with more episodes, more surprises, and in general a lot more grim, grim darkness. And then the show ended. And ended again.

And this time, it stayed ended.

I’m loathe to reveal the true nature of the show – the original pitch line was that it was about people who could be rented for any kind of adventure… after which their mind would be wiped. And that’s really all you want to know before diving in.

I’d say that there’s so much more to the show, but that’s almost overselling it. The show is like a good novel – each chapter gives you a little more, until the genuinely shocking ending… which will make you want to start all over again.

At least, I do.

That’s my high praise, really: The show is worth watching again, just to pick it apart and look to see if all the clues were really there.

I know people do this with other shows, but I’m here to tell you, you’re wasting your time. People on other shows don’t look that far ahead.

But Joss does. Always has. And that makes Dollhouse worth a second look. Or at the very least, a first look.