Jenifer Rosenberg, a freelance artist/writer from New York and an active contributor at comicmix.com, is our guest editor this week. She gives us a perspective and review of the first season of “Dollhouse,” the Fox TV show that airs Friday nights at 9 p.m. ET.
When I first heard about “Dollhouse,” I thought it was going to be a “Mission Impossible” and “Matrix” hybrid where special ops people would be programmed with the specific skillset to complete a mission. Upon watching the first aired episode, “Ghost,” I was not only disappointed, but horrified. The Dollhouse turned out to be a sort of human wish-fulfillment center which housed beautiful people whose memories and personalities have been erased so that they can be programmed to become whatever the wealthy person who orders them would like. It was clear from this episode that the “dolls” were frequently programmed for sexual encounters.
It was also clear in the first episode that the main character, Echo (played by Eliza Dushku of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Tru Calling” fame), did not wish to sign up for the dollhouse but felt that she was being given no choice. When you think of a person being put in sexual situations despite not wanting to be there and having their memories of these situations erased so that they can be sent off to the next high bidder, only one word comes to mind: rape.
The first episode was very traumatic to watch, but as a long-time Joss Whedon fan and someone who tries to give every show a chance for three strikes before giving up, I kept with the show. The second episode, “The Target,” began as another fantasy date scenario for the protagonist, but things quickly became violent as the situation became dangerous. It was at this time that I was asked if I would participate in a panel discussing the show at an upcoming convention. I agreed, and kept watching the show so that I would be current on the subject matter. Since I was going to be speaking about the show, I also started paying attention to the advertisements aired by FOX. I found those ads uncomfortable to watch, because the point of the spots was “Look at this hot, sexy woman! She could be whatever you want!” – so while I had wondered if Whedon’s intention for the show might be to show how flawed society becomes and the obsession it has with controlling people, FOX was marketing the creepy sex toy aspect of the series.
While keeping up with the series, I began to find that there were aspects of the show which weren’t that bad, and that the secondary characters were proving interesting. It started to become clear that there were things going on that were bigger than just the individual “dolls” being sent out for engagements, and many of the dolls were beginning to show at least a small amount of awareness of their surroundings, so they weren’t as zombified as they had been in the beginning. Part of the premise of the show is that a former “doll” went rogue after being mis-programmed, and is out to expose the dollhouse. The mystery surrounding the escapee, Alpha, and the continued hope that the characters who care about the welfare of the “dolls” will find a way to save them, kept the momentum going. With the emergence of small traces of personality in the dolls, you also begin to see some aspects of humanity within the people running the Dollhouse, where previously only the doctor (Amy Acker) and Echo’s Handler, Boyd (Harry J. Lennix), showed any signs of empathy within the compound. There is also a secondary plotline where an FBI agent (Tahmoh Penikett) tries to find and expose the Dollhouse, despite professional backlash and a startling lack of traceable evidence. I found that I was rooting for the “good guys” and finding a little less to hate about some of the “bad guys” and, FOX’s advertising and the continued sexual assignments of the dolls aside, I was starting to enjoy the show.
On March 20, the episode “Man on the Street” aired. I was already at my convention and participating on a different panel at the air time, so I missed the episode (as did the other participants on the “Dollhouse” panel, slated for the following day). The panel was well-attended, with a good mix of men and women from a variety of backgrounds in the audience. During the panel, I mentioned my concerns about the rape aspect of the show, and how the way it was being marketed seemed to condone that behavior. Most of the women (and many of the men) in the audience seemed to agree with me. There were a handful of men who insisted that the “dolls” had signed up willingly (despite evidence to the contrary in the first episode) and knew what they were getting into. One guy in the audience told me point blank that I would “really enjoy” the episode I had missed, and that he thought I would be happy with it. I went home hopeful that the show had turned over a new leaf. In a way it had, because instead of hinting at rape, there was actual blatant rape and violent attempted rape. The episode was so violently traumatic I was actually in tears. From an intellectual perspective, I could see that the show was making a point about humanity and the way society behaves, the way that we objectify others. I felt that the writers probably had great intentions when writing the episode, and hoped to make people consider what they were thinking and doing and how they treated others. Seeing as how the ratings for the show dropped after that episode, however, the stories might have just gotten too violent for too many viewers (see Wikipedia’s list of episodes for ratings information in the links on this page).
Since then, I have kept up with the show, and we have gotten to see more about the backgrounds of the dolls and some of the people who work at the Dollhouse. The dolls are becoming more individual and more human, and the show has improved greatly. As a viewer, I find myself watching intently for little clues about who’s who and what everyone’s intentions and goals may be. The show has gone from being an uncomfortable program to watch to being something I want to keep up with. It’s kind of sad that I had to get through more than half of the season to see this, and unlike many shows, I don’t think I would be comfortable going back and re-watching the first six episodes. FOX continues to advertise the show as if it were all about the sexual aspect, and they are no doubt pleasing more than a few sociopaths with this take, while alienating a wider (and especially female) audience. That said, it has become a show that can really make one reflect on the values held by society as well as the choices we make in life as individuals.
If you aren’t into thinking existentially about your television shows, it is also full of action and suspense, and viewers can have a great time trying to piece together the mysteries and cheering on the good guys. And perhaps, after the show has been driven into the ground through inaccurate advertising and a bad time-slot, people will view it on DVD (including the un-aired original pilot, which FOX wanted scrapped in favor of the triggering first episode aired) and grow to appreciate the cultural commentary made by the series.