Welcome to the 'Dollhouse'

In the world of commercial television today, a new program can debut pretty much any time of year.  No longer must we wait for September (er, October). January, February, even June can be the starting point for your new favorite program.

Case in point: “Dollhouse,” which started on FOX in February.  “Dollhouse” tells the story of “Echo” (Eliza Dushku), a young woman who agrees to become the instrument of the mysterious “Dollhouse” corporation for five years, to make up for some unexplained debt or wrongdoing.  And here “instrument” becomes a quite fundamental term: Echo’s former life and personality are filed away on a hard drive somewhere and erased from her mind, to be replaced on a regular basis with new personalities, traits, skills--“Now I know Kung-Fu!”--that meet the requests of the company’s clients. One day she’s a detective; another day she’s a hot biker chick; a third she’s a stone cold killer. At the end of each encounter, her mind is wiped back to a blank slate, and she and fellow dolls wander their palatial residence in a doelike stupor.

From a writing standpoint, “Dollhouse” is an unusual project. Television is all about character arc and conflict; writers establish a character, run them up a tree, throw bricks at them and watch to see how they cope. Even on a plot heavy show like “24” or “Law & Order,” viewers are still following the decisions and dilemmas of characters.  How do you do that when the main character has, well, no character? The answer is, it’s not easy; the first few episodes were intermittently interesting at best. Yet over the course of weeks, the reality of Echo’s situation begins to draw us in. Even when she’s just made to be a sexy girl having a good time, the viewer cannot help but be aware that she’s still a pawn, a damsel in distress. Two strong secondary characters, her protective handler and a police officer hunting down the mysterious Dollhouse corporation, underline this sense of outrage.

The other question so far is, what’s the show about?  Creator Joss Whedon is an incredible talent who likes to tell big, zany stories that have heart and also depth. His “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” brought an original take not only to vampire stories but high school (who knew high school could literally be hell?). “Buffy” spinoff “Angel” was an often brooding meditation on redemption, heroism and the possibility of real change.  And his most recent project, the wonderful online musical “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog”--go to Hulu.com and watch it right now--again mixed comedy and scifi with drama and tough questions about the possibility of love and nature of heroism in a cynical, media-saturated society.

“Dollhouse,” on the other hand, much like Echo herself, is so far a bit of a cipher. Maybe it’s about human trafficking, or broader speaking the growing social acceptability of treating human beings as objects.  Maybe it’s about a horrible vacuity embedded in today’s pop star version of the American dream, the consequences of imagining that I can be anybody I want to be. Personally, I think it’s trying to say something about the inviolability of human dignity; no matter how blank a slate a person is, or how much she gives up on herself, she still has undeniable value and demands respect. People can ignore that, and, man, are they scummy. But the demand is still there.

In the wake of the Holocaust, Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote Totality and Infinity, a daunting title and challenging read, which argues that human beings tend to “totalize,” that is, we try to interpret everything around us in terms of our own categories. Objects can’t resist that effort; we can make of them what we want. But other human beings deny us that move. They are always more than we could possibly encapsulate or co-opt. Consider the living, active human face, he asks. It’s always changing, always at least a little inscrutable. It resists total definition. When we stare into the face of another, we find ourselves before something like us, and yet radically other.  And what’s more we discover the horrifying fact that we’ve been trying to box them in, to deny them their limitless humanity. 

It’s not exactly clear what Whedon is up to with “Dollhouse,” which is a bit of a bad sign. When it comes to entertainment, we have so many options; how long will people stick around to see if this one’s worth watching?  Then again, maybe that insatiable desire to be stimulated immediately is exactly Whedon’s point.

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