Guys and Dolls



As Micole says, I have no political justification for liking it.

But I can’t help but watch it.  I suppose you’ve seen one post, you’ve seen them all, but I have something to say, so I’m gonna say it.  Behind a cut (apologies to those on the feed) for spoilers because I am Nice about things like that.  But before I get to the feminism and cultural appropriation pings, a few words from my film/TV analysis/fangirl side.  

I found the Dollhouse pilot to be like the start of a Russell T Davies Doctor Who plot arc; that is, it inspired a lot of possibilities in my mind, came up with a lot of questions that seem difficult to answer in terms of cohesive plot.   Unfortunately, the potential answers I came up with will almost certainly be more interesting to me than the actual resolution of the storyline.  Which sucks, because Dollhouse is, for some reason, really interesting to me on a sheerly conceptual level, but only, I think, because I am a big pedantic SF geek.

The pacing of this episode is ridiculously bad for a 21st century television series, even a new one, and I’m stunned that someone with three series under his belt wrote and directed it.  The action sequences are either too long or too short, and the exposition seems hamhanded.  Some of this can be possibly because this ep wasn’t supposed to be the pilot…but that only forgives so much.

Dushku is awkward, and that’s all there is to it.  Either she knew the script was like a big walking cliché or she’s just not that good an actress unless given a singular direction.  Unlike some critics, I found Tahmoh Penikett to be rather good, the little (or lot, physically) that we saw of his character.  He’s very quietly angry, a very contained but simmering rage, which works for him.  (I would like to know if this character is meant to be a POC or if he’s been whitewashed.  Both options provide some nasty issues.)  Harry Lennix’s Langton is also rather good and probably the only character that actually convinced me momentarily of his emotional investment.

Also like RTD, it becomes abundantly clear that Joss apparently can’t write outside of his box.  Anything snappy and smartass or pulp fiction is fantastic–it shows, as we know, that he’s a comic book geek–but Dollhouse is meant to be SRS BSNSS SF, and therefore when he defaults to stereotype characters and situations, it’s stale instead of funny and enlightening.

And he defaults to stereotypes a lot.  As I noted at Hoyden, I had tropes thrown at me right left and center:
– an inexplicably orientalized nightclub.
– a hardass foreign businessman who loves his daughter terribly and speaks half of the time in his native language. (Apparently the Spanish, like the Mandarin in Firefly, is really off.)  And gets shot.
– a gorgeous yet insecure mansion.
– the frigid, locked-up victim of abuse, who collapses in the face of her abuser yet heroically saves the day and overcomes. Yes, I realize this is an imprinted personality amalgam, but it drives a good half of the episode’s plot.
– the cop-types who can’t cope with letting things go; they’re good men even if violent and hardass…and they’re both POC (or the actors are, anyhow) who get bossed around by oblivious white guys.
– the sick serial killer who liked little girls. 
– the hardass bitch in charge who thinks she’s helping humanity.
– the curious but naive ‘doll’.
– the exotic Asian woman sent in with guns blazing.
– the literally scarred doctor who tries to be an advocate. 
– and of course, the ever-present Joss stand-in.

There’s always one, and I knew it when I saw him react to Echo (who I almost wanted to call River for a second…that blank appraising look is nothing new) after she sees the woman being mapped. Topher Brink is another part of what really bothered me about Dollhouse; Whedon himself called Topher ‘cute and funny and sexy,’ with ‘a very amoral kind of point of view’.  No prizes for guessing why he likes him so much.

But if this is Whedon’s stand-in, I’m fairly disturbed.  For anyone who’s watched anything of his before, Topher takes on a lot of the structural characteristics of good-guy Joss golems we have known (e.g. Xander and Wash), and therefore loses his place as an effective counter-opinion to the overwhelming OMG THIS IS CREEPY AND WRONG that the rest of the show throws at you.  He is, as Micole points out, a sociopath.  The idea that this is the show’s creator’s self insert almost adds a sort of tacit approval factor, and that’s problematic.  ‘omfg this is wrong and people in power will get burned by using people, eventually, after causing pain.  But in the meantime, isn’t it great to get to be all kinds of sexy badass mofos in not much clothing?’

Which is really the mixed message the whole show sends. Any meaning I might have got out of the concepts was lost in the fact that the narrative plots were a distraction that ran too long and too far away from the ideas, and the visuals and the stereotypes…if we’re going to run to stereotypes, at least mock the stereotypes.  Dollhouse is taking the stereotypes seriously.

Not to mention that the theme is very much a George W. Bush era reaction piece: the people in charge are using you, they’re fucking you up and you don’t even know it–as symbolized by Echo’s busted knee–but they think it’s for the greater good…a greater good of theirs.

Which is not to say this isn’t true, but Dollhouse does it, alternatingly, in brick-to-the-head obviousness and Abrams-style hidden subtleties, unable to make up its mind about its style.  Which means everyone who’ll get it is already too aware of the issue, and the average casual viewer will miss it amidst HOT CHICKS KICKING ASS ON FOX.

Oh, and did anyone else think that the fact that Davina was held in the fridge was an easy to miss poke at Women In Refrigerators syndrome?  Either that or, in light of River’s arrival on the good ship Serenity (and Echo and the other Actives sleeping in what could basically be stylistic covered graves), something rather disturbing about Joss Whedon’s fetishes that I don’t care to think on.

Further thoughts on Dollhouse and the issue of race, which I didn’t feel equipped to fully tackle:
Karen Healey


One Response to “Guys and Dolls”

  1. 1 Otterday, and Open Thread (now Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse discussion) — Hoyden About Town

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