Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Closing Its Doors. For Good.

During the airing of Dollhouse's series finale on Friday night, Fox cut off the show in the middle of what I can only assume was the final scene. Considering this show's short, tumultuous history, what could have been more appropriate?

Dollhouse should not have had a second season. The show's ratings were consistently in the toilet. Countless shows have gotten sacked after one or two episodes with the sort of ratings Dollhouse invariably received over its 25 episode run on Fox. Perhaps the folks at the network felt guilty about their idiotic treatment of Joss Whedon's last show, Firefly. Perhaps they knew that Whedon's rabid fanbase would guarantee great DVD sales. Perhaps they had lower expectations in this age of internet, video games and cable TV. Regardless, Dollhouse's improbably long run had nothing to do with the show's quality. It was too damn inconsistent to sell on the grounds that it was a critical hit. Time and again, Dollhouse would make fools of pundits like me, following moments of genuine brilliance with disastrous stumbles. So, now that the show has reached a finale that was as much of a mixed bag as ever, how much will the show really be missed?

After the First Season ended on an extremely high note, I, like many others, was convinced that Dollhouse had found its groove. Mr. Keeley reviewed the Second Season premiere, "Vows," as a newcomer to the series and approved of it – with a few reservations. Those reservations were not misplaced and, for viewers of the First Season, the episode's flaws were disconcerting. "Vows" displayed far too many of the issues that plagued the series' earliest episodes, as I explain later in that post myself. With the following episode, "Instinct," the series bottomed out. An absolutely boneheaded premise was coupled with little-to-no advancement of any major plotlines.

I was already wondering if I would bother to watch the next episode. The realization that Dollhouse would never be a consistently good show dawned on me.

This is partly why the episode that came three weeks later was such a revelation. To call "Belonging" bold is an understatement. It told the story of Priya (Dichen Lachman), a young woman who is the object of a self-indulgent doctor's desires. This doctor, Nolan Kinnard (Vincent Ventresca), tries to sweep Priya off of her feet upon meeting her, but she quickly comes to hate his decadent lifestyle. After she publicly rejects him, he hatches a complex plan with a simple goal: enslaving her. The result is that Priya becomes Sierra, a doll whom he buys on a regular basis – a doll imprinted as a pliable, approving version of Priya.

If most network television dramas made their darkest qualities so plainly visible as Dollhouse did in this episode, they would be be cancelled. Only the show's lack of popularity can explain why Fox was allowed to air this, one of the most horrifying hours of television I have ever seen. For, as sick as the premise is, the unmitigated moral ambiguity of its conclusion is what leaves the deepest mark. When Topher (Fran Kranz), the Dollhouse's typically amoral scientist, discovers Sierra's true origins, Nolan is exposed. Nolan demands exclusive use of Sierra by threatening to use his power to destroy the Dollhouse. Topher is forced to comply. Instead of giving Nolan his version of Priya, however, he secretly imprints her with her original personality. He explains the situation to her and, powerless to help any further, gives her to Nolan.

It is not long before Nolan realizes that Priya is not as compliant as she should be. With this realization, he attempts to rape her. She fights back and kills him. Topher, still concerned for her, finds her in shock next to Nolan's body. In order to save both Priya and himself from punishment, he is forced to dispose of Nolan's body by cutting it into pieces. The experience leaves Topher emotionally decimated. The moment when he is forced to wipe the mind of Priya – a person for whom he has come to deeply care – is perhaps even more painful. This character once embodied the gleefully amoral scientific progress that defines the Dollhouse. With the conclusion of this episode, however, he had borne all of the pain and horror that his work could cause.

It is tough to hate a show that can be this good.

Soon after "Belonging" aired, the Dollhouse cast and crew must have learned that the show would not be back for a third season. This is evident in the marked change of pace that occurs after this episode. Suddenly, what seemed like seasons worth of plot was being poured into a few episodes.

Rarely do viewers get to experience the work of a group of talented writers who are holding nothing back. This led to a run of several good episodes, a few of which rank among the best of the series. The world of Dollhouse was deepened. The characters were developed further. The plot moved with the sort of self-assurance that only a show with its end in sight can. Even some of the vagaries and weak spots from earlier in the series were revisited and improved. It was apparent that Dollhouse was set for a fantastic finale... until "The Hollow Men" came along.

This, the penultimate episode, was a veritable mess. A huge twist that suddenly cast Boyd (Harry Lennix), a beloved hero of the Dollhouse universe, as the chief villain of the series backfired in countless ways. Nothing in his newly-revealed, evil plot explained away 24 episodes of unwavering heroism, and the purpose of that evil plot was never coherently explained. Furthermore, the episode threatened to sully what brilliance came before it. The revelation about Boyd not only provided a wildly unsatisfying end for a consistently enigmatic character, but it cast a shadow over all of his previous actions; the severe damage done to Boyd was retroactive. Also, the idea that a show as morally complex as Dollhouse could boil the solution to all of its plot threads down to killing one villain and destroying one computer mainframe was downright laughable.

"The Hollow Men" was clearly a casualty of dwindling budgets and quickly approaching deadlines. Most of the episode had the usually-excellent cast running around a series of generic hallways, barely able to hide their confusion as they performed scenes that had little consistency with the nuanced characters they had worked so hard to build. This was a letdown of the high order of Neon Genesis Evangelion's finale. While the episode was thankfully not Dollhouse's last, the bad taste it left will remain a reminder of how the show was inconsistent to the very end.

The series finale was far more satisfying. While it did create a few plotholes for the sake of bringing characters together, it remained true to the theme, tone and characters of Dollhouse; under the circumstances, it was the best farewell for which fans could have asked.

There is much for which fans of Dollhouse can be thankful. That the series got a second season, much less a chance to provide closure is something of a miracle. Fox was downright charitable in letting the series continue as long as it did. The Second Season had a number of truly fantastic episodes that easily overcame the few bombs. Nevertheless, being a fan of Dollhouse was an abusive experience. Dollhouse may have improved over its mediocre first episodes, but it never gained stability. When it was good, it thrilled like no other show could, but that rendered its disappointments all the more painful. That is why perhaps the greatest thing for which fans should be thankful is that the show has finally come to an end. In the afterlife of DVD, those disappointments can be omitted with the press of a button.

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