After reading Joss Whedon: The Biography by Amy Pascale (which was wonderful in case you're wondering), I decided to revisit some of my favorite Whedon works. I watched Serenity, some random episodes of Buffy and Angel, and The Avengers. Then, I decided to go back and rewatch Dollhouse.
I skipped most of the first season, just watching a couple of episodes to reacquaint myself with the beginnings before burning through the second season. And I found myself wondering why the show never found an audience. Sure, Eliza Dushku might not have been the strongest actress on the show (that title belongs to Olivia Williams who killed it as the ruthless Adelle DeWitt) or the most versatile (a title that Enver Gjokaj steals every time he's imprinted with Topher's personality), but she was gritty and had a lot of heart. So I don't buy the argument that casting her ruined the show.
I also don't buy the argument that the dark and dreary subject matter sank Dollhouse. Even at its very worst, Dollhouse made viewers question their own identity. It made viewers ponder the idea of personhood. If what we are is merely a collection of traits, then what makes us unique? Those are worthwhile questions that need to be asked, even if the answers (of which there are few definitive) are unsettling. Speculative fiction is supposed to unsettle us. It's supposed to force us to face those things about ourselves and our culture that make us squeamish. And there are plenty of movies, TV shows, and books that do just that and have also found an audience.
So why then, did this show which, in my opinion, offered some of Whedon's most original ideas, fail so hard?
I've got a theory (it could be bunnies)...
Actually, I've got two theories.
1. A lack of stakes. We're introduced to this world where people sign away a few years of their lives in order to become dolls, blank slates that can be imprinted with any personality a client desires. When their contract is completed, they're paid handsomely and sent on their way, without any memories of the things they did. It sounds horrible, right? Except that we're given to believe for most of the first season that every doll in the house chose to be there. Parallels were drawn by early reviewers between the dolls and people who are forced into prostitution, which becomes closer to the truth as the series progresses, but in the beginning, that's not the case. Men and women are not kidnapped off the streets and forced to become dolls, they walk into it with the full knowledge of what they're agreeing to.
For me, it begged the question: why should I care? We root for Mal and the crew of the Serenity because, even though they chose to be outlaws, they were doing so to avoid giving up their freedom to the Alliance. We cheer on Buffy because she's fighting to save the world from evil. We love Angel because he's seeking redemption. But why should I care what happens to Echo? What are the stakes?
At the end of the first season, in the brilliant episode Epitaph 1, we jump into the future and finally learn what the stakes are. The technology that makes people into dolls will eventually, through misuse, lead to the downfall of humanity. But we have to muddle through 12 episodes before we get there, and by then most of the audience had dropped out.
Another Whedon show, Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D suffered the same problem in its first season, though for different reasons. When the show begins SHEILD is a well-funded organization whose sole mission is to stamp out evil. But there are no stakes. They have everything they need, all the resources available. We know they're going to save the day; it's a forgone conclusion. They have a helicarrier for pete's sake. It isn't until SHIELD is wiped out during the events that transpired during Captain America 2 that SHEILD becomes a rag-tag band of misfits trying to save the world but lacks the resources to do so. The become vulnerable.
If Marvel had pushed SHIELD off a season and begun after the events of CA2, I guarantee most of its audience wouldn't have disappeared. And if Dollhouse had shown us glimpses of that apocalyptic hellscape right from the beginning (or maybe shown us that Echo hadn't come to the Dollhouse willingly), we would have understood the stakes and had a reason to root for her.
Which leads me to my second theory:
2. We had no characters to root for. Holly Black's brilliant Curseworker trilogy should be a must-read for anyone looking to write an anti-hero you can sympathize with. Cassel Sharpe is a criminal. But he's also at odds with his criminal past. He wants to do the right thing, he tries to do the right thing, even if he usually ends up going about it the wrong way. In the Dollhouse world, every character is complicit in the treatment of the dolls, including the dolls themselves.
Ruthless Adelle DeWitt runs the house; mad genius Topher Brink imprints them (taking immense satisfaction in his work); Echo's handler, Boyd Langdon, makes sure none of Echo's clients abuse her, but even in that you never get the sense that he cares about the person. She's his charge and nothing more. The FBI agent Paul Ballard is supposed to be our entry point into the Dollhouse, the lens through which we're supposed to view it, but we're never given a clear reason why we're supposed to believe him. The things he says never line up with what we're shown. He says it's evil, that they're brainwashing people, but his statements don't match reality.
So who do we root for? Echo? Why? Based on what we're shown early on, she chose to be there. Why would we root for her to leave? I think it must surely be hell to practice law, and it's not something I would choose to do, but some people do it anyway. I certainly wouldn't have chosen to be a doll, but we're made to believe that every doll in the house did make that choice. As the series progressed, we learned that some dolls were taken against their will, but that came far too late in the series to save it.
The missed opportunity, in my opinion, is Echo. It's hinted in the beginning that Echo the doll is becoming a fully realized person separate from Caroline, who she was before the Dollhouse, but again, there are no stakes so we don't know that we're supposed to root for her or why we should. If they had introduced the idea early on of Echo becoming a unique identity and thrown in the idea that Echo would "die" when Caroline's contract was over, that would have given us a person to root for and a reason to do it.
I make fun of Star Trek: Voyager frequently because it was mostly silly. But there was one episode called Tuvix that I thought was quite brilliant. The episode centered around a transporter accident in which two crew members (Neelix and Tuvok, both horribly uninteresting characters on their own) are fused into a totally unique entity known as Tuvix. It takes a while, but eventually the crew figures out a way to separate the two crew members. But doing so would cost the life of Tuvix. Who had more right to live? Did they have the right to terminate Tuvix to restore the lives of Tuvok and Neelix? It's a horrific moral dilemma for both the crew and the viewer. No matter who you root to live, someone dies. But regardless of which side you fell, you still had someone to champion. If Dollhouse had raised this kind of question regarding Echo early on, viewers would have formed a deeper connection the character. Viewers can deal with moral ambiguity so long as they have someone to root for. Sadly, that one episode of Voyager managed to tackle the scenario with much more finesse and emotional depth than the entire run of Dollhouse.
If Dollhouse had started as the show it became in its second season, I have a feeling it might still be on the air today.
So the question now is: why should you care? Well, if you're a reader or a TV watcher, maybe you don't. But if you're a writer, then hopefully you'll take away from this what I did. That no matter how morally ambiguous your characters, no matter how batshit crazy your story, you have to have stakes that matter and you have to have characters people can root for. You have to show readers who to care for, why they should care for them, and why what they're doing is important. And you can't wait. Readers (and viewers) want to know they're not wasting their time. They want to know that they're investing in characters that are worthwhile. If you don't give them something to latch onto early enough, you'll lose them. And once that happens, it won't matter how amazing your story is because there won't be anyone around to read it.
By the way, did I mention that The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley is going to be published in Brazil? Yeah...that happened :)