Whedon has touched on these themes before. On Buffy, the satirical “Buffybot” was the docile fantasy blonde prickly Buffy could never be, and one episode featured a girlfriend programmed never to cry; on Firefly, a damaged young woman crackled with repressed memories. Like United States of Tara, another show with a splintered heroine, Dollhouse is ungainly at first glance, but full of rich themes: about false consciousness (that old feminist bugaboo, when a woman can’t tell if she wants something—implants, marriage—or has been brainwashed into it), the mystery of personality, the nature of memory in an age of digital copies.
But perhaps the strangest thing about Dollhouse is the way in which it seems to reflect Whedon’s anxieties about TV itself. Echo is as much like an actress as she is like a prostitute, a beautiful drone who behaves the way wealthy men think a woman should act. Whedon has always written about feminism, but as he’s progressed through Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse, another theme has emerged: the question of how to live within a system that co-opts any attempt at rebellion.
Like many of Whedon’s loyal fans, I want him to be the auteur who cracks that code, who can again create a hit like Buffy that succeeds economically and also “invades people’s dreams.” But whatever happens to Dollhouse, whether it’s a success or just a great audition reel for Dushku, I have my doubts whether network TV can truly embrace weird. Whedon got it right when he launched his last great/odd project, the musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, on the Internet—a project done on the cheap and launched right at his fans. If a renaissance is coming, it will have to happen online, where, with no middlemen, video might finally embrace the risk of the truly original. A passionate audience is waiting there, ready for something strange.