Good-bye, Dollhouse, It’s Been Nice; Hope You Find Your Paradise
To quote Joss Whedon's favorite musical creator, I'm sorry/grateful that Dollhouse was canceled. (Basically, my feelings mirror those of our wonderful recapper Joy Press, who tweeted, "It had potential. But like a lot of people, I was too ambivalent about Dollhouse to feel sad about cancellation.")
But I'm unambiguously happy that Whedon will get to do something else, whether it's Dr. Horrible 2: The Horribling or that new digital studio he's supposed to be founding — the one I dream will turn him into the entrepreneurial Moses of online distribution. And while I'm flipping all over the emotional dial, I'm madly irritated by Lisa De Moraes's acrid suggestion that the show flopped because Whedon was money-hungry: "Joss Whedon needs to think more about his fans and less about his wallet. If he did, he would do his work for a cable network which can sustain a show that attracts this sized audience. He did not serve you well. Shame on him."
From my POV, this is crazy-talk, since from what he's said in interviews, Whedon developed the Dollhouse concept in the first place because Eliza Dushku (a friend since her role on Buffy) already had a development deal with Fox and asked him to collaborate on a vehicle for her. For better or worse, he's spent his adult life as an ideological populist, trying (à la The Simpsons) to plant subversive myths in mass culture. Now, this particular subversive myth definitely didn't work — not in the ratings, not in Dushku's performance. (The role Whedon had written to demonstrate her versatility highlighted exactly the opposite trait, while her unspellably named castmates, Dichen Lachman and Enver Gjokaj, kicked ass in their multiple roles.)
I certainly don't think that Dollhouse's fate makes Whedon the martyred Christ of network villainy, but it also doesn't mean he is the villain himself. There's such a thing as an interesting failure, and that's the category I'd put Dollhouse in: At once ambitiously conceived and weirdly unbaked, it had moments, even whole episodes, of brilliance. In the end, it was a failed genre experiment, in which a feminist sci-fi creator tried to use a police-procedural format (the type most frequently used as an excuse for endless close-ups of nude female corpses) to stage a metaphor about false consciousness and sex slavery.
In a way, maybe the series is even more admirable because it now looks, in retrospect, so truly impossible to pull off. Unlike something as purely girl-powered as Buffy — a juvenile myth with adult philosophical resonance — Dollhouse was designed to freak viewers out from the start. When it was kicking on all engines, the series was a sick-making essay about rape culture, and I've never seen one of those hit a mass audience. (Although it had a strange thematic sibling this year in AMC's Mad Men, another ambiguous dream-world stocked with brainwashed women.)
For those still grieving, here are some Dollhouse epitaphs — plus one proposal for the future of Whedon that I personally hope comes true:
i09's Graeme McMillan's wry 5-stages-of-fan-grief model for TV cancellations.
James Poniewozik admires the show's ambition but says that "Fox gave it as much of a chance as it reasonably could have."
And Devin Faraci argues that Whedon belongs online:
"Whedon needs to fully leap into the world of direct to DVD and On Demand programming. He's already dipped his toe in those waters with Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog, which was an artistic success and apparently fiscally successful enough to warrant an impending sequel. Instead of going through a network, dealing with their interference and their programming whims and the need to appeal to a very wide audience so as to sell time to Viagra advertisers Whedon can concentrate on serving his fanbase with his vision ...
Imagine a world where a show like Arrested Development or Battlestar Galactica isn't constantly in fear of getting the axe, where shows don't have to dumb it down to reach the widest audience, where creators don't have to worry about skittish advertisers, where fans put up or shut up by supporting what they really like."