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final days

Whedon on the End of Dollhouse, Kinky Sex, and the Future of Online TV

  • 12/3/09 at 5:40 PM

Tomorrow night at 8 pm Fox airs two more episodes of Dollhouse, the flawed-but-fascinating Joss Whedon misfit series finishing up its run in the next few months. I've watched the first of tomorrow's episodes, and it's terrific: twisty, clever, and flat-out weird in satisfyingly Philip K. Dick–ish ways, with a particularly striking performance by Alexis Denisof.

Since the devastating "Belonging" episode ran a few weeks ago, I have had high hopes that this show would go out with a bang. Some of the best series of the last decade have been one or two season wonders — Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life, The Office U.K. — and I'm peculiarly confident that the end of Dollhouse could resolve a lot of my ambivalent feelings about this inconsistent, thought-provoking mess of a series. Either way, I'll be watching: Something doesn't have to be perfect for it to be fascinating.

But in the meantime, you must immediately go read this great Whedon interview by Mo Ryan. Among other things, he explains that the creative friction he had with his bosses at Fox ended up being largely about the network's discomfort with the kinky sexual subject matter:

"When you're dealing with fantasies, particularly sexual ones, you're going off the reservation. You're not going to be doing things that are perfectly correct. It's supposed to be about the sides of us that we don't want people to see. For me exploitation was part of it, but it was more about the idea of our identities and what we consider to be ourselves and how relating to other people affects that, how we incorporate other people in ourselves and how we project ourselves onto people and how everybody relates to everyone in their lives through the filter of their own beliefs, experiences and memories. That to me is kind of fascinating. What we think we want from each other when we say "I love you" or any of those other things is, I think, very complex and sometimes very depressing and sometimes kind of weirdly beautiful."

Then he basically blows my mind by confirming that he's most interested right now in pursuing new online-TV models.

I know there's some Whedon backlash lately, from folks frustrated by Dollhouse and those who are simply sick of his godlike status among geeks like me, but I'm really happy to think that someone this smart and stubborn is going to try to hack a path into what I see as the exciting wilderness of online television, where creators could speak directly to their most passionate fans. I think there's potential for the web to host a renewed television revolution, a second stage after the last decade of breakthrough work. I imagine quirky projects like Dr. Horrible, indie niche series, stuff done on the cheap, experiments with form and tone — just a Wild West, raw and cooked, taking advantage of the new forms to find a whole new artistic voice. Whedon is the ideal person to spearhead this change, since he's already a big part of the online television–watching world, with a passionate fanbase that will follow him anywhere.

In a way, it's not that different from what seems to be coming in journalism: the collapse of the print newspapers, the bubbling up of strange new stuff like Talking Points Memo. But with more zombies.

Here are a few more quotes from the Ryan interview, about the ways in which writers have been cut out of the financial payoff, but if you're at all interested in Whedon, you should read the whole thing:

"The restrictions [in cable] are fewer, but the process of developing it with a studio and a network, even a cable network is still rough. It takes an enormous amount of time to run a show and to get it off the ground takes just a huge amount of steel. I'm interested in it. But for me, the Internet is slightly more interesting right now just because I feel like we have to get in there and start figuring out how to create entertainment without the networks and the studios, because they're basically trying to figure out how to create and entertain without us."

To illustrate his point, he noted that residual payments for Dollhouse were "pennies, because they're not re-running it, they're just putting it on Hulu":

"That whole system is crumbling and with the advent of the new technology, crews are going to get smaller and when things move to the Internet, there is no format where people make the kind of money they've made in television," he said. "The artistic community is more and more left out of the equation, so the trick is going to be finding out how to make the Internet work in such a way that people [can get by] because it's not going to pay TV money. It's not."

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