The Critic who cried ‘Dollhouse’

10.23.09 8 years ago 11 Comments


The fable is told…
Back in the old country, there was a village and in that village lived many TV fans. Above that village, in a poorly ventilated shack in the mountains, lived a TV critic. He liked to recommend programs to the villagers. Sometimes they listened. Sometimes they didn’t. 
And one day that TV critic saw a show he thought the villagers would love, so he ran down the mountain and went into the town square and yelled, “If you do not watch this show, the seas will boil and the trees will topple.” And the villagers, always looking for good new shows, and occasionally suggestible in the face of extreme hyperbole, decided to watch. At least a few of them did. But they didn’t like the new show and those who didn’t watch noted that the trees went untoppled and the seas were as cold as they’d been before. 
Several months later, they noticed the TV critic practically rolling down the hill in a cloud of dust, rushing back into the square. And again the townspeople gathered, but warier this time.
“Remember that show I told you to watch last month?” the critic bellowed. “Sorry about that. It wasn’t really as good as I thought it was. But it’s gotten better. Much better. And if you don’t watch it now, disease will afflict your cattle and your chickens will stop laying eggs!”
Well, the townspeople still enjoyed good TV and they still occasionally trusted the judgment of the critic, even if he usually saved his kindest words for premium channels they didn’t get. So some of them tuned in for the episode and found it better, but still not proportionate to the critic’s excitement. And while there was, indeed, a small and dedicated portion of the town population who had become fans of the series, most didn’t bother with the next episode. In addition, despite poor viewership, they were unsurprised to see that their cattle remained robust and beefy and omelets flowed as freely as they had before.
Then three months later, they heard a cacophony of hooves, as the critic galloped down from his shack on his horse. After the initial confusion regarding where the critic had gotten a horse on his salary and how he was feeding the horse, given how rarely he came down to town to get provisions, they turned away and returned to their business at hand.
“Townspeople!” the critic screamed in the middle of an empty square. “I told you to watch that show and it was good, right? Right? It has a complex mythology and attractive lead actors, right? Well, as good as I told you it was before, it may be even better now! Watch! Watch! If you do not watch, your crops will fail and you’ll never again be offered this kind of quality serialized programming on network TV. Watch!”
But the townspeople didn’t fear for their crops and it was obvious that their appetite for serialized programming was more suited for cable or the Internet. Some of them watched the show, but they watched because they watched already and not because of the critic, but most of them stayed true to the old ways and just watched CBS procedurals instead, for CBS procedurals were reliable and close-ended, if not necessarily dynamic and challenging. 
And the critic sadly rode back up the mountain on his horse. 
On the way up, he was eaten by a wolf.
The end.
That, dear friends, was the parable of The Critic Who Cried “Dollhouse.” And yes, it’s a paraphrased version of the original story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, who I believe wrote of a critic unable to convince his followers to watch “Manimal.”
And yet here I am again… I’m not urging you to watch “Dollhouse” on Friday (Oct. 23) night. I’m just saying that Friday’s episode, titled “Belonging,” is a really good episode. If you watch? I’m pretty confident you’ll be happy, but I can’t vouch for what will happen to your livestock or your fields of wheat if you don’t.
[More after the break…]
One of the things at the heart of The Boy Who Cried Wolf is that the little brat was lying the whole time, at least until he wasn’t. He experienced a distinct absence of actual wolves.
Me? I like “Dollhouse.” No lie. Sure, when I first reviewed it, I liked its concept and its potential and the talent involved more than I liked the actual show, but I liked it. Then, when I wrote about “Man on the Street,” I liked that episode and not just because it was preceded by four really poor reiterations of the pilot. And when I wrote nice things about this season’s premiere, “Vows,” I meant them too.
So when FOX sent select critics the second season’s next two episode, “Belonging” and “The Public Eye,” I was pleased and tore into the package immediately. “Belonging” is a twist-on-the-formula episode, but it’s mostly stand-alone. “The Public Eye” is the first part of a two-parter that’s all about mythology and returns Summer Glau to the Joss Whedon fold. And I was all ready to write a “Maybe this is where things get good in the Dollhouse?” column. 
Then FOX decided to pull “Dollhouse” for November Sweeps, meaning that “Belonging” is the show’s last new episode until December. 
The first thing to say: It would have been financially irresponsible for FOX to air “Dollhouse” during sweeps. Repeats of “House” and “Bones” will do better numbers for the month than motley alleged comedies and new episodes of “Dollhouse.” Sweeps periods are all about numbers, not quality or programming diversity.
I’ve seen several people try saying that this is an example of FOX failing to properly cultivate “Dollhouse,” which makes me laugh, since the network did a pretty good job of retaining consistency last season, airing 12 new episodes in 13 weeks, a strategy that failed to cultivate a live viewing audience. “Dollhouse” fans will return when the show comes back in December, or some of them will.
What this does is it makes it difficult to review the two new episodes that I’ve seen, episodes that may or may not be among the show’s best to date, but which certainly showcase the show’s strengths.
“Belonging” is a Sierra episode, focusing on Dichen Lachman’s character. It follows up on the momentum of “Belle Chose,” the season’s third episode and a showcase for Enver Gjokaj’s Victor. As fans have recognized since the middle of the first season, Lachman and Gjokaj are often (usually? [always?]) better (more compelling?) than Eliza Dushku’s Echo. When you concentrate on Echo, you get episodes like the dreadful “Instinct.” 
“Belonging” isn’t just a platform for Lachman to play at least three different versions of her character. It’s one of those episodes that delves into the most compelling and disturbing aspects of the series, specifically the point at which the show’s treatment of female characters branches away from the way the Dollhouse itself exploits women. As we learned last season, Sierra was basically sold into slavery in the Dollhouse and in “Belonging,” we find out how and why. In the early going, Whedon and Dushku declared that part of the show’s goal was to make viewers uncomfortable and “Belonging” is one of the rare times that the show has achieved that objective.
In addition, “Belonging” continues one of the second season’s odder byproducts, the increasing excellence of Fran Kranz, who annoyed me in Season One, but has suddenly turned Topher into an increasingly tortured genius, rather than just a bratty wunderkind. Just as the best scenes in the season premiere were between Kranz and Amy Acker’s lamentedly absent Claire, the best scenes in “Belonging” are between Kranz and Lachman and also Olivia Williams’ Adelle. Dushku is barely in the episode at all and “Belonging” doesn’t suffer. It probably isn’t a coincidence that “Belonging” was written by Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon, who also penned the Echo-lite “Epitaph One.”
Jonathan Frakes directed “Belonging” and he probably also deserves some of the credit for the superb performances by Lachman, Gjokaj, Williams and Kranz, as well as the mixture of action and surprising heart in the episode. At the very least, it’s better than that “Thunderbirds” movie Frakes directed.
Echo doesn’t have to be a total non-factor for “Dollhouse” to work. She’s central to “The Public Eye,” even though the episode isn’t a Dushku-centric  imprint-of-the-week. “The Public Eye” turns its attentions mostly to Alexis Denisof’s Senator and the crusade that brings him closer and closer to the Dollhouse, to multiples Dollhouses. That’s where we meet Glau’s Bennett, an instantly intriguingly prickly creation who brings out a different side of Glau’s expertly played detachment. 
I’d tell you more, but “The Public Eye” won’t air until December 5. That’s a long way off.
As much as I enjoyed these next two episodes, I’ll confess that they also left me frustrated, as did “Belle Chose” before it. Every carefully crafted, richly layered episode makes me more ticked off about the first half of last season, gets me more annoyed by episodes like “Instinct.” The tendency is to blame FOX for not promoting “Dollhouse” enough or to blame Friday nights for not being a fertile schedule space or to blame the Nielsen ratings system for not accurately reflecting the ways in which “Dollhouse” fans watch TV. 
But “Belonging” is the 16th episode of “Dollhouse” to air on FOX (the 17th overall if you include “Epitaph One”) and there have been too many episodes like “Instinct” and like “True Believer” and “Gray Hour,” episodes that were limited in scope or imagination, episodes that defied logic or failed to progress the broader narrative. Every time I’ve been convinced that “Dollhouse” was on the right track and every time I’ve written stories talking about building momentum, there’s been a step backwards. “Dollhouse” is too fragile a show to withstand that kind of frequent backsliding and the blame there can’t necessarily be put on FOX or on the challenges of Friday night. 
Oh “Dollhouse.” You sometimes make it tough to love you. Or even like you all that much. [Seriously, “Instinct”? Somebody hired a doll to be the mother of their child? And still slept in the same bed as them? Seriously? Hire freakin’ Mary Poppins.]
So here I go again: Friday’s “Dollhouse” is a very good episode. If you happen to tune in? You’ll probably be pleased. 
And if anybody’s looking for me, I’ll be up in my cabin watching HBO and Showtime.
“Dollhouse” airs on Friday night at 9 p.m. on FOX. Except for during Sweeps.

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