Why I think Joss Whedon’s ‘Dollhouse’ Failed on Fox

by on April 27, 2012

in Entertainment

I’m watching the mass media plowing along and pouring accolades all over the Joss Whedon helmed movie, The Avengers.  As many are coming to understand, and many of you will as soon as you see his newest movie, Joss Whedon is pretty good with character group dynamics.  It’s this strength that makes his stories shine above the many others.

'Dollhouse' from Joss Whedon, starring Eliza Dushku

This got me to wondering how folks would have received Joss’s pet network project, Dollhouse, if he had approached it slightly differently and would it have survived for more than two seasons.  I ask that because the series was a very character rich sci fi series that Joss pulled together with Eliza Dushku and with how Joss handles group ensembles should have been a win-win for everyone.

Well, it was for his hard-core fan base.  But in general, Dollhouse had other issues in trying to appeal to the TV masses.  Well, that, and FOX reordered a few episodes… again.  (Yea, I know.  I’m going to try not to go “there.”)

Dollhouse starred Eliza Dushku, Harry Lennix, Fran Kranz, Tahmoh Penikett, Enver Gjokaj, Dichen Lachman & Olivia Williams with the occasional and beautifully delivered guest appearance of  Alan Tudyk as the insidiously evil Alpha.

The premise of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse was about a secret organization that had programmable human agents for hire.  The trick being that these agents were mindless child-like humans between assignments and then when a client needed a task, the organization would program one of their “dolls” with the required skills and send them out on assignment.

From business people to “dancers,” the show had a lot of material it could touch on.

But there were a few flaws for this overly complicated story that many of the general masses could not digest, and that’s where the downfall was.

'Dollhouse' cast members Dichen Lachman and Enver Gjokaj

The idea of the dolls was interesting and reminded me of when characters in the Matrix had skills uploaded to their avatars.  But I think the general TV masses got uncomfortable with the idea of a mindless girl walking around and then being programmed to be whatever she was hired or told to do.

There were some things, I think, on some levels that felt wrong to the Nielsen families.

For example:

If a woman chose to be a prostitute when needed, that’s one thing.  But to be programmed to be one, I think that premise disagreed with the audience because it wasn’t necessarily her choice.  It was hard to digest that this girl could be a geneticist one day, a “dancer” the next day, and yet, not remember or retain any of those skills or talents after the job.

And she was literally, a human puppet with no life or personality of her own.

As if that wasn’t hard enough for viewers to wrap their our minds around, there was more than one doll in the cast ensemble.  To further complicate the story, the staff within the Dollhouse were split on the ethical applications or use of the technology.

'Dollhouse' from Joss Whedon - Summer Glau

All in all, between the dolls and the staff, there was quite a bit to digest in Whedon’s Dollhouse.

Hell, if the Nielsen families could not digest My Own Worst Enemy, with only two split personality agents, I was pretty sure their brains would implode with this many story lines to understand from the depths of Whedon’s mind.


Joss Whedon fans sat down and ate it up.  They knew that this introduction was only the beginning to a wonderfully developing fun story.  And it was true.

Events took place, characters grew and changed.  Evolved.  Characters within the collective of dolls were changing.  The staff running the program were evolving.  And the past of the organization that ran the Dollhouse was starting to rear its ugly head.

And it was all headed for a wonderful showdown with its own destiny.

But the Nielsen families had all they could take.  The first season set of episodes averaged just over 4.6M viewers, but season two saw that average drop to just over 2.1M.

Joss Whedon's 'Dollhouse' - cast member Alan Tudyk

I think the next time Joss Whedon gets a chance to showcase his brilliant writing on network TV again, (If he ever goes back!), he needs to consider starting out slower, with a 5-year plan.

I think, had he only introduced the one doll, Dushku’s character, Echo, and watched only her missions first… no Dollhouse, just her missions as if it were a show about her, and then slowly back out and show a broader landscape of the story, maybe, the general public could have had an easier time digesting the evolution of this franchise.

But I think too much was thrown too fast at the viewing audience and even though critics declared how much the overall story improved as the season developed, Dollhouse was doomed.

And what a shame.  The story went to a nicely dark future of humanity and it became an incredible tale to watch as it wound down.

Dollhouse carried on in a few one-up comic books and a mini-series and I’m not sure if there are more planned.

That, is what I suspect, how this unique concept could have flourished… or at least lasted another season.

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