Watching last week's Dollhouse, one thing became clear: its main flaw isn't actually the show itself but the fact that, at its heart, it's not really a TV series. Or, at least, it shouldn't be.
The core problem with Dollhouse, I decided, isn't that it's not a good idea, or even a good take on a good idea (although I'll leave you all to discuss that latter one); it's that it's not an idea that can sustain itself as an ongoing television show. Either we're supposed to swallow that Echo (a) tends to break down a lot on missions, (b) tends to be given missions that are especially exciting and/or violent and (c) this is all apparently standard-operating procedure, considering the fact that, for all the weekly back-at-the-office in-fighting scenes, Echo still gets sent out on missions that will go wrong and involve her breaking down in some way week after week... or we're supposed to believe that all of this is going somewhere. The problem is, the only somewhere it can go that could be satisfying for the audience involves Echo remembering/realizing who and what she is and doing something about it, and in the most important sense - no matter what the outcome of that may be - that finishes the story. Yes, the series can continue, obviously, whether Echo suddenly has self-awareness and can access all these different personalities, or whether she gets reset, or the series shifts onto other characters... but the story we're all watching now will be finished. Same thing with the Ballard subplot - either he finds out that the Dollhouse exists, finishing the story, or he doesn't, and he's an idiot.
Dollhouse, ironically enough considering the ratings, may be too finite a story for its own good as a Friday night Fox show. For it to have the depth and weight that Whedon (and the show's fans, for that matter) think it has, it's not enough to continually show the sexism and everyday abuse that surrounds us, week after week - Surely, at some point of doing only that, the show stops being an ironic commenter on that and simply complicit in it? - but, instead, come to some kind of conclusion about it... but can it really do so in the format it's in?
Watching the show, I'm reminded of comic writer and editor Mark Waid's commentary about DC Comics' Final Crisis series:
I know that sounds like I'm splitting hairs, but I promise I'm not. I felt the same way about FC that a lot of people seemed to—I tried to follow it from issue to issue and my head hurt. A lot. And I was confused and baffled by the series. BUT—when I read it all in one sitting, I got it. Its ideas were clear to me (though they required some mental work from me, which is fine—so do stories spanning the scale of "literature" from James Joyce to J.G. Ballard to last Friday's episode of Battlestar), and I thought they were stunningly innovative and clever and, most importantly, were fresh and unlike anything else I'm gonna get from a random superhero comic... I maintain that the story itself is pretty comprehensible. Should it not have taken the form of a seven-issue series, then? In retrospect, probably not. In an entire lifetime of reading comics, I've never experienced a disconnect so astounding as what I got out of reading it as it came out versus what I got out of reading it straight through. That alone fascinates me and is something worth studying.
So is Dollhouse the Final Crisis of television; something that can't fully be appreciated until it's over? And if so, shouldn't it really be a movie...?
I'm only semi-joking with that last question. With Watchmen coming out next week, I'm getting worryingly obsessed with the idea of stories being told in the most suitable format and medium; after all, Watchmen the movie can never be Watchmen the book for too many reasons - not least of which is the fact that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created the book in part to explore the differences between comics and movies - but does that mean that there's no reason for the movie to exist? I'm still in two minds; while I tend to lean towards the "No" side of the argument, and wish that Zack Snyder and David Hayter had come up with something original, instead, I still harbor this vague hope that the Watchmen movie can be something as wonderful and poignant as its source in its own right. A few exceptions aside, cross-media adaptations tend to prove how well-suited stories were to their original homes, after all; even something like, say, Serenity just makes you want to watch more Firefly, if that makes sense, because of the potential for new stories that those characters and that world had.
We like to think that the creators of our favorite stories know what they're doing, or at least what they're writing for, and that after-the-fact continuations are fun, but not really the same thing because they're... well, off somehow; Buffy's comic continuation may have all the same writers, but it's lacking the performances that elevated the material, or Star Trek's 1970s cartoon dumbing down material for the kids. But, occasionally, even the greats can slip up; Morrison on the Final Crisis serialization that confused even the pros, or Whedon on Dollhouse's off-putting, repetitive format.
I keep coming back to Douglas Adams' The Hitchhikers' Guide To The Galaxy, each iteration of which - well, apart from the comic, perhaps - worked in and of itself, and added to the overall strange tapestry of the story, with Adams writing the radio shows, novels and television episodes and continually refining and reshifting the ideas to fit into the different forms. Perhaps that's what Whedon needs to do to Dollhouse; step back, rethink what he's trying to say with it, and then reapproach it from scratch with a definitive ending - or, at least, coherent point - in mind.