It's the news that no-one really expected, even though many wanted it: Dollhouse is coming back for a second season. But will it be the same show? Not exactly; here're some changes to expect.
It'll Be Cheaper
Part of the negotiation process for the second season centered around cost. As the Chicago Tribune's Maureen Ryan points out,
Fox didn't renew "Dollhouse" because the show's fans would have been sad about the Joss Whedon show's untimely death. Fox doesn't care about how viewers feel (you saw "Moment of Truth," right?). No, Fox renewed "Dollhouse" because it thinks it can make money off the project — enough to keep the enterprise profitable.
According to the Hollywood Reporter's James Hibbard,
Fox received some serious budget concessions from 20th TV and Whedon to continue the show, with 20th now shouldering a greater portion of the load. Another factor was the show's unaired 13th episode, which Whedon shot on a shoestring budget for the "Dollhouse" first season DVD set. Whedon presented it to the network as an example of how "Dollhouse" can achieve a high-quality production with a lesser budget.
So does this mean we can expect a series of episodes based inside the Dollhouse, using existing sets and fewer actors? Potentially. Or, just as likely, we may see a less glossy aesthetic for the new season. Remember, Whedon made Dr. Horrible for almost no budget at all; he's probably got some ideas on how to work around cost-cutting. And besides...
It'll Be Shorter
Fox is dropping its "Remote Free TV" scheme, meaning that the second seasons of both Dollhouse and Fringe are going to have regular ad breaks, and lose somewhere around 6-8 minutes per episode as a result (On the plus side, no more glittery Eliza trying to smolder to the camera as the voiceover guy tells us that the show will be back in sixty seconds). How will the loss of that running time offset the budget tightening? Not enough, most likely - unless those were six really expensive minutes - but the added ad revenue may make the network feel better about the show moving forward.
It'll Be Based On A Different "Creative Direction"
While Fox execs were viewing pilots for next year's schedule, they also watched the now-mythical "lost" episode of the show, "Epitaph One," to decide Dollhouse's fate. So when sources talk about "a shift in creative direction" for the new season, should we start considering "Epitaph One" a second season pilot and the shape of things to come? Joss Whedon's not saying just yet (although he is saying things like "oh, the terrible things my brain is brewing... Just wait. We'll make it worth it," if that helps), but co-executive producer Elizabeth Craft has suggested that the episode may even become part of the second season:
[T]o us, we don't think of ["Omega"] as the last episode of the season, even though it technically is, because ["Epitaph One"] gets into - well, I don't want to say too much about it... Hopefully if we get a Season 2, we'll show that episode.
(Now there's a thought on how to cut costs; have one of the episodes already done and costing nothing. Of course, you'll have to pull it off the first season DVD, but still. Joss, you listening?)
Also, British viewers? Here's where you get to have the jump on the Americans - Sci Fi UK have announced that they plan to show "Epitaph One" at the end of the first season, as intended. Don't gloat too much.
For what it's worth, changing the direction of the show would make sense, given how the second half of the first season played out; the (original) arcs of Ballard and Caroline are finished, with the FBI agent having found the girl and Carolinecho having become self-aware without becoming another Alpha. I hope that the second season would focus on the themes and questions introduced at the end of the first (What is the true purpose of the Dollhouse technology? Are humans just vessels for interchangable personalities? What happens when an Active is aware of her status? How are we supposed to believe that Ballard would join the organization he'd been trying to destroy for the last twelve weeks? and so on), but as long as we don't have any more "blind girl with camera eyes working for the FBI" episodes, that's enough to start with.
One thing is very unlikely to change, however:
It'll Still Have A Shitty Timeslot
Both the Hollywood Reporter and Variety are saying that the show is likely to stay on Friday nights, which really isn't a good thing - Look at the dips the show took when geek-friendly movies opened, if nothing else. It's unsurprising, though, considering Fox's other returning shows taking up timeslots on most other nights. What we're now wondering is what will get paired with it; I said yesterday that new series Human Target would be a great partner, as it shares questions about identity as well as a format that sees its lead "become" a new person every week, but is Fox really willing to dump that show on a Friday? If they do, expect to see Dollhouse bumped to 8pm and act as a lead-in.
The renewal of Dollhouse is a strange triumph of hope versus experience; as THR's Hibbard pointed out when breaking the news,
"Dollhouse" might very well be the lowest-rated in-season scripted drama to ever get a renewal on a major broadcast network. Almost certainly if based on where the show concluded — a 1.0 among adults 18-49.
So what brought it back? It's doubtful that it was fan outcry (or jamming Fox's switchboards because Miracle Laurie suggested it, for that matter), because... well, have you seen similar surprise news for the equally-beloved Terminator series? Much more likely is Fox's belief that they can turn the series into something financially worthwhile for them, which will be fueled not only by cutting costs, but by the exceptionally good DVR audience for the show, the critical upswing for the first season's second half, the undoubtedly pleasing pre-orders for the DVD boxset and - no pressure here - faith that Joss Whedon can turn everything around the second time out.
How he'll do that, and what the show will become in order to gain more viewers without losing its existing hardcore faithful, may be the most interesting behind the scenes story of the year, whether it succeeds or not. All we know for sure is that, in order to survive, the show has to - ironically, perhaps - become something new and different while staying the same. Are you ready for your treatment, Dollhouse?