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Joss Whedon's Dollhouse and Joss Whedon's Dollhouse.

JOSS WHEDON'S ILL-FATED TELEVISION SERIES, DOLLHOUSE, FOCUSED ON A young woman named Caroline (Eliza Dushku) who allows a shadowy organization called the Dollhouse (which is in turn owned by the even more shadowy Rossum Corporation) to use its futuristic technology to remove her identity and "imprint" her with new ones. When she is unimprinted, she is supposedly without a sense of self and is simply called "Echo"; as an imprinted "active," she is whoever the Dollhouse's clients want her to be. Critics were generally unimpressed. Tom Shales of the Washington Post reduced Dollhouse to "bogus hocus-pocus about wiped memories and forgotten identities and running around after strange shadows in the dark." In USA Today, Robert Bianco described Dollhouse as an "empty-vessel premise that probably couldn't support a series even were it more adroitly cast." In the New Yorker, Nancy Franklin dismissed the show in large part because of its star, Eliza Dushku: "the problem with playing someone whose default setting is tabula rasa is pretty obvious, and the primary qualification that Dushku brings to the part is that she graduated with honors from the Royal Academy of Cleavage."

I contend that critics such as these missed the point of the show. While on the surface Dollhouse was a series about identity and self-creation, on a deeper level, it was a thorough metacritique of the entertainment industry. The series, I argue, mounts Whedon's complaint about the entertainment industry's tendency to produce media filled with sex, glamour, and beauty at the expense of the thoughtful, intellectually stimulating art that might otherwise be produced if artists were not forced to compromise their art by the very institutions they rely on for distribution. (1)

In this sense, it is helpful not to think about Dollhouse as a television series about identity, but rather as a television series about what it means for a writer, a director, and a studio to make a television series. This becomes clear when we consider that, at its most basic, Dollhouse is about an international corporation with the ability to create fictions and send them into the world. Mark Sumner, a blogger at the political Web site Daily Kos, described the show's argument more presciently than any professional critic:
 It's not about guys with a brain washing [sic] machine who can make
 someone behave how they want. It's about what it means that guys
 with a brain washing [sic] machine use that device to satisfy
 shallow, mostly sexual, fantasies. And the commentary doesn't
 extend just to the device of the show. Whedon is reflecting on
 what it means to have a television show. The brain washing [sic]
 device is an analog for television that's as old as the medium.
 Give someone a chance to build a whole program full of new
 characters and what will they make? Mostly characters that are a
 reflection of their creators or which define some "dream girl/dream
 boy" who meets their needs and has no internal demands. Easy sex,
 eye candy, and no commitments. Tune in next week.

Sumner's comment did not go unnoticed. In one of the few published scholarly essays on Dollhouse as of this writing, "Exploitation of Bodies and Minds in Season One of Dollhouse," Catherine Coker remarks that Sumner's "reading of Whedon as a self-aware insertion is both plausible and inviting, possibly to the point of excluding all other readings. It makes sense on both the level of storytelling and on the level of critique--a critique that comes from 'inside'" (236). I want to expand this idea and argue that Dollhouse is actually a multivalent metacriticism of the entertainment industry as a whole and not just of television. Additionally, I will discuss what the metafiction signals about Whedon and his tenure on television.

Dollhouse is by no means unprecedented in its self-awareness. Series such as The Simpsons have long employed metafiction to make political or social comment--the show routinely pokes fun at its broadcasting network, FOX. Other times, The Simpsons pokes fun at itself in a self-aware way, such as calling attention to recycled backgrounds or speaking directly to the viewer. Similarly, The X-Files sometimes demonstrated a self-awareness of their status as television (the episode "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" particularly so). But occasional self-reference is markedly different than the kind of self-awareness I am attributing to Dollhouse, for in Dollhouse, metafiction is the animating force of the series.

This is not to say that there are no precedents for such self-aware series. The Max Headroom film Max Headroom (1986) and the subsequent television series Max Headroom (1987-88) were remarkably self-aware. Like Dollhouse, Max Headroom focused on the problem of simulating identity; Max is a virtual disc jockey played by the actor Matt Frewer and made to look as if he were computer generated. As Lili Berko points out, this play with the real and the virtual results in interesting postmodern effects:
 the representation upon which Max Headroom's simulated image bases
 itself upon is itself a representation of a simulation: Max is
 actually an actor made up and filmed to look like a simulation. His
 image and voice have been further synthesized and processed to
 finally offer us the consummate parody of the egomaniacal talk
 show host, a representation of a blond and intensely tanned
 conglomeration of simulated wires, chips and integrated circuitry
 brought to us in the form of a talking head (he appears only on
 and through the mediating electronic gadgetry of a video monitor)
 offering viewers his views on life, popular music and his own
 greatness. (52)

In 1986, Max Headroom became the spokesman for the New Coke advertising campaign--a delicious irony considering, first, Max functions as a critique of such spokespersons and second, Max's origin stems from reporter Edison Carter's discovery that network executives were killing people with advertising.

There are interesting connections between Max Headroom and Dollhouse. As Berko explains, Baudrillard's theory of simulation and simulacra resonates particularly strongly with Max Headroom:
 The possibility of simulating the human brain, the willingness of
 the viewing public to accept as plausible the creation, presence,
 and personality of this computer-generated simulation whose
 memories are a series of representation and logarithmic images:
 all this opens a pandora's box of questions. What is the
 relationship between the processes of simulated imagery and
 actual human imaging? What is the role of simulation in the
 movement from real to the hyperreal? To what extent can one exert
 control over one's imagery, and is it possible to influence the
 imagery of others? (53)

Berko's "pandora's box of questions," written in 1988 about a television series toying with the imaginative possibilities opened up by then-nascent computer technology, might as well have been written about Dollhouse, a series also about "simulating the human brain." Because of the centrality of its selfawareness and its engaging issues of simulation and simulacra, Max Headroom is perhaps the most fitting television predecessor of Dollhouse.

The metafiction of Dollhouse functions in a way that Linda Hutcheon, writing about metafictional novels, describes as "covertly narcissistic" (32). As she notes, self-reflection in covert metafiction "is implicit; that is to say, it is structuralized, internalized within the text. As a result, it is not necessarily self-conscious" (31). Such forms of metafiction, Hutcheon explains, are often characteristic of fantasy literature (with which Dollhouse, as science fiction, shares many formal characteristics):
 Covert narcissistic texts share with all fantasy literature the
 ability to force the reader (not overtly ask him) to create a
 fictive imaginative world separate from the empirical one in which
 he lives.... Whereas in overt narcissism the reader is explicitly
 told that what he is reading is imaginary, that the referents
 of the text's language are fictive, in fantasy ... the fictiveness
 of the referents is axiomatic. Fantasy literature must create
 new self-sufficient worlds, but has at its disposal only the
 language of this one. (32)

As a work of science fiction, Dollhouse must engage the viewer in this negotiation over the real and the fictive, but as I will argue, the series contains another layer of metacommentary beyond that: Dollhouse comments--sometimes overtly--on the actors and acting that make it possible and the industry that affects the show. The metafiction of Dollhouse is, as in the metafictional novels discussed by Patricia Waugh,
 constructed on a principle of a fundamental and sustained
 opposition: the construction of a fictional illusion (as in
 traditional realism) and the laying bare of that illusion. In
 other words, the lowest common denominator of metafiction is
 simultaneously to create a fiction and to make a statement
 about the creation of that fiction. (43)

Dollhouse, I argue, does just this: it is a television show about television shows.

Given Whedon's history with the television networks, his complaints about the medium are unsurprising. Whedon has gestured in the direction of media critique before--in his television series, Angel, the episode "Smile Time" concerns a children's television program that steals the souls of the children who watch it; in his film, Serenity, he had imagined that subliminal messages were being transmitted via television throughout the universe. Dollhouse, however, offers up Whedon's first fully articulated argument that the networks and their pablum are both potentially dangerous to the culture at large and a lost opportunity to make art.

Because Dollhouse was canceled, and because that cancellation plays a role in my argument, I want briefly to paint a slightly broader picture of Whedon's shows and the networks. Whedon has had a famously turbulent relationship with television networks (especially FOX) and has seen each of his critically acclaimed series end prematurely. Whedon's signature series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, aired for five seasons on the WB network only to move to UPN for its final two seasons after the WB declined to renew it after season five. Angel, Whedon's Buffy spinoff, aired for five seasons on the WB network but was not renewed for a sixth. Firefly was canceled after only eleven episodes aired but resulted in the successful film, Serenity. Dollhouse aired two complete seasons, but each episode, it seemed, was potentially the last. (2)

Dollhouse had a rocky beginning on FOX. The network rejected Whedon's original premiere and ordered him to re-shoot it--a move that would have disastrous consequences later in the season. Ratings were low throughout the first season, and there was constant fear that the show would meet the same fate as Firefly. (3) By the end of the first season, a crisis emerged: Whedon had shot thirteen episodes, but FOX refused to air the season finale, "Epitaph One," claiming that it had already paid for thirteen episodes (counting the rejected premiere). The absence of the finale prompted rampant discussion online about the future of the series. Although FOX renewed Dollhouse for a second season (no doubt betting on DVD sales after seeing the success of Firefly DVD sales), (4) the show garnered only half the viewers it had the previous season (Gorman), and by the time FOX announced that no new episodes of Dollhouse would air during sweeps, its fate was all but sealed. (5)

Given the ethical and moral murkiness of Dollhouse, such a cold reception is not surprising. Whedon himself commented in The Atlantic that "The moral gray areas [in Dollhouse] are already lacking in white, and the show would become depressing beyond repair if it was all about the seamy side of life" (Rosenberg). The central conceit of the show invokes prostitution and (sexual) slavery, and the wiping of the dolls' identities after each engagement--as well as their complete lack of any knowledge of their doll-activities once they complete their stay in the dollhouse--adds an additional layer of ethical concern. The show was, undoubtedly for some, off-putting and disturbing to watch. But as I have suggested, Whedon's pattern of distraction applies here: the pretty people in skin-tight clothing distract us from dwelling on such matters for too long.

Some of the issues in my reading of the series are prefigured in the show's theme song. This song, written and performed by Jonatha Brooke, is composed of a slow sequence of nonsense lyrics (a melodic "La la la la") sung in Brooke's breathy alto. On screen, tilt-shift photography (a photographic technique that makes objects in the image appear miniaturized) alternates among images of Echo in her various active and doll states. The nonsense lyrics lend a childlike quality to the song and thus reinforce the childlike nature of the dolls, but the absence of words also suggests both the vacuousness of the dolls and the attractive power of their nothingness. (6) Thus, the theme song, which seems on the surface to be simple nonsense, proves quite the opposite: as it enacts the position of style-over-substance, it also calls attention to such positions. The absence of the lyrics signals that, in the universe of Dollhouse, style trumps substance.

The alternations between tilt-shift photography of Los Angeles and images of Echo in various doll and active states reinforce this privileging of style over substance. The tilt-shifting of Los Angeles transforms it into a city of dollhouses, the people into doll-like figures, and the automobiles into toy cars; Whedon transforms Los Angeles into a city constructed out of childish things. These images are punctuated by alternating, non-tilt-shifted images of Echo in sexy outfits, first in black leather and then in white lace, and are interspersed with images of Echo in both doll and active states that we will see in later episodes. Like the alternations between leather and lace, the imagery combines to suggest the significant shifts in personality and identity Echo will experience throughout the series--all the while emphasizing her sexuality. These alternations of identity are foreshadowed most clearly in an image of Echo sitting, underwater, in a fetal position at the bottom of a swimming pool. The physical positioning of her body suggests her nascent state when she is a doll: like a fetus in the womb, she is waiting to become. The opening credits conclude with an image of the lid of Echo's sleeping "pod" closing over her, (7) then cut to an overhead image of five sleeping pods, lit from within and against a dark background, rotating slowly, gearlike, as if to emphasize that the dolls within are part of the machinery.

The dolls are programmed by Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), the genius behind the Dollhouse's imprinting technology. Like Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Wash from Firefly, he is one of those Whedon characters who resembles Whedon, and this resemblance will have significant resonances in the show's argument. Topher's surname is telling--he will push his technology to the brink of its possibilities, and thus he functions as the show's mad scientist. Despite his status as mad scientist, however, Topher refers to his work as art. (In "The Target," Topher tells Boyd that the imprint process "is art, not an oil change.") As the character responsible for the dolls' imprints, Topher becomes metaphorically the artist, writer, and director of the dolls. (8) He constructs their identities and writes their scripts. The dolls, in turn, are his actors.

Whedon has commented on the connection I am describing here, joking in his commentary on the episode "Man on the Street" that "Some people have said that he's some kind of surrogate for me because he creates personalities and rather blithely creates and destroys them. I don't get it." Thus, in the metafictive structure of Dollhouse, Topher is Whedon; Topher's dolls are Whedon's actors; the Dollhouse is the institution within which Topher, like Whedon, must work in order to create his art. Even more, the series's full title on the season one DVD is telling: "Joss Whedon's Dollhouse" signifies more than simply "Dollhouse is a series by Joss Whedon." The full title suggests that the show is Whedon's dollhouse and its actors are his dolls playing the roles he creates for them.

Topher creates the characters and writes the scripts he is asked to by the Rossum Corporation, and thus he creates art within a capitalist framework. Like Whedon (or any television or film writer), the art is impossible without institutional support (Topher requires the Dollhouse and the Rossum Corporation; Whedon requires the networks), and so Topher must answer to both his audience and the institution that distributes his work. The result for both Topher and Whedon is an art that is always already not what it would have been if they had been left to their own devices. Indeed, when Topher is allowed to design his ideal imprint as a yearly birthday present to himself, he creates a completely non-sexual doll with whom he engages in a night of video games and laser tag.

Similarly, when Whedon attempted to bypass the networks during the writers' strike of 2008, the result was Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, an almost completely unmarketable (as a television series) musical about a supervillain. Dr. Horrible won both an Emmy and a Hugo award in addition to enjoying strong DVD sales--even reaching number three on's DVD sales rankings ("Dr. Horrible in the Top 3"). I am not making claims here about artistic authenticity; I am, however, highlighting the sharp distinction Whedon seems to be marking between the work of art as imagined by the artist and the work of art as commodified and sold to viewers. Whedon is pointing out that the commodified art that results from industry manipulation is not what it would have been had the artist been left to his own devices.

In the universe of Dollhouse, surfaces mask deeper meanings. The first scene of the first aired episode of Dollhouse (9) begins with a shot of Caroline and Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) sitting at a round conference table. The grainy, lined image, and a noticeable microphone hum, suggest that we are watching through a security camera, which immediately invokes the theme of voyeurism that will permeate the series. As she pours a cup of tea for Caroline, DeWitt leans forward and speaks the show's first line of dialogue: "Nothing is what it appears to be" ("Ghost").

DeWitt's dialogue forecasts this central conceit of the show while simultaneously commenting on the scene itself. If nothing is what it seems, then perhaps the scene we are watching is not what it seems either. A number of questions emerge: Is this a real interaction between the two women, or is it performance? Is it a conversation between two dolls? The position of the viewer is also suspect. Are we merely watching the surveillance video? Or are we the surveillors and thus participants in the Dollhouse? Furthermore, the shifting point of view in the scene (moving from surveillance footage to a medium interior shot) raises questions about the viewer's relation to the action and thus emphasizes the voyeuristic dimension of the scene. The result is a totalizing paranoia.

As the dialogue plays out between Echo and DeWitt, other issues emerge. Caroline insists the situation under discussion "seems pretty clear to me," but DeWitt claims that her clarity results from "only seeing part of it" ("Ghost"). In other words, the less information we have, the clearer our apparent understanding; more information complicates matters. This appreciation of complexity mirrors the larger claims that Whedon is making with the show as a whole: if we think Dollhouse is a show about beautiful people in tight clothes, we are "only seeing part of it" and thus miss the larger point. From the first scene of the first episode, we are told that appearances are deceiving, and while we may think we have clarity about the point of the series, such clarity may only be the result of our not seeing the whole picture.

As this scene ends, Whedon cuts to another that seems, at first blush, bizarre. As Caroline and DeWitt finish their discussion of tabula rasa, DeWitt offers a question similar to the story of the Ring of Gyges from Plato's Republic, which asks whether we would be good if our actions had no consequences. (10) Before we hear Caroline's response, Whedon cuts to an adrenaline-fueled motorcycle race through the streets of Los Angeles between Echo (now an active) and a client. The scene is complete with rock music, wailing electric guitars, revving engines, and a motorcycle crash; the race ends with the riders entering--still on their motorcycles--a birthday party in Chinatown. After another cut and a wardrobe change, Echo appears in an absurdly short dress that, like the series, both reveals and conceals. In this scene, Echo is filmed from an angle low enough that each frame threatens to lapse into the pornographic (indeed, at one point Echo, dancing, turns her back to the camera, and just as her dress threatens to fly up and reveal what is underneath, two people cross the frame and conceal her). (11) Her gyrations in such a short dress hyper-sexualize an episode that had, only moments before, featured her screaming through Los Angeles on a motorcycle and, only moments before that, discussing Lockean notions of the self over tea with a proper Englishwoman.

On the surface, this set of transitions is absurd. But the absurdity is by design: the superficiality, the glamour, the sex, and the mindless action interrupt a serious discussion and draw our attention away from the ethical and philosophical issues of the Dollhouse and toward the temptation of Echo's short dress. The turn away from the interesting is so conspicuous that it calls attention to itself: Whedon is deliberately deploying sex and glamour here as a distraction in order to call attention to the ways that the networks' and viewers' desire for the glamorous prohibits television narratives from exploring complex topics. The absurdity of the sequence reinforces how, on television, action and sex trump serious intellectual discussion. Just as with the theme song, style trumps substance. This message was not limited to the show itself; as Coker notes, episodes of Dollhouse were punctuated by particularly absurd advertising that speaks to this desire for the glamorous: "This [naked, wet] image of Dushku ... [is] clearly coded specifically to the male viewers: watch us. Buy things. Our words may be about power, but our exposed bodies are here for your delectation" (235).

Whedon sharpens this point about mindless consumption later in "Ghost," as Topher and Boyd (Harry Lennix) muse on the larger implications of their work at the Dollhouse. As they watch the dolls mill about the facility, Boyd raises ethical questions about what they do; Topher responds by quoting Hamlet, saying "there's nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so" ("Ghost"). Topher insists that their work is essentially humanitarian (saying "We gave two people a perfect weekend together") and that it fulfills a social and economic need: the literally mindless Echo is "living the dream" ("Ghost"). Boyd asks the obvious question--"Whose dream?"--and Topher throws up his hands, asking "Who's next?" ("Ghost"). For Topher, the Dollhouse, despite its implications of slavery and prostitution, is immune to ethical complaints simply because it exists to serve market demands for beautiful women in sexy clothing. Market demands thus supersede not only artistic, but even ethical concerns.

The effect of these market demands is not merely artistic, but moral, as well. Even when not treated directly, the ethics of the Dollhouse figure into each episode. One of the primary issues, at least to initial viewers of the series, is that the Dollhouse is essentially a high-class brothel. Clients pay exorbitant prices for the privilege of acting out their sexual fantasies with the dolls who are, it is important to note, not simply pretending to be whatever the client has requested; they are actually whatever they seem to be.

In addition to the specter of prostitution, the dolls might also be considered slaves or indentured servants--they have, after all, handed over their bodies to the Dollhouse. But Dollhouse almost always problematizes such clear moral claims. While the dolls have allowed a corporation to use their bodies however it sees fit, they have done so of their own volition and with full knowledge of the terms of their contract. Of course, such "consensual slavery" (as Ballard puts it in the episode "Briar Rose") is absurd, and Coker rightly uses his comment to point out that coercion is used to convince several of the dolls to enter the Dollhouse: Caroline, Priya, and Dr. Saunders, we learn, find themselves in the dollhouse through circumstances largely out of their control (Coker 230).

The sixth episode, "Man on the Street," most clearly dramatizes the show's moral problems--and also marked the return of Whedon as writer after an absence of the four episodes following the pilot. In this episode, Ballard has tracked Echo to a suburban home where her engagement is to become Rebecca Mynor, the deceased wife of billionaire Joel Mynor (Patton Oswalt). Rebecca was killed in a car accident while on her way to meet him at this house, where Joel had planned to surprise her by revealing that he had bought it. While this is certainly a touching engagement for Echo, its sweetness is troubled by Joel's intention to have sex with Echo after showing her the house. (Moral judgments are even further complicated by Echo's desire, at the end of the episode, to complete the engagement.) Ballard, standing in for the viewer's conscience, browbeats Joel, only to have Joel respond, "I'm sure I'm in need of some serious moral spankitude--uh, guess who's not qualified to be my rabbi?" The implication here is that Ballard's obsession with Echo/ Caroline has compromised any ability he may have to make moral judgments about the Dollhouse's clients. If Ballard is a stand-in for the viewer, then we, too, are compromised. Ballard's obsession with Echo/Caroline becomes our obsession with her, as evidenced by our returning, every week, as we attempt to piece together the puzzle of the Dollhouse.

This viewer participation takes on a special significance when we consider the FOX alternate reality game (ARG), "Saving Hazel," which was developed as a piece of viral marketing for Dollhouse. Coker's reading of the game is particularly interesting:
 The viral gameplay that encourages participation in the show's
 universe as well as a critique of the show's universe adds a
 valuable dimension to the story. It accepts a critical view
 within the universe itself that remains objective by virtue of
 not involving weekly characters we are familiar with, and by
 making the participating players and viewers characters as well.
 When Hazel declares that culture brainwashes people into
 thoughtless consumers, we face the fact that we are the consumers,
 and thus question ourselves as viewers. When she encourages us
 to free ourselves, we begin to question ourselves, and take on
 an active role rather than a passive role. (234-35)

Like Dollhouse, the ARG presents viewers with a universe they are to consume, but which contains within it a critique of such consumption. To return to Waugh's description of metafiction, the ARG is "simultaneously ... creat[ing] a fiction and ... mak[ing] a statement about the creation of that fiction" (43) in precisely the way Dollhouse is.

The image of "thoughtless consumers" is important; in the pilot episode, Whedon offers a clear critique of such mindlessness. In an exchange between Gabriel Crestejo (Kurt Caceres) and his young daughter, Davina (Haley Pullos), the girl begs her father to allow her to watch a reality television show:

DAVINA. I don't understand.

GABRIEL. You don't have to understand. You just have to do as I tell you.

DAVINA. They'll find out, you know.

GABRIEL. And why should I care about that?

DAVINA. They'll laugh at me. Everybody watches it. It's all they talk about.

GABRIEL. That's 'cause their brains are melting and that reality crap is the reason why. ("Ghost") (12)

This dialogue critiques the endless number of reality television programs that have dominated the major networks' prime-time programming since the debut of the US version of Survivor in 2000, and which have been satirized by films such as EDtv and The Truman Show. More importantly, the explicit reference to the melting of brains as a result of bad television suggests a parallel between television programming and the programming of the dolls. As we learn in the series finales, the wrong programming can literally transform people into mindless zombies.

The second episode of the series, "The Target," features Echo as an active hired by a client, Richard, to join him on a risky wilderness adventure. After sleeping with her, Richard informs Echo that he is going to hunt her--a twist unforeseen by the Dollhouse, which prides itself on a total awareness of all risks involved with their dolls' engagements. The episode's theme, however, is not so much about turning tables as it is about the protean and performative nature of the characters' roles--calling attention to the dolls-as-actors.

Earlier in the episode, we learn that each Doll must be "bonded" to a handler by reciting a specific script authored by Topher, and in the bonding procedure between Echo and her new handler, Boyd, Topher explicitly describes their roles in the Dollhouse as performative:

TOPHER. This is art. It's not an oil change. Mush the brush strokes and you get a clown on black velvet.

TOPHER hands a piece of paper to BOYD.

BOYD. What's this?

TOPHER. It's your script. Call and response. Neural lock and key.

BOYD looks incredulously at the script.

TOPHER. All right, Brando! Let's see what you got!

BOYD. Everything's going to be--

TOPHER: Ho--waitwaitwait. Stop. Take her hand.

BOYD. What?

TOPHER Hold her hand. Tactile proximity enhances bonding protocol.

BOYD takes ECHO's hand.

TOPHER. And take two. ("The Target")

Here, Echo and Boyd are actors in a fictional scene written and directed by Topher--all within an actual scene written by Steven S. DeKnight for a series created by Whedon, who has provided Kranz, Dushku, and Lennix as dolls to perform the identities of Topher, Echo, and Boyd. This performance becomes more significant near the end of the episode, when Boyd and Echo return to the script after Boyd is wounded while trying to rescue Echo:

BOYD. Everything's going to be all right.

ECHO. No, it isn't.

BOYD. Did you hear what I said? Everything's going to be--

ECHO. Everything's not going to be all right. You don't get to live just because you deserve to. You have to prove it. You have to put your shoulder to the wheel.


ECHO. Do you trust me?

BOYD. What?

ECHO. Do you trust me?

BOYD. With my life. ("The Target")

Here, the roles are reversed: Boyd plays the role of the doll and Echo that of the handler, with the added complication that Echo is also speaking the lines of the maniac who has been hunting her. While this moment continues the role reversals that have been happening throughout the episode, it also calls attention to the metafiction of Topher-as-artist overseeing the dolls-as-actors, signaling that what we are viewing here is more than it may seem. If Whedon is our artist and the actors are his dolls, the viewer becomes implicated in this symbolic equation. If television is a brainwashing technology, by viewing Dollhouse, we receive programming, and if that programming is "crap," or a "clown on black velvet," the result is that our brains will be melted.

The third episode of Dollhouse, "Stage Fright," broadens the series' critique. In this episode, Echo poses as a backup singer in order to protect Rayna, a young diva who has been the victim of an assassination attempt. The episode opens with a shot of the singer, scantily clad, dancing in a cage. The beautiful and half-naked Rayna gyrates on stage while being adored by her screaming fans, and her hyper-sexuality distracts from the imagery both on the stage and in the lyrics she is singing. On stage, Rayna begins inside a cage, stepping out of it--as if the song were a soliloquy--while the cage remains prominently displayed above and behind her. Rayna's sexuality distracts us from both her captivity and the message of her lyrics.

The song she sings is at once completely vapid and a commentary on the various valences of meaning in Dollhouse. This lyric, spoken by an unknown speaker to a "superstar," complains about how fame distorts the priorities of the individual: "You're a superstar / Everyone knows who you are / You think you're so damn hot / You're a superstar / Everyone knows who you are / You think you're everything / But baby, you're not, not, not." The lyric is also an articulation of thwarted desire; the speaker desires the star, but that desire is crushed by the star's inattention: "Superstar, superstar, / driving in your fancy car / Wishing you could take me home / You've got the lingo and the pedigree / To flip the script and get to me / But you just can't get off the phone." On another level, the lyrics are the lament of Rayna herself, caught up in the machinery of the music industry--in other words, she is also the superstar, unable to connect to the people around her, confusing her popularity with significance. The lyrics recognize the performative nature of the relationship, calling attention to it with phrases such as "flip the script" and "rehearsed your lines."

One of the most interesting elements of the song is its conclusion. The song comes to an abrupt end when one of the backup singers bursts into flames and Rayna's final line is cut off. As the camera cuts to the woman in flames, Rayna sings, "Shopping spree and limousines / Flash a little jewelry / You bought it all but not my soul." This line echoes the relationship between the dolls in the Dollhouse, who have sold their bodies (but not their souls) to the Dollhouse typically in exchange for the Dollhouse's assistance with some legal, financial, or personal problem. As with the dance scene in "Ghost," the dual distractions of Rayna in a shimmering bikini and the flaming backup singer turn our attention from one of the primary philosophical questions of Dollhouse: Is there an element of the self that is permanent, indestructible, and impossible to sell? Like the motorcycle chase of the first episode, Rayna's style distracts the viewer from the substance of what she is saying.

There are other resonances as well. The song's many references--to the glamorous lifestyle that is not what it appears to be, to scripts, to lines being rehearsed, and to the soul all suggest a connection between Rayna and the dolls. Indeed, Rayna might as well be singing about the dolls. The parallels between the Dollhouse and the music industry are significant. As in the Dollhouse's co-ed shower, co-ed nakedness backstage is expected (Echo is told "They're all gonna see your stuff now or later, so you might as well get used to it" ["Stage Fright"]). Like the handlers in the Dollhouse, Rayna's manager watches over her. And like the actives, Rayna's identity, and her relationship with her fans (or clients, or customers), is performative.

In Rayna's dressing room, Echo reads a fan letter and remarks, "These people actually think they have a relationship with you"--a comment that also resonates with the actives in the Dollhouse--and with Whedon and his actors. Rayna's articulation of her sense of entrapment by the entertainment industry provides another parallel:

ECHO. What misery? What have you got to be miserable about?

RAYNA. No. Right, I got to be happy. I got to be grateful. I got to be rebellious--but just enough to give me cred, so people know I'm not a factory girl. But I am. I don't exist. I'm not a real person. I'm everybody's fantasy. And God help me if I try not to be. No, you weren't grown in the lab, but I was. ("Stage Fright")

The irony here is that the roles could easily be reversed. Both women have been manufactured to such an extent that neither could be considered a "real person" because both are "everybody's fantasy." Rayna's shows, like all shows by those who "used to sing for the mouse" and all engagements with actives, are manufactured sex and intimacy. Her concerts--and the public figure "Rayna"--are in this sense no different from the actives on their engagements: they are entirely performative, heavily scripted and controlled at all points.

The viewer of Dollhouse is implicated in this relationship, too. Like Rayna's fans, we watch as Dushku appears for us on the screen, performing scripted sex, glamour, and intimacy. While Whedon may be critiquing such superficiality, he has nevertheless provided it--and thus exploits it--in the form of the beautiful dolls. One of Coker's observations is worth restating here: when we are told that "culture brainwashes people into thoughtless consumers, we face the fact that we are the consumers, and thus question ourselves as viewers" (235).

The parallels between the music industry and the television industry are significant. The implication is that an industry with the choice between great art and glamour will choose glamour--to the detriment of all involved. The music industry, like the television industry and like the Dollhouse, relies on a technology of immense possibility that is often reduced to the crass commerce of selling of sex and desire. If Rayna is a representation of the pop diva, then Echo is the starlet. The argument of Dollhouse is thus thoroughly metacritical: Whedon uses a television show about fake, sexy people, performed by actors who are his dolls, to mount a complaint about an entertainment industry intent on representing a world filled with fake, sexy people.

Dollhouse limped into both its seasonal and series finales. The first finale did not air and was only included on the first season DVD. In its second season, Dollhouse was pulled during sweeps week and returned in December, with FOX broadcasting two episodes at a time until it had aired all remaining episodes. As a result, the sharp narrative rupture created by "Epitaph One" was significantly delayed and available only to those who purchased the DVD.

"Epitaph One" is set in 2019, following a global apocalypse after the Rossum Corporation's imprinting technology has been used to imprint innocent individuals worldwide. "Epitaph One" and the second season's finale, "Epitaph Two: Return," are the logical extensions of the concerns that the series had articulated in its first season. If the series' initial complaint was that technology was not being used to its full potential, the global apocalypse resulting from its widespread use suggests that if left unchecked and uncorrected, it could divide humanity into those whose brains have been melted by the signal and those whose brains have not. The result of this technology when left unchecked is quite literally the destruction of the civilized world. Whedon's apocalyptic vision here marks Dollhouse as an artistic endeavor with a clear goal: to mount a complaint about the relationship between technology, commerce, and art; this argument, unfortunately, seems to have gone largely unnoticed by critics and viewers alike.

I do not want to suggest here that Dollhouse was a series without serious flaws. While most critics seem to have missed the argument that I detect in the show, that does not mean the series did not spend far too long acting as a cross between Alias and Charlie's Angels or that the problem of representing the absence of identity with the dolls was handled poorly. Similarly, the show's themes were most certainly alienating to many potential viewers; prostitution and slavery hardly make for must-see-TV. But deep beneath the veneer of cliches, lodged somewhere just beyond the camera's incessant need to place a beautiful doll on our screens, is a show that complained about the entertainment industry's tendency to value the superficial, the beautiful, and the glamorous over the interesting, the valuable, and the good.

In his 1967 manifesto "The Literature of Exhaustion," John Barth argues that one of the hallmarks of postmodern fiction is its "exhausted possibility" or its being characterized by "the used-upness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities" (29). The metafiction of Dollhouse signals such exhaustion and suggests that, like Barth's "genuine virtuosi doing things that anyone can dream up and discuss but almost no one can do" (30), Whedon had reached the limits of the television serial's "possibilities of novelty" (Barth 34). When we consider that in Dollhouse, Whedon recycled actors from his previous television series (Eliza Dushku, Alexis Denisof, and Felicia Day from Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Amy Acker from Angel; Alan Tudyk and Summer Glau from Firefly), we can almost read Dollhouse as a reformulation of preexisting materials--like Topher, Whedon is reimagining new scenarios for his dolls. Finally, such a reading allows us to see the death of Topher in "Epitaph Two: Return"--an episode neither written nor directed by Joss Whedon--as a comment on the end of artistic possibility. It is, in a sense, an act of artistic uncreation and self-abnegation, for in a world of exhausted artistic possibilities, there is no place for Topher or Whedon and their work.

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(1.) This article emerged from a series of crucial conversations. Chris Miller was instrumental in first formulating the argument. Kyle Bishop read very early drafts and offered critical feedback on the shape of the discussion. Much of the argument presented here benefitted immensely from discussions in my Television as Literature course in Fall 2010. I am particularly thankful for comments from two students, Dayne Linford and Jessica Pollard, whose insights into Dollhouse were invaluable to my working through this argument.

(2.) There were numerous campaigns to save Dollhouse from cancellation, some of which were actually preemptive. In May 2008, before Dollhouse had actually aired, Wired reported that numerous fan groups were organizing campaigns to save the show from cancellation (Wortham).

(3.) ABC ranked Dollhouse as the 132nd most popular show of the season, indicating that it garnered 4.6 million viewers (ABC).

(4.) Writing on the blog of the Weekly Standard, M. E. Russell notes that "As an afterthought, Fox released the 14 episodes on DVD and something surprising happened: The expensive boxed set sold somewhere north of 200,000 copies."

(5.) The shelving of Dollhouse was first reported by Entertainment Weekly on 21 Oct. 2009 (Ausiello).

(6.) There is an irony in presenting a song composed by Jonatha Brooke, herself a critically acclaimed songwriter, that has no lyrics beyond nonsense. Brooke, like Whedon, has had a turbulent relationship with her industry despite having cultivated a respectably large following. In a way, Brooke stands in for Whedon: she is a well-respected artist reduced to producing sexy nonsense by an industry that seems neither to respect nor need the art she wants to make.

(7.) This is not the first time that Whedon has used the image of a woman being placed in a box or of a woman in a fetal position. In Firefly, River Tam first appears, stored in stasis, in a container. Attempting to diagnose, understand, and thus metaphorically place her in a box, becomes one of the central themes of Firefly. Alyson R. Buckman's "'Much Madness Is Divinest Sense': Firefly's 'Big Damn Heroes' and Little Witches" is particularly helpful in interpreting River's feminist significance.

(8.) Similarly, in the episode "Gray Hour," the camera's attention is constantly turned to the works of art Echo is attempting to steal, suggesting parallels between her and the art.

(9.) The original pilot, "Echo," was rejected by FOX (Godwin).

(10.) In book 2 of The Republic, Plato describes the story of the Ring of Gyges, which allowed the wearer to become invisible. Plato uses the story to ask whether an individual would remain just if there were no negative consequences for unjust acts committed by him (2.360-61).

(11.) In the DVD commentary on "Ghost," Dushku remarks that even she was curious about why the camera was filming her from such a low angle.

(12.) All transcripts are my own.
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Author:Rogers, Scott
Publication:Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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