And now, Scary-Crayon insists that... Dollhouse is still lame by: Wes

If you've been keeping up with television show reviews on the Interwebs, you might have noticed that reviews of "Dollhouse" episodes have grown increasingly positive. Whereas folks in the beginning were largely iffy on the show -- even when they resolved to reserve judgment and keep watching for the love of Joss Whedon -- I now find reviewers praising Whedon's brilliance after every episode. (Predictably, this started around the sixth episode... which, of course, was penned by Whedon himself.) The truth, however, is that the show not only has not gotten better on the whole, but also has become rather hateful in a number of ways.

When I first wrote about the show several episodes in, I lamented the fact that none of the characters were particularly likeable -- because, with the exception of the infuriatingly annoying Topher, the characters were either focused professionals or dolls. We've learned a tiny bit more about the characters since then, but none of this has helped to make the characters more appealing. Yes, we know that Echo was formerly Caroline, an animal rights activist who was coerced into mindwiped slavery when her efforts to free the cuddlies and unintentionally infect the population with the RAGE virus were thwarted by the shadowy parent corporation that oversees both animal experimentation and the Dollhouse operation. We know that Sierra refused to have sex with some gangster dude, so he gave her to the Dollhouse so that he could screw her whenever he pleased. We know that November was a mother whose child died, so she willingly came to the Dollhouse so that she could forget that tragic event. We know that Journeyman's hardass brother (the character had a name, but he was such a stereotypical hardass that I didn't even remember it until his final appearance) was actually an NSA spy. Admittedly, that discovery actually made him kind of interesting... and also resulted in him being imprisoned and effectively removed from the show. Woo.

Oh, and we learned that many of the Dollhouse staff members are actually clients who schedule romantic liaisons with the dolls, because I guess their lives are so hectic and busy that they don't have time for real relationships. I think that's supposed to make them more sympathetic. It might, too, if those characters weren't presiding over an operation that performs the brainwashing and rape of people on a regular basis.

Sponsored by the magic of technology and rape.

And here's where the show's hateful qualities come in. "Dollhouse" isn't like, say, "The Prisoner", where we're watching Number Six in captivity but also cheering his efforts to thwart the establishment and ultimately escape from the Village. The Dollhouse is a reprehensible organization, but the constant focus on it -- not to mention the attempts to make its employees more sympathetic (whereas Ballard, the FBI agent seeking to bring it down, has frequently been portrayed as obsessed) -- suggests that we're supposed to be rooting for it. Instead of boldly trying to escape every week, the actives are almost entirely subjugated. They did try to flee on one occasion, but that was revealed to be part of a Dollhouse experiment designed to keep them under control by allowing them to resolve the issues plaguing their restless subconscious minds. Since that's happened, they're back to being uninteresting, obedient little brainwashees who are exploited and manipulated in all manner of unsavory ways -- being pressed into everything from romantic engagements to dangerous missions to potentially life-threatening surgical procedures -- by clients and staff members alike.

Speaking of the clients, I often find them to be pretty reprehensible as well -- which is a problem considering that many of the episodes focus on helping or otherwise satisfying them. The much-lauded Whedon episode, for instance, had a rich Internet tycoon who, every year on the anniversary of his wife's death, has her personality imprinted into a doll so that they can share another romantic night together. Sounds sweet, right? Personally, I find the whole thing kind of perverse -- it's like hiring a really good actress/prostitute to wear your dead wife's clothes and pretend to be her for an evening. It's even worse when you consider that the performer is actually a brainwashed prisoner who, if her original mind were restored, would probably try to escape. And while I'd probably dislike a character who hired brainwashed girls to impersonate his dead wife on an annual basis anyway, this character was particularly hateful because, when Ballard crashed his liaison and tried to throw his FBI clout around, the creepy rich dude responded by touting his importance and belittling Ballard's misguided attempt to take on "the Internet establishment." He was a thoroughly disgusting character.

And yet the episode ended with a saccharine sequence -- complete with slow motion and sappy music -- in which he happily embraced Echo and presumably went on to perform his annual ritual of raping of a poor girl brainwashed into believing that she's his dead wife. Everything about the scene suggested that I should be applauding this turn of events, yet I couldn't help but be disgusted and infuriated by the suggestion that I was supposed to be glad that the creepy Internet guy gets to live out his fantasy. This wasn't a David Lynch-esque scene where we're supposed to look beyond the violets and sunshine to see the festering weeds and dung beetles, either -- "Dollhouse" is just a show in which the writers don't put very much thought at all into the decidedly unsavory implications of the events on screen.


Unfortunately, that doesn't prevent the writers from trying to give the impression of depth rather than actually taking the time to actually, you know, think. The Whedon episode widely hailed as the turning point of the show contained a number of snippets in which random people shared their thoughts on the concept of an organization that can brainwash individuals and imprint them with any personality at a whim. Not all of these were deep, and some were obviously included for comic relief, but the final one -- presumably delivered by a fictional professor -- was clearly supposed to be thought-provoking. Here it is in its entirety (emphasis mine):

"Forget morality. Imagine it's true -- imagine this technology being used. Now imagine it being used on you. Everything you believe: gone. Everyone you love: strangers, maybe enemies. Every part of you that makes you more than a walking cluster of neurons: dissolved -- at someone else's whim. If that technology exists, it'll be used, it'll be abused, it will be global. And we will be over. As a species, we will cease to matter."

The first part of the quote is just a restatement of the potential impact of the technology on the individual. It's repackaged in more dramatic and pretentious terms, but there's nothing new there -- he's basically talking about brainwashing with little reference to the unique nature of the Dollhouse's wares. (I tend to focus on the brainwashing aspect a lot as well, but only in conjunction with my harping on the exploitative uses of the stuff -- it's not just that they brainwash you, but that they then program your brainwashed body out to perform various unscrupulous tasks and/or have sex with persons of their choosing.) Then there's the doom-and-gloom prediction that the technology will be global and widely used. I'm not sure about that (after all, it's obviously not cheap and is very complex, so it's not like every creep could have an imprinting chair in his basement), but I'll grant that the spread of Dollhouse technology could be a problem. The final sentences are what mark this as empty pseudo-philosophical bullshit.

Consider the following questions: what makes a species matter? How would the use of personality-overriding technology suddenly eradicate that worth? For that matter, to whom or what does a species matter in the first place? Simply thinking about those questions should be enough to highlight how absurd that sentiment really is. "As a species, [X] would cease to matter" is a statement best reserved for discussing an animal's potential effects on an ecosystem, not notions of identity and individual worth. These are words chosen because they sound heavy to an unattentive ear -- not because they're actually saying anything. The criticism arguably extends even to the assertion that "every part of you that makes you more than a walking cluster of neurons [will be] dissolved," since the dolls are never really automatons -- they're just not themselves. But talk of walking clusters of neurons sounds so much deeper, doesn't it? Jack Handey would be proud.

Look Ma, eternal life!

But it's not just that the phrasing of these kinds of sentiments is poor -- the thinking behind them is similarly flawed. In the most recent episode, an elderly woman regularly visited the Dollhouse to have her personality stored on file so that, in the event of her death, an active could be imprinted with her personality so that she could attend her own funeral and solve her murder. So the woman died, Echo got her personality... and suddenly everyone in the episode started going on about eternal life. What? A setup like this does bear similarities to a number of other speculative fiction concepts (cloning and possession, for example), but -- unless you believe that what constitutes your life is akin to transferable data -- eternal life is hardly the first thing that comes to mind given the nature of this situation. Or, if it is the first thing that comes to mind, you'll quickly reject it when you recall that the person who has been granted "eternal life" is flipping dead.

Suppose that we clone you and then put the clone on ice. Then I prepare to murder you and explain that, once you're dead, the clone will be thawed and introduced into society as you. If you aren't bothered because you assume that you'll just wake up again shortly after you've been killed, you're misguided. Yes, you'll sort of have eternal life in that your personality will endure in a new body and continue to live your life as you would have (barring any identity crises that are pretty much a staple of these kinds of stories), but you will obviously still be dead. If this sort of thing is all you mean by "eternal life," shell out $5 a month and get yourself a website. I mean, if the Whedonites draw and quarter me for not fawning over this shallow show (and don't hack my server or otherwise kick Scary-Crayon off the 'net), the site -- and thus my words, thoughts, and some reflection of my personality -- will continue to endure despite my passing. Ooooh, eternal life!

However, "Dollhouse" apologists might insist that, while I am justified in asserting that the "eternal life" discussed in the episode obviously does not constitute what we commonly mean when we use the term, the writers actually intended to refer to the form that is suggested by the endurance of a personality and influence of an individual. That would be all well and good if they'd clarified that and adjusted the dialogue in accordance with the idea, but here's a snippet from one character's dialogue:

"You realize that's the beginning of the end. Life everlasting -- it's the ultimate quest. Christianity, most religion, [even] morality doesn't exist without the fear of death."

Forget that one could give a compelling argument for the continued existence of morality in a world without death (maybe I'm in the minority, but it's not the fear of death that makes me want to treat people with kindness and decency) -- it's more important for our purposes to note that, insofar as people fear death now, the fear of death would totally be present in this kind of "eternal life." Remember, in our example, you die and the clone continues on in your place. On "Dollhouse," the woman died while Echo continued on in her place. I guess the fear of death could be eliminated in this type of situation if we assume that it stems solely from our fear of leaving tasks unfinished when we die -- tasks that could presumably be addressed by the enduring version of us -- but I strongly doubt that this is the primary reason that people tend to fear death. Again, those words were chosen not because they applied to the content in the episode or because they made intuitive sense, but because they sound deep to someone who either isn't really listening or is prepared to hail them as gospel because they were spoken in a Joss Whedon show.

Yes, dear, hug the brainwashed hottie imprinted with the personality of your dead mother.

But even if the show hadn't kept beating the "eternal life" horse -- which, of course, was actually dead -- I'd probably have been annoyed by the failure of the writers to acknowledge, again, that this is pretty perverse and objectionable stuff. Personally, I wouldn't want my personality to continue to endure after my death. Yes, it'd be nice to know that my last wishes would be carried out to my liking -- namely because my imprint would be the one carrying them out -- but beyond that? I would much rather be remembered (or not) for things I actually did than things that were done by even a very good facsimile. And if I woke up in someone else's body and were informed that Wes had in fact died and that I was his personality imprinted onto another individual, I would not be all excited and exclaim, "More life!" like Echo did in the episode in question. I would freak the fuck out. Yes, I would eventually calm down and carry out Wes's last wishes, but I'm reasonably certain that I would be unable to slip into his life as if I were him. I probably wouldn't even use his name. After all, I wouldn't be him, and even with all of his memories and personality I would be cognizant of that fact.

I guess there are probably some people who wouldn't even consider some of these things, but I do think that all but the most shallow people would respond to the situation with a modicum of seriousness and distress. Reactions might be even more pronounced, however, where other people are concerned. If my mother died and I encountered someone imprinted with her personality shortly thereafter, I would not sit down with her and have a warm chat (especially if I had killed her), as the son did with Echo in this episode. I damned sure wouldn't hug the impostor. Instead, I'd be repulsed and angry -- probably moreso than if someone dug up Mom's casket after her funeral and stole jewelry off of her corpse. Somehow, exhuming the mind of a late loved one seems far more offensive.

So while the characters are still thoroughly uninteresting and unsympathetic -- and while the story has advanced very little since I lamented that it was going nowhere seven episodes ago -- my main problem with "Dollhouse" is that, despite the potential depth of the subject matter, the exploration of these topics never rises above the level of discussions you might find three geeks having over a couple of beers and a game of Soul Calibur IV. (It's probably worth noting that the dead woman imprint episode has three credited writers, yet none of them was sober enough to point out the episode's eternal life fallacy.) Think about the conversations you might have had about which superpower you would choose if you could select either invisibility, flight, or super strength -- they rarely focus on any of the drawbacks or potential problems with these powers, instead focusing on the "cool" factor of each ability. If you wanted to make a thought-provoking show about individuals with these powers, however, you'd have to touch on the problems that they might encounter in real-world situations. And whereas the topics suggested by "Dollhouse" have far more potential for deep exploration than mere superpowers -- not only does the imprinting technology of the Dollhouse raise questions about identity and the nature of the self, but also the actions of the organization are strongly comparable to slavery and sex trafficking -- I find it difficult to imagine a more insubstantial treatment of the premise.

Someone please put this show to pasture.

So why, if the show isn't actually getting any better and is arguably getting worse, is "Dollhouse" now suddenly receiving rave reviews? I think, in part, this is because most of the people who saw the show for what it really is have stopped watching. The remaining viewers are primarily made up of three groups. There are the dispassionate viewers who really don't care what they're watching -- these are the kinds of people who hear lines like "as a species, we will cease to matter" and "morality doesn't exist without the fear of death" and accept them without question or consideration. There are the Whedonites, who would probably stand over Joss Whedon's unflushed toilet and marvel at the craftsmanship of the contents therein. And then there are the masochists, who watch for the sole purpose of inflicting pain upon themselves... and perhaps acquiring more material to blast on their obscure websites. After all, as far as the "Dollhouse" writers are concerned, that is the path to eternal life. :P

-- Wes --
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