Dollhouse, a show which should be preserved as a poster-child for all sorts of frustrating ‘what might have beens’ is ending in a few weeks, and creator Joss Whedon gave a pretty wide ranging interview with The Chicago Tribune. Whedon is honest about the compromises that he made in order to continue with the show – how difficult he found it to balance his vision with the demands of a network who became skittish about some of the areas that Whedon was interested in exploring and what that meant for the creative process.
I make no bones about the fact that, of anybody working in mainstream culture, Whedon’s vision speaks directly to me in a way that nobody else does. Questions of identity have always been central to his shows – both for individual characters (Buffy trying to figure out where the Slayer ends and she begins) and for groups (the ‘created’ families of Firefly and Angel). I find this endlessly fascinating and am always amazed by how Whedon and his partners find fresh ways to examine these themes within such diverse genre trappings.
From the interview, it seemed that in its original conception, Dollhouse, was Whedon’s attempt to drill further into these obsessions;
…it was more about the idea of our identities and what we consider to be ourselves and how relating to other people affects that, how we incorporate other people in ourselves and how we project ourselves onto people and how everybody relates to everyone in their lives through the filter of their own beliefs, experiences and memories. That to me is kind of fascinating. What we think we want from each other when we say “I love you” or any of those other things is, I think, very complex and sometimes very depressing and sometimes kind of weirdly beautiful.
Now that’s a show I would have killed to see. But the quote also shows Whedon’s shortsightedness if he thought that a network would be the right place to explore it. Leaving aside the content restrictions concerning sex (the hypocrisy of which Whedon is right to call out), the sheer brutal creative drain of churning out 22 episodes a year is inevitably going to dilute a concept like this. It’s why networks are so eager to commission procedurals. The elements of each set-up are basic and easy to grasp, no matter what extra kink is thrown in to differentiate it (She speaks to ghosts! He’s a human lie detector!).
Dollhouse was doomed because Whedon chose the wrong venue and its not necessarily Fox’s fault if they tried to steer the show to what they saw as a more commercial direction. Whedon should have learned his lesson with Firefly.
That’s why I am excited about the thought of Whedon going to a cable channel – not necessarily because he can suddenly be a bit more graphic with what he shows, but because of the wider degree of flexibility it affords strong producers to shape their series around the demands on the concept. The great renaissance in American television in the last 10 years (and that certainly seems to be the case from here in the UK) was driven by this flexibility. Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Wire and Battlestar Galactica could only exist once many of the structural restrictions of network television were removed.
I don’t think that cable channels are a panacea for Whedon’s difficulties, merely that they represent the best opportunity for him to be able to tell the stories he wants with the fewest compromises to economic reality. He will still ultimately have to create a show that people will want to see.