It came out last week that Joss Whedon’s triumphant return to television, DOLLHOUSE, a sci-fi series about attractive twenty-somethings who are implanted with designer personalities to fulfill the needs of the wealthy, will be short lived. All signs point to FOX canceling the show after only twelve episodes into its freshmen season. Sure it had a lot of things going against it (a deathtrap Friday night timeslot, pilot re-shoots, and supposed creative differences) but the reason for its failure lies not in the details but in the inherent flaw at the core of the show’s concept.

Now to question the wisdom of the great and powerful Whedon is sacrilege in most circles. After all, he is the creator of the terribly successful “Buffy-verse” and the equally fantastic “Firefly” series. He’s even pioneered arguably the most promising non-porn show to hit the Internet in “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog”. He’s a gracious, trend-setting auteur with a legion of loyal and devoted fans. But even the best marksman can miss from time to time. And despite all its potential, Dollhouse is definitely wide left.

All television shows have what are called “Storytelling Engines”. They’re the situations (or specific set of circumstances) that require our characters to go on an infinite number of adventures. Traditional television engines are detectives, doctors, or military personnel because their jobs force them to complete missions or solve cases. Quests or vendettas are also useful series motivators because they give the show a natural goal and conclusion. But in the end, they are simply excuses for the characters we love to get into trouble, grow, and evolve. So for the show to work, the storytelling engine must not be in conflict with that principle.

For example, the general premise of the series DEXTER is a serial killer who kills bad guys while trying to maintain the illusion of a normal life. Now even though Dexter has grown and changed immensely over the last three seasons, the general premise is exactly the way it was in the pilot. And for all its twists and turns, the core idea behind the series LOST is still about a group of strangers coming together to discover the secrets of a mysterious island. The characters and relationships have changed, but the goal remains the same. But in DOLLHOUSE, the development and growth of the characters actually corrodes the storytelling engine of the show. How can they change if they’re blank slates? But how can they be the perfect fantasy if they’re not? The storytelling engine doesn’t allow for Echo to get into trouble, grow, and evolve without taking the Dollhouse down with her. This conflict requires the show to stay stagnate in an anthology-like format or modify the premise beyond the original pilot. And in this case change is bad.

With all the options to choose from these days, audiences have to know what they’re getting into from the get-go. Examining the themes of identity, fantasy, and humanity is all well and good, but it can’t be done at the expense of character and story.  DOLLHOUSE is a noble failure, but a failure nonetheless. Because if you don’t know what your shows about, how do you expect us to?



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