Spoilers for the season[?] finale of Dollhouse coming up after the jump:
If Dollhouse does not return for a second season—and I’m hoping, but let’s be realistic—what lessons can we take from it? Maybe that what makes a successful TV show is a mystery anyway, so you might as well go for it and make the best show you can creatively, rather than pre-emptively compromise it.
Dollhouse spent its first several episodes delivering what looked like a TV executive’s idea of what a broadcast audience could reasonably deal with in a sci-fi show: a procedural action drama about a good-looking woman kicking ass and rocking hot outfits. When it eventually became what it wanted to be—an ensemble story about the moral danger of trying to separate the mind from the body—it was engrossing and had a reason for being. Would the ratings have been any better if it committed to this from the get-go? Who knows, but in retrospect it probably wouldn’t have hurt.
If “Omega” was Dollhouse’s omega, it went out with a moving and satisfying season-ender. In the showdown between Alpha and Echo/Omega you could see the first direct threads of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Alpha, it turned out, besides being a damaged psycho, was also a control freak trying to create his own dream woman—reminiscent of the misogynist villains, like Warren and Caleb, who populated the darker later years of Buffy.
Of course, if Alpha is a villain, he is, necessarily nothing next to the people who created him. And in “Omega” we learned that the monstrosity of the Dollhouse was even more monstrous–not only was it taking desperate people to become indentured servants / sex toys, at its inception, it was experimenting on prisoners. No biggie, claimed Topher, since their identities were being wiped and replaced.
Over the course of the season, I’ve read some complaints about Topher as a character, but in retrospect he may be the most intriguing figure inside the Dollhouse. I suspect he threw some people because—as a wisecracking young guy—he may have led them to believe that we’re supposed to like him. Hardly. And what was brilliant about how Whedon conceived and presented him is that he’s a picture of technological arrogance as it really manifests in the world. He’s not a mad, megalomaniac genius with a God complex. He’s a self-deceiving, amoral twirp with limited social skills manipulating people for a paycheck. Which is what evil so often is in the world: not loathsome but contemptible.
The final conflict between him and Ballard made plain the philosophical question at the center of Dollhouse: are the mind and the body cleanly separable, is a human reducible to a series of complex algorithms or is there something like a permanent soul (or, at least, for the agnostic, an essence)? And once one is able to separate them, or try to—once you can imprison a human being on a motherboard—what horrible things will people attempt to do with this power? (This, by the way, seems to be the same question that the Battlestar Galactica sequel Caprica plans to deal with, in the person of its software mogul played by Eric Stoltz.)
Dollhouse not only made this question fascinating, in the last half of its season, but the climactic showdown—with Caroline trapped in another body as Alpha threatened to download and kill her again and again—it made it thrilling and even entertaining. (“You’re in a lair. An evil lair. You’re in a dentist’s chair letting a guy who talks to himself attach wires to your head. Which, incidentally, is my head.”
The dollhouse never really seemed that credible as a fantasy-rental service for millionaires. But as some kind of shadowy espionage / sleeper cell system, its potential is immense, and the series seemed to be building toward getting at that greater plan. Which is why I hope against hope to see it again, even (or especially) in one last season that gives it a chance to play out its story. And also so we can see more of the supporting actors who have really become the reason to watch, especially Amy Acker, who showed impressive range in the last couple episodes as the revealed doll Whiskey.
And if it doesn’t come back—well, then I’m hoping against hope that after this, and Firefly and so on, Fox (and other networks) will learn that when you’re making a show with someone like Joss Whedon, you may as well go all in or go home. A pipe dream? Maybe. But in the words of the Beck song that beautifully closed Dollhouse’s first, and hopefully not last, season, “Everybody’s gotta learn sometime.”