No one could say they didn’t see this coming, but The Hollywood Reporter says it’s official: Dollhouse has been canceled. Fox, it reports, will finish running the rest of the 13 episodes of season 2.
Whenever a show with an intense fan base gets axed, there is wailing and gnashing and second-guessing. This is an especially hallowed ritual with Fox, which fans seem to believe airs great shows like Arrested Development (for three seasons) just for the cruel pleasure of later canceling them.
But though I’ll miss Dollhouse, and though I risk the wrath of the Internet, I’ll say it: Fox gave it as much of a chance as it reasonably could have.
Don’t get me wrong. I liked Dollhouse. I often loved it. And when I didn’t love it, I loved what it was trying to do. It was the kind of very ambitious storytelling that TV should be encouraging. Through a difficult (maybe fatally flawed) premise, Joss Whedon told a complex story about the nature of consciousness and human (especially female) exploitation, and he did it in the framework of situations and characters far more morally ambiguous than any TV outside a few cable channels usually allows.
But the show had its shot, and then some. Yes, Fox meddled too much early on. The first several episodes of the show forced a case-of-the-week procedural format on it that didn’t really fit. But it got a promotional campaign to rival Barack Obama’s general election. It got a second-season order with one of the lowest ratings for any renewed broadcast show ever. And once it found its voice, Fox committed to it and, apparently, let it be the show Whedon envisioned.
Fans didn’t like that the show was put on Friday nights, which is not exactly the biggest night of network TV. But (1) Friday has been a destination for sci-fi shows (e.g., BSG) for years, (2) that didn’t stop reruns of House and Bones from pulling bigger Friday ratings than Dollhouse originals, and (3) look—something has to go on Friday nights.
TV history is full of great shows that have been traduced by the networks that put them on: Freaks and Geeks was misunderstood and jerked around by NBC, and Whedon’s Firefly had a legitimate grievance, with episodes run out of order and its pilot rescheduled and chopped up.
But fair’s fair. I’ll hammer networks when they make dumb choices and screw over shows, but let’s give them credit when they give a decent shot to a risky show. Dollhouse had runs of brilliance. It also had a hugely challenging premise (getting viewers to identify with characters who were mind-wiped every episode—which it nonetheless largely pulled off), a lead who didn’t have the versatility her role required, and some basic problems of credibility (why would clients keep hiring the Dollhouse when its assignments so often went so horribly wrong?).
For all that, it did remarkably well. But it just didn’t happen this time. I’m at peace with that, but if you’re not—at least let me know what novelty items you plan on mass-mailing to the Fox offices.