Monday, November 30, 2009

The problem with "Epitaph One"

-Dollhouse- starts back up tonight. I'm going to pretend Epitaph One never happened.
For the uninitiated, here's the story of writer-producer-director Joss Whedon in a nutshell: early in his career, he worked on notable, quality entertainment. He eventually made his name -- and, frankly, helped to brand an entire network -- by reviving his failed movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a TV series. He grew a sizable, intensely loyal, yet not-quite-mainstream audience through that show. But aside from "Buffy" and its spinoff "Angel," he hasn't had a hit. His reputation is now as someone who makes great shows that fans love but that networks always screw up through a combination of meddling, bad marketing, and general mistreatment of the material (airing episodes out of order, shifting the schedule unexpectedly, airing on Fridays, etc). Still, the fans follow whatever he does, despite the near certainty that any show he makes will be ended early and inconclusively.

Which brings us to his latest, "Dollhouse." Another great concept from Whedon, the show began somewhat roughly but got progressively better. Typically low-rated, the show barely got renewed for a second season. Recently, Fox announced that this second season would be the last; but in a display of generosity, the production has been given time to properly wrap up the storylines, and all episodes will be aired.

As described by the official website, the concept of the show is as follows:

CAROLINE (Eliza Dushku) - code name "Echo" - is an "Active," a member of a highly illegal and underground group of individuals who have had their personalities wiped clean so they can be imprinted with any number of new personas. Hired by the wealthy, powerful and connected, the Actives don't just perform their hired roles, they wholly become - with mind, personality and physiology - whomever the client wants or needs them to be. Whether imprinted to be a lover, an assassin, a corporate negotiator or a best friend, the Actives know no other life than the specific engagements they are in at that time.

Confined between missions to a secret facility known as the "Dollhouse," Echo and the other Actives, including SIERRA (Dichen Lachman) and VICTOR (Enver Gjokaj), are assigned engagements by ADELLE DEWITT (Olivia Williams), one of the Dollhouse's leaders. After each scenario, Echo, always under the watchful eye of her handler-turned-head-of-security, BOYD LANGTON (Harry Lennix), returns to the mysterious Dollhouse where her thoughts, feelings, experiences and knowledge are erased by TOPHER BRINK (Fran Kranz), the Dollhouse's genius programmer. Echo then enters the next scenario with no memory of before - or does she?

The advantage of that concept is that the show is able to become something different each week - an action adventure, a soapy drama, a murder mystery. And tying it all together were the situations involving the clientele and the employees of the Dollhouse itself. The series did a great job exploring the moral and ethical complications that would arise from a situation like the Dollhouse. (Does voluntary slavery make slavery less immoral? Is it "prostitution" if an Active truly believes she's in love, and isn't receiving direct compensation?) And as with any decent sci fi, the audience is left to ponder analogies in the real world. In other words, this show had a lot going for it. Then came the episode titled "Epitaph One."

[ Here, I suppose I should put a SPOILERS warning, in case you were planning to get caught up on season one DVDs. ]

"Epitaph One" is a strange case. It's unofficial, yet completely official. It was never aired by Fox, yet this isn't a situation of the network mishandling a Whedon series. It was produced due to complicated contractual agreements that separated the network's requirements from the production company's requirements. So while the network never intended to air the episode, it needed to exist for overseas and DVD sales.

Before I dig in any deeper, I should say that I don't think "Epitaph One" is bad in and of itself. It's an interesting concept, and would probably make for a fascinating TV series. But that series would not be named "Dollhouse."

At the time the episode was produced, it was uncertain whether the series would get picked up for a second season; so the episode was written as a de facto series finale. "Epitaph One" takes place ten years after everything we'd seen in the "Dollhouse" series. We're introduced to an entirely new group of characters, and they're seen in a post apocalyptic environment of some sort. As they go about dodging and hiding from some intimidating-looking groups of people, they find themselves taking shelter in what we, the audience, recognize to be the Dollhouse.

All well and good. But then, through a series of flashbacks and some detective work by these new characters, we learn that the apocalypse plaguing Future World was caused by a technological advancement developed by Dollhouse staff and exploited by some of the less-scrupulous elements within the Dollhouse organization.

Again, interesting. But that is NOT what "Dollhouse" is about!

Previous to "Epitaph One," we'd watched twelve episodes of a series that was about the various adventures that these Actives were on. We'd watched a series about a business that operates illegally, providing an ethically ambiguous service to wealthy clients. We'd examined issues of class, gender, and moral relativism. We'd followed a character, an Active, who was unique amongst her peers in ways we were just beginning to understand, and whom we'd hoped held the key that would bring down this exploitative organization. Now we were being told that the series wasn't really about any of these things. What we were really watching was the day-to-day operations of a company that would eventually, inadvertently cause the apocalypse.

By shifting the perspective of the series to this apocalyptic future, "Epitaph One" nullifies the relationships the audience had built with these characters and the subject matter of the series. Essentially, it tells us we've been wasting our time, distracted by the wrong things. We shouldn't have concerned ourselves with the moral and legal implications of indentured servitude, the legal immunity enjoyed by the rich, the value of and right to individual autonomy. No, we should have been thinking about the collapse of civilization!

I understand how the creative team on "Dollhouse" justifies this story. There were seeds planted within the series that allow for this ultimate conclusion. The problem I have with it is that it's a complete thematic departure from the rest of the series. It tells us that everything we cared about for the previous twelve episodes was literally worthless, because this whole ship was going down anyway.

There's an implicit contract between a show's creators and its audience. While the audience wants to be surprised by the direction a show (or any story) takes, those surprises have to fit within the rules that the series has created for itself. "Lost" can become a show about time travel because we always knew there were paranormal elements at work. "ER" can end with an entirely different cast than it began with, because we always knew this was a show about the workings of a hospital. "Epitaph One" breaks our contract with "Dollhouse," because it tells us that "Dollhouse" was actually about the fall of humanity, when we had been led to believe that it was about the redemption of these specific characters.

As the second and final season comes to a close, it will be interesting to see if the remaining episodes try to justify the "Epitaph One" future, or if they ignore it in favor of giving us a satisfying resolution for the characters we've been meant to empathize with all along. My vote is for the latter. As I said back in September, in order to enjoy season two -- and the series in general -- I'm going to have to pretend "Epitaph One" never happened.


  1. You know, I saw an interview with with Eliza and it sounded like a storyline with legs, as you said. I will have to check it out now that I know a little bit more about it. Nice post, Joe.

  2. They should've saved this show just for the opening theme. Like the L Word season 1. :o)


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