Why "Dollhouse" Struggles and "Fringe" Soars

One of these things is a drab, bland, empty vessel. The other is a suitcase.Last night's exhilarating, ambitious season finale of Fringe plunged the show headlong into fantastical territory, after a season of gingerly dipping its toes into that end of the pool. Viewers as a whole supposedly don't like the sort of straight-up science fiction the Fringe finale embraced, as evidenced by the fan-lamented apparent death of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and the low ratings suffered by Joss Whedon's Dollhouse.

But if anyone can sell sci-fi to folks who just want to leave the TV on for a bit after American Idol, it's J.J. Abrams, who currently stands athwart the entertainment world like a bespectacled, Apple Store-loving colossus. After comparing Fringe's season-ender to Dollhouse's murkier but equally excellent wrap-up to its season's main story, I think I might know why.

Here are a few reasons why the same folks who shrug at Dollhouse seem to embrace Fringe -- and one way in which Whedon's latest creation definitively thumps Abrams'.

Warning: SPOILERS follow for Fringe and Dollhouse's finales.

1. A simpler concept
On Fringe, bad, icky stuff is happening, and good (and good-looking) people have to stop it. That's easy for anyone from Joe Sixpack to Jane Radcliffe to grasp. The series' mission statement is just that -- a statement. Dollhouse, in contrast, has more of a mission question. What makes us us? If you separate our minds from our bodies, does any part of us remain behind? If you allow us to overwrite our identities, and swap our bodies at will, could you destroy civilization? And seriously, how hot is Eliza Dushku in dominatrix gear?

OK, maybe that last one is less central to the series (answer: profoundly). But in general, Whedon is a philosopher who also likes to entertain; Abrams is an entertainer who dabbles in just enough philosophy to make his work look cooler. He's not interested in the ethical implications of a mutated monster smashing up an airplane -- he's interested in the awesomeness of a mutated monster smashing up an airplane.

Fringe did veer briefly into meatier mental territory with the finale's revelation that mad scientist Walter Bishop abducted an alternate universe's version of his dead son, who's since grown up never knowing his true origins. But in general, the only question Abrams' work invites the audience to ponder is a simple and admittedly brilliant one: What's gonna happen next?

2. Clear-cut good and evil
Mind you, I'm not saying we'll have any idea who the various factions in Fringe's world are working for, or what ends they ultimately serve -- not until the end of the third season, at least. But we're pretty sure that the hot blonde FBI lady, her hunky brooding surrogate brother-slash-love-interest-and-all-of-a-sudden-this-just-got-a-little-freaky, and his wacky lovable weirdo genius dad are the good guys. (Maybe not so much the wacky weirdo genius, but we're constantly reassured that he means well.) Meanwhile, the slyly evasive lady with the robot arm? And that freaky English dude with the bandaged-up face and the one creepy eye? Yeah, they're pretty much evil.

On Dollhouse, no one's quite so cut and dried. The white-knight FBI agent out to rescue the girl is paranoid, slightly creepy, and ultimately putting her in danger. The bodyguard who keeps her in her cage also loves her like a father. The icy mommy figure is secretly ravaged by guilt and regret. The lovable wacky nerd is a self-loathing sociopath. The doctor with the scarred-up face is kindly and compassionate -- right up until she isn't. And the damsel in distress herself is in no particular hurry to be rescued, and may actually be the most powerful one of all. With the possible exception of Dushku's Echo and the other dolls -- who are literally different people every week -- there's no one on Dollhouse you can feel entirely comfortable rooting for. And we all know how much viewers love that sort of confusion.

3. Overdogs vs. Underdogs
Joss Whedon cannot help letting his geek flag fly. Part of the reason his work attracts such vocal, enthusiastic, and, well, bugnuts psychotic fans is that it's centrally concerned with oddballs, outcasts, and underdogs. On Dollhouse, the titular organization is quite literally underground and off the grid, and the closest thing the show has to a conventional hero is a renegade with a threadbare career, mocked and despised by all but a handful of his coworkers -- and possibly for very good reason.

Fringe, in contrast, has a sexy, lovable blonde knockout working with the full support of one of the nation's most powerful law enforcement agencies, and nearly everyone around her telling her at every juncture how totally right she is about everything. For someone who works in a basement lab with a disgraced mad scientist, she's got it pretty darn easy. Indeed, one of this past season's lamest elements was the introduction of a cookie-cutter antagonist who threw roadblocks in Olivia Dunham's path simply because he didn't like her. And because she'd busted him for sexual harrassment that one time. And, oh yes, because he was evil. (And then he got set on fire by this one lady's brain.)

To some extent or another, we're all underdogs. The geekier among us may dream of being accepted (and powerful) without giving up our outsider status. But I suspect most of us would rather pretend that we're one of those fortunate and often fictional people for whom everything goes right.

4. That dude with the melty face could be me!
The horrible (and, compared to the spooky elegance of The X-Files, often tiresomely gory) things that happen on Fringe happen on playgrounds and buses and oh, so very many airplanes, to regular people -- for a given upper-middle-class, mostly-white, 18-to-34-year-old demographic value of "regular," at least. The notion of paranormal threats takes on extra urgency when you can easily picture yourself as the person spontaneously combusting.

On Dollhouse, in contrast, only the super-ultra-rich can generally afford to hire the Dolls' services, which leads to a lot of plotlines about horse-loving heiresses, evil millionaires, spoiled pop divas, and a lot of other people to whom viewers not only cannot relate, but actively dislike. A lot of the series' strongest moments have come when the Dolls deal with more regular people -- most notably the pro bono case in which Echo counsels a horrifically abused little girl, which led to one of Eliza Dushku's most appealing and compelling performances of the entire season. And the single best client of Dollhouse's season, by a country mile, was Patton Oswalt's regular-joe Internet millionaire, still quietly grieving for the one thing his money can't recover for him.

Combined with one heck of a great lead-in from American Idol, I suspect those four reasons explain why Fringe is coasting easily into a second season, while Dollhouse remains tenaciously on the bubble. (I'm heartened by word that it may get a second season after all; it's become a great show, and more than deserves a long and healthy run.) And in season two, let's hope that Fringe takes a page from Dollhouse in remedying its greatest weakness:

5. A boring central character
As Olivia, Anna Torv's got all kinds of ridiculous charisma -- which is good, since her character's as dull as a post. True, the show's hinted that there may be reasons for Olivia's drabness; a fellow veteran of the childhood experiments that may have given her dimension-hopping superpowers talks about living a quiet life and "wearing the black and gray," which sounds eerily like Olivia's own wardrobe. (Wait! Does this mean Ned the Piemaker from Pushing Daisies also got dosed with Cortexiphan?)

But for the most part, Olivia's spent the entire season frowning, delivering exposition, and occasionally kicking people's asses. She proved entirely superfluous to the events of Fringe's season finale, accomplishing absolutely nothing that drove the plot forward. Walter hung out with the Observer (hey, Abrams, the estate of Jack Kirby is waiting for its royalty check) and dug up his dimension-sealing device. Peter used said device at the last minute to stop the diabolical David Robert Jones from crossing between worlds. Olivia, uh, stuck pins in a map, shot some guys, and took an elevator ride to a chat with Leonard Nimoy in the CGI World Trade Center. When you can't give your central character something vital to do in the season's big concluding chapter, you've got serious problems.

Dollhouse seems to have the opposite problem. Echo's evolved into a fascinating character, albeit one that Eliza Dushku only occasionally seems capable of pulling off. Her perfomances as Echo's various incarnations seemed a bit too samey throughout the season, with a few notable exceptions. But the actress and the character really came into their own in the finale; the newly integrated Echo bolting up from her brain-wiping chair like a big damn superhero was an even more striking and iconic moment than Fringe's delightfully ballsy concluding image. And her pipe-assisted beatdown of the series' Big Bad gave Echo more power and conviction in a matter of minutes than Oliva Dunham and her FBI badge and gun have mustered in an entire season. (Also, no offense to the wonderful John Noble, but Alan Tudyk's jaw-droppingly awesome guest shot on Dollhouse wins the crazy-off hands down. Give the man an Emmy already. Possibly five.)

In the best of all possible worlds -- a concept Fringe has become only too familiar with -- next fall will herald more spine-tingly popcorn thrills from Abrams, and more head-bending metaphysics from Whedon. And if we're really lucky, Fringe will put a little more meat on Olivia Dunham's bones, characterwise, and Dollhouse will emerge from the basement and hang out with the popular kids a bit more often.


You are so right about all of this. Here's hoping they'll both be around next season.

Also, Fringe is pseudo science (paranormal disguised as scientific posibility), more in lines of X-Files, while Dollhouse is more sound science fiction.

Paranormal nonesense is more popular than science.

I can't read your article because I haven't seen the Fringe finale yet, but I did want to say that the violence in Dollhouse might have been better suited for 10pm cable. Unfortunately, Fox is all local programming at that time, I believe. Also, Friday nights are terrible for targeted viewers.

Four Dollhouse episodes were absolute genius, in my view - two in the middle, and two at the end - and unlike anything else I've ever seen. However, I had to sit patiently through several uneven episodes to get my reward. People who are not familiar with Whedon probably wouldn't have given it that many chances. Alan Tudyk turned in a really stunning performance in the two part finale, as did the rest of the cast, and I look forward to seeing more of Dollhouse now that the characters have turned out to be incredibly complex.

As for Fringe, I did tune in for several episodes but it wasn't must see tv for me from week to week. I thought the writing on the show was uneven, as it was on Dollhouse, and yet I thought the episode written and directed by Akiva Goldsman that began at Grand Central Station was pure poetry, and I am looking forward to seeing the finale. At a glance I thought I saw something about Olivia being boring, but I didn't think she was boring at all. The actors on the show are put in incredibly ridiculous situations (as they are on Dollhouse), and yet they take their roles very seriously. Kudos to all of them. :)

Paranormal nonesense is more popular than science.

Hence the appeal of the risible Lost - and let's carefully make the distinction between Abrams's brand of hucksterism ('big' questions with meaningless answers that carry no moral weight whatsoever) and the hand-wavey silliness of Buffy, which on its weakest day was morally thornier than any of Abrams's empty-calorie pop-psych narcotic tripe.

Dollhouse is 'harder' sci-fi than Abrams's stuff, but the important thing is its relentless, bruising moral equivocation and ambivalence. The season's penultimate ep, 'Briar Rose,' featured the (African-American) slavedriver protecting the child/doll/whore (sorta-voluntary!) from the FBI agent trying to bring in a Missing Persons case - Lost may be a lot more complicated than any of Whedon's shows, but is of no moral interest at all - it's a jigsaw puzzle, and no one ever grew as a person from doing a jigsaw puzzle.

Abrams and Whedon aren't directly comparable - and this article makes that point well, though I think Nathan's even too gentle to Fringe. Aah well!

Ah yes! said perfectly. Both your Incomparableness and Mr. Wax Banks. I, too, am a bit lenient on Mr. Abrams, because he is producing very fun to watch programming. I also believe Abrams is a sci-fi gateway drug. But my problem is his follow-through.

Lost and Fringe bring up very intriguing plot questions, keep us guessing, but something's been unsatisfying about their answers, and you just hit the nail on the head. There's no real implication in them, no discomfort in their revelation. There's some oddball, occult theological relevance, but nothing of philosophical importance.

As silly, cheesy, or mishandled as some of Whedon's shows have gotten at their weaker points, their stronger ones asked questions that the show wasn't supposed to answer. We were supposed to, and that's supposed to be the point of true science fiction.

I think there's a place for both, but god, what if they combined efforts, just once? A fun sci-fi romp that began with likable, relatable characters, then took them to a dark, morally gray place and punched you in the face with an uncomfortable philosophical query? The perfect storm.

Fringe does not have more mass appeal than Dollhouse: It is how I have been saying all along on Ain't It Cool News.com's Dollhouse Talkback...Fox should place Dollhouse in the time-slot directly after American Idol, and or, The Simpsons or Family Guy. The same audience who goes see the big event, high concept blockbuster films like Wolverine, and Star Trek, and will see sequels like Angels & Demons, Terminator: Salvation, The Transformers, Harry Potter, and Twilight, etc., also watches shows likes American Idol, The Simpsons, and Family Guy--that is a fact!!!

The difference between Dollhouse's ratings and the ratings of Fringe is simple, Fringe has the lead-in of American Idol, and Dollhouse, which would appeal more to Idol's audience demo, as it has a younger cast than Fringe, does not. That is simple math. If Fox ever gets serious about Dollhouse, they will program American Idol as its lead-in...and there will we a significant rise in the ratings. It's as simple as that.-Signed Media Messiah

Absolutely agreed on every single word of this. Here's hoping that Dollhouse gets its second season shot, too. :)

I love Dollhouse, but I think Joss took on more than he could initially handle. Fringe has a superficially likeable but fundamentally dull lead, Dollhouse has a superficially dull (personalityless) but fundamentally fascinating lead. Which made for hard-to-gain-audience-based-on-first-impressions-ness. Perhaps it would have worked better if it had been treated more as an ensemble show (More Topher and Dewitte earlier might have helped), rather than trying to hook us on a character who didn't really have anything interesting to say for the first five episodes. Instead Boyd (who should be one of the most interesting characters in it) has had no real characterization since episode 2 (and that was scarce).

I love Dollhouse, and want more. FOX, trust Big W and the Plan.

(Plus Alpha was AMAZING. I'm still reeling.)

Having to think is one of the reasons I love Joss Whedon shows, you can not just blindly zombie through them, at least not and get anything out of them. I love the twist and turns in Joss shows and the reason I think Buffy is the best TV series ever is I don't know any female that has not had a relationship that is bad for her, but still keep going back because as Spike said, "Great love is wild and passionate and dangerous, it burns and consumes" Yep love hurts and Joss examines all of that, the good and the bad and makes you think...

You absolutely can't say that FRINGE has more general appeal than DOLLHOUSE without both shows having similar time slots. FRINGE had a great timeslot, while DOLLHOUSE had the death slot.

On any standard, DOLLHOUSE was more entertaining than FRINGE based on the number of episodes they had. FRINGE only got really good in the second half of the season, while DOLLHOUSE got very good in its sixth episode. It hit its stride much quicker than FRINGE did.

I love both shows, but without DOLLHOUSE having a decent time slot I think it is silly to make generalizations about their relative appeal. Frankly, I would love for DOLLHOUSE to be renewed and then paired with FRINGE on the same night.

This just reads like a veiled apology for Dollhouse.

To the previous commenter who reckons the 'Friday Night Death Slot' is to blame for Dollhouse's poor ratings - utter guff. I have the sheer, unparalleled joy of watching US TV before it airs here in the UK, so it makes no difference what time of day the show is on to me. Regardless of their respective 'Sci Fi pedigree', Fringe is engaging and Dollhouse is not.
It's that simple.

Whedon is a dab hand at taking moderately interesting premises, pouring them into some high fashion sneakers and spray-painting their asses with the words "Check me out - I'm down with the kids!".
For all of Abrams' failings, he seems to have figured out how he 'Lost' most of his previous TV audiences, and kudos to him.

As for 'having to think' during Whedon's shows... well, that's just ridiculous. There are just as many, if not more 'pressing issues' presented in Fringe as there are in Dollhouse, but where Whedon feels the need to clothesline every damn sentiment with all the grace of a foetid, beached whale, Abrams is confident that his audience will choose for themselves how involved they would like to be with the show and its themes.

This isn't meant in a disparaging way, but Whedon should stick to writing comics - he excels in that area of story-telling.

I do find JJ Abrams' popularity fascinating. Lost was interesting but it took gimmicks, WTF moments to keep audiences interested, which unfortunately is what a lot of shows are doing nowadays. In comparison, when shocking moments came to Dollhouse, it felt very organic to the story. I can't say much about Fringe since, from the get-go it seemed like another, but less interesting, X-Files, so I pretty much gave up after the pilot. I suppsose it taps into that intrigue that X-Files tapped too, conspiracy theory combined with pseudo-science. Anyway, the fact is that Fringe is Fox's baby and that's why it's getting a second season, because it was given the proper advertising, time slot, and possiblly even had less interference than Dollhouse. I'd be curious to see how Dollhouse would do with a Fringe lead-in.

How about the fact that Fringe was given a time slot after the most popular TV show of sadly this decade? If 25% of American Idol's audience bothered to leave the TV on after the show ended, that gives Fringe an automatic 6-8 million viewers.

Dollhouse was given Friday nights, where the most successful shows that stayed on Friday nights averaged 10 million in their best days. Add to the fact that the majority of the press for the show has been "the show is being retooled UHOH" or "the show is failing UHOH".

A more complex story answers the questions for some people, and probably the most stereotypical section of Fox's audience bleachers, but give people more credit than that.

It's a world of Business and Fox has only accidentally stumbled into hits and ran everything else into the ground.

This is just another article contributing to a saturation in which the audience is called dupes and lemmings because Joss came up with a show that had more layers going on than something like Lost did in the first season.

Never watched Fringe, but I'm curious now.
Dollhouse definitly needs some more attention, it's just amazing. So many possibilities! I often wonder what Joss' going to do next. Seems he already did everything he could, all at once.
I do trust him enough to know that if Dollhouse keeps it's way, will have a lot to think of and to be surprised with.

I agree about Dollhouse - but disagree about Fringe, which has steadily grown on me. I don't want Fringe to be more like Dollhouse and I don't want Dollhouse to be more like Fringe - I like both, different, shows. I love how Olivia's character is "minimalist" - but I still feel like I know her. Dollhouse's themes may be more original and uncomfortable to watch (in a good way), but something has me suspecting that things are about to get a little less cut and dry on Fringe.

There's always been this question between fans of pretty much anything: Who's stronger, Superman or the Hulk? Is Mariah a better singer than Whitney? Which do you prefer, Star Trek or Star Wars? The questions constantly change, but the comparisons are always inevitable. And silly.

Who cares if Dollhouse or Fringe is better? The thing everyone always ignores is that we don't have to choose at all. We can watch Fringe AND Dollhouse and the world will not implode. I promise.

In my personal opinion, Joss Whedon takes more chances and is much more complex than J.J. Abrams will probably ever be. However, that means that some of his efforts are honestly horrible. Buffy, still the best show he's done, was riddled with bad episodes, although the majority of episodes were good and some were better than series that regularly garnered Emmies just for showing up. Angel had some problems itself (the fourth season was almost perfect, even with its bizarre twists and turns, but the fifth season was arguably worse than the first one, which is saying a lot). Firefly didn't have any noticeably bad episodes, but it didn't have any amazing ones either (with the exception of Serenity, the movie). And Dollhouse had five superior episodes and seven episodes that ranged from boring to holy shit that's bad.

If you take the risks, your rewards are going to be brilliant, but your failures are going to be just as spectacular.

On the other hand, J.J. Abrams might be more reliable, but Alias was a complete disaster. He took a great idea, added some mystical mumbo-jumbo that robbed the story of any urgency (virtually every episode featured a deux machina), and then kept trying to change all the rules while keeping all the main characters around. And as much as I love Lost, it's always been more for its character studies than for its literal smoke and mirrors. I can't judge Fringe since I haven't watched any episodes, but I will say that I'm planning to buy the first season on DVD. Even when it makes no sense, Abrams is entertaining.

If it came to a choice, I'd bet on Whedon everytime. I don't mind clunkers if I can have the brilliant episodes too.

But the nice thing is, I don't have to choose. I can have both! :-)

I rather tend to disagree with your diagnosis of the reasons for Fringe's relative success and Dollhouse's relative failure. I think that it's simply that Abrams is a better dramatist than Whedon and that Fringe is better written. Some of the things you mention feed into that: we can more easily empathize with Olivia and her crew. As other's have pointed out, the fact that the ostensible lead on Dollhouse is an emotionless robot who is never the same from day to day is highly problematic for engaging our sympathies. I also agree that Fringe is a simpler concept, but not in the way that you mean. As a HUGE fan of Buffy, I've got to say that you give Whedon far too much credit. To call him "a philosopher who likes to entertain" is more than a little silly. But Fringe DOES have a very streamlined concept: it's a show about Olivia Dunham and the people who surround her investigating bad juju and maybe some conspiracy behind it all. We know who and what Fringe is about. It's about Olivia and co and bad stuff happens. On the other hand what is Dollhouse about? Are we supposed to be interested in Echo and her engagements? (in other words is it an adventure of the week show) Are we supposed to be interested in Ballard and his quest to uncover the dollhouse (so is it a crime show more akin to Fringe)? Are we supposed to be interested in Topher, Boyd, and Adelle and their inner conflicts (is it a morality play)? Whedon and company never seemed to be sure. This is demonstrated by the fact that they never seemed to have a good grasp on one important fact: The irony of Dollhouse is that while the engagements are of profound importance for The Dollhouse, they are, usually, the least significant and least interesting element of Dollhouse. Who cares about Eliza Dushku going out and being a thief for one ep, or a hooker, or a trophy wife? The real center of the show was in the moral implications of what The Dollhouse is doing. Which leads to a related problem, namely that Whedon just isn't morally savvy enough to be handling the kind of themes which are central to Dollhouse. You're right that Dollhouse has a lot of interesting and complicated moral and philsophical issues attached. But that's only IN POTENTIAL. The Dollhouse which we saw on screen only ever dealt with any of these issues in the most superficial and banal ways. Certainly Dollhouse never had one tenth of the moral complexity of a show like BSG, or The Wire, or even something like Supernatural. Whedon and the Dollhouse are like the smart fourteen year old who can figure out that just because your folks go to church doesn't mean you have to, but can't really figure out any deeper reason to be religious or not. Whedon and co seem able to figure out that there ARE issues which exist wrt the Dollhouse and their work, but they can't seem to interrogate those issues in any meaningful way, or at least they were never able to translate any of those interrogations to the screen.

Tommy Marx, I disagree actually that Whedon "is much more complex" than JJ Abrams. You label Alias "a disaster" but that was really only in the later seasons, when Abrams began compromising more of what made it special in a vain attempt to please ABC and enhance its commercial appeal. In the first two seasons Alias was far more complex and emotionally devastating than really anything Whedon has done, and this is coming from a huge Buffy fan. Alias constantly presented us with the kind of wrenching emotional decisions which Buffy usually reserved for special episodes like Becoming. Indeed, where Alias went wrong was when it tried to abandon these emotional storylines and instead gave us clear cut heroes and villains. By season three we were no longer presented with a conflicted Sydney who was lying to everyone she knew and was desperate to absolve her sins. We had a Sydney and co who were clearly "the good guys" and everyone else was the bad guys and the show lost it's moral edge. For what it's worth, Buffy suffered a bit from that as well. By making vampires soulless automata of destruction, and by making almost all demons irredeemably evil, Buffy escaped the moral dilemma posed by having a main character who is essentially a serial killer. If you want a look at a very emotionally bruising movie which takes this conceit seriously and which doesn't dodge it like Whedon does, then check out Frailty. Even the show Supernatural, which is in many ways a very "popcorn" show, generally does a better job of interrogating the messy moral world into which its heroes venture. Whedon is a good writer, with a talent for creating quirky characters and a good ear for writing hipster dialog but he simply lacks the moral complexity to deal with issues of good and evil in anything but the most simplistic way.

I completely agree with your first 3 points, and that's why TV makes me sad, because I personally tend to prefer my stories morally grey, complicated and full of oddballs and outcasts, which means stuff I like doesn't stick around long.

I watched the first few episodes of Fringe, but there was nothing in the story that hooked me in and made me want to keep coming back. Dollhouse I know has its problems (including the ones you mention in your last 2 points), but I found the underlying stories a lot more interesting, and that's what makes me hope it's brought back for another season.

Hi anonymous. You made some very good points. I think I labeled Alias a disaster because the second half of the second season began the downfall that destroyed what once was a fantastic show (especially in the first season). However, I do think you misrepresent Buffy. The central conceit of her character was that she wanted to live a normal life but was forced to be a slayer instead. She had to keep her life a secret, she lied to her mother, in the end of the first season she learned that going against the Master would end in her death, yet after deciding to quit being a slayer, she came back and chose to die to save the world. If Buffy was a series about a girl who kills vampires, then yes, you could describe it as simplistic. But Buffy was never about that. It was never a cowboys and indians game, it was the story of people growing up and learning that life is dangerous and amazing and heartbreaking and loving, often all at the same time.

As for Frailty, I love that movie! You are right, they did a fantastic job with it. I also enjoy Supernatural, although a lot of times it feels like they're making up the mythology as they go along.

"Viewers as a whole supposedly don't like the sort of straight-up science fiction the Fringe finale embraced, as evidenced by the fan-lamented apparent death of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and the low ratings suffered by Joss Whedon's Dollhouse. "

Except Terminator and Dollhouse were BORING - Scifi isn't just scifi, there is good and bad - Dollhouse was first gear first grade philosophy nonsense, and Terminator moved so slow it was going backwards at times.

(And how about this site specifying that email address is required!)

Thanks Tommy. I'd probably place the downfall of Alias later, because the second half of season two still had a lot of energy and we were dealing with the fallout of "Phase One" and such things, and it ended with one of the greatest last lines on tv. But it did remove SD6, which was one of the big motivating agents of the show. And to clear up, I wasn't saying that Buffy was simplistic, but that Whedon's exploration of the moral issues involved tended to be simplistic. There was an easy conceit in Buffy wrt her victims, that Vampires had no soul and therefore weren't really people who could make moral decisions and therefore we should be unconcerned about her killing them. Frailty, took the opposite tack and hides the evil of these people to us so that we feel all the horror of their murders. Bill Paxton in Frailty and Buffy Summers are both serial killers, but because of the conceit that vampires don't have souls Whedon gets around examining that (Supernatural takes something of a middle road, with demons generally portrayed as irredeemably evil, whether by nature or culture, but occasionally addresses the fact that Sam and Dean are serial killers and that their actions kill the Demons hosts). Another example would be the increasing tendency in later seasons to treat evil as a real force (and I'm not talking about literal incarnations of evil like The First). There was a tendency to treat good and evil as actual literal states which one could switch between like flipping a light switch. This was exemplified for me in one episode when Anya said "When I used to be evil..." which could just be written off as Anya being Anya, but which also seemed to indicate Whedon's bigger take on morality. When Willow started becoming the Big Bad for the one season, Whedon made, IMO, a crucial mistake in trying to treat her magic use as a substance abuse problem rather than engaging with the thornier moral issues that her growing power opened. Instead of engaging in an exploration of the relationship between power and responsibility, Whedon turned this into a very trite and tired (from a moral level) story of disease. Willow wasn't bad because she committed bad actions due to the temptations of power. She was bad because magic had artificially altered her thought process. When they purged her of her magic intoxication she became good again. In latter seasons especially it seemed that morality in the Whedonverse was based not on the morality of actual decisions made by individuals but on whether they were inhabited by some evil motivating force.

My estimation of Whedon's moral sensibilities weren't helped with Firefly which was a scifi take on confederate ex-pats in the West. The fact that he could uncritically portray his ex-Confederate analogues as the good guys didn't recommend his moral sense very well.

I apologize if I'm outwearing my welcome, but I wanted to address something Anonymous said regarding Willow. While I don't think Whedon was that interested in defining good versus evil (he always seemed more interested in how characters intact, how they grow and change, and so on), I did stop watching Buffy in the sixth season. I never saw the end of the sixth season or the entirety of the seventh season until they were released on DVD.

I was extremely ignored with the whole "bad guy club" that became one of those running jokes that stopped being funny after one episode. But what really turned me off was how, after doing an amazing job of exploring Willow's sexuality in a natural, noncondescending fashion, they would literally make magic her drug. I cannot agree with you more on that point - the analogy was clumsy and stupid. I still think season six was the lowpoint of the series.

I guess in the end, I don't think Whedon is that interested in good vs. evil. You mention Firefly, which was an attempt to bring back Westerns and their white hat/black hat mentality. I think Whedon is interested more in the people he creates than in examining the idea that almost nothing can truly be defined as all good or all evil.

That sounds like a subject you're more interested in, so I can understand why you'd prefer writers/creators that deal with that topic. The fortunate thing is (as I said in my first post), we live in a world where we have Abrams, Whedon, and a host of others. So we don't have to choose. We can watch it all. :-)

Never watched Fringe because I didn't have much use for X-Files, and it was described as a sub-par version of same when it first came out. By the time it improved (or people's opinions of it did) I was already invested in not watching, so that's that.

Dollhouse, though, has more problems than just Echo's blankness. Eliza Dushku is just not good enough an actress to carry a show (as Tru Calling demonstrated more than adequately), and the characters seem to be getting screen time in reverse proportion to their likeability. If you don't like Topher and you don't like Echo and you don't like whatshername the boss lady, you are going to spend a lot of time angry at the show. The two-ep finale remedied some of this, but the series still has yet to produce a character I enjoy as much as any of Firefly's.

And the premise, however morally neato, is way too shaky to keep me invested unless I care about the people it's affecting.

Tommy- I agree that the "magic as drug" plotline was pretty poor, especially since they had never indicated any intoxicating nature to magic before. Early on it seemed that they were going in a different direction: When Willow tampered with Tara's mind I thought they were going into an exploration of how extreme power tempts one to cross lines and what is good here and what is not, what are the limits of power? But they didn't go there.

I think your suggestion about Whedon is interesting. He may be more interested in seeing how character interact than in addressing questions of morality. For Dollhouse I think that's a net minus. There's so many moral issues raised by the show and they are potentially the most interesting element of the show that to have someone at the helm who is uninterested in fully exploring them is problematic.

Ajax- I agree that Echo/Dushku is a problem. The show was set up, and advertised as a star vehicle for Dushku. Although I don't think she's a great actress (she's good when she's doing the kind of mid twenties party girl, but not at much else), I'm not totally sure that she's unable to carry a show. But the nature of the plotline on Dollhouse means that she's NOT really the star. Or at least she shouldn't be. I've mentioned before that the irony is that while engagements are central to THE Dollhouse, they're really ancillary to Dollhouse. The real action on the show is in the hunt for the Dollhouse and in what this kind of work does to the people involved. To try and make Dushku the star presents problems because it focuses the show away from where the real conflict is.

wasn't that firefly?

Tommy- I agree that the "magic as drug" plotline was pretty poor, especially since they had never indicated any intoxicating nature to magic before. Early on it seemed that they were going in a different direction: When Willow tampered with Tara's mind I thought they were going into an exploration of how extreme power tempts one to cross lines and what is good here and what is not, what are the limits of power? But they didn't go there.

Of course not!! Willow has been an addict since Season 1. Since the beginning. She was always using something external - her romances, helping Buffy fight demons or just using magic - to escape from herself. To escape from facing the reality of herself. Like a true addict.

How no one was able to notice this amazes me. I get the feeling that no one really understood Willow's personality or what made her tick.

Ajax- I agree that Echo/Dushku is a problem.

I DISAGREE. I still recall an episode in which Dushku's character had to assume the personality of a middle-aged woman who was still attractive and the actress' performance was superb.

You know what? I get the feeling that many TV fans now want their shows to start off with a bang in the manner of "LOST" or "HEROES". And you know what else? I've noticed that shows that start on the top tend to go only one direction - down. They have never been able to be as good as they were in their freshman season. And "FRINGE" is an Abrams series. Don't count on it remaining as good as you think it is. "LOST" and "ALIAS" certainly didn't.

That's an interesting idea, Rosie, but I don't agree.

1. Willow was not using something external to escape from herself. Although she was shy, she was extremely intelligent. Hell, she was asked to substitute for a teach while she was still in high school! Her acceptance of her sexual identity, her confidence in both her magical talent and the way she wanted to pursue it, none of that suggests an addictive personality.

2. Anonymous wasn't commenting on whether or not Willow was an addict anyway. Neither was I. In season six, the producers of "Buffy" chose to make what I thought was a horrible choice to use a craving for dark magics as an analogy of drug addiction. While someone might be able to pull off that concept, "Buffy" didn't. And as a fan who was amazed at how well Joss Whedon and his writers were able to comment subtly on nightmares we've all faced in high school, the clumsy attempts to force magic to be the new heroin were enough to stop me from watching the show. I actually didn't see the second half of the sixth season or the seventh season at all until I bought the seasons on DVD, hoping the sixth season episodes weren't as horrible as I remembered. (They were, but the payoff was almost worth it.)

As for your comments about Dushku, I have to say I completely agree with you. I've never seen what I would consider a bad performance from Eliza Dushku (even in shitty movies like "Wrong Turn"), and I think she's pulled off every role she's been asked to play in "Dollhouse." I have to wonder if some of the animosity is because she is the featured actress in what should really be considered an ensemble drama.

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