Thursday, February 19, 2009

Mashing The Nerd Paradigm

The titular setting of Joss Whedon's new show, Dollhouse, sports a layout that feels both modern and traditional-- it's a sleek set of concentric circles, polished wood and gleaming metal that's enveloped in shadow, and lit from above and the side by halogen-like panels that glow like Japanese lanterns (this Asian influence can also be seen in the neon-lit night-club that our heroine, Echo, dances in during the pre-credits sequence: its lovely pink pillars and lampposts look like something out of manga). As Echo walks in front of them in the screen shot to the left, they almost look like out-of-order Tetris pieces, fragments that can be re-ordered depending on the specific game one is playing.

In that sense, they offer a clue to the overall design of the show (whose constantly shifting narrative parts and tones ask the viewer to take a more interactive stance) and the generally mixed critical response Dollhouse has thus far received (a response that seems to be one part the actual show, one part memories and opinions-- good and bad-- of past Whedon shows, and one part get-the-knives-out hipster disdain, because the current conventional wisdom seems to be that only 30 Rock gets the free pass for its flaws).

These responses have ranged from the "hang in there and keep trying" uncertainty of Ken Tucker to the dismay of Whedon fan/inveterate Kathy Griffin booster James Wolcott to the hilariously overwrought vitriol of The Washington Post's Tom Shales, who seems to be gunning for his colleague George Will's bow-tie in the fuddy-duddy sweepstakes (h/t to blog pal Bill Bob for pointing this one out):

If "Dollhouse," a pretentious and risible jumble premiering tonight on that most quixotic of national networks, were a piece of music, it would have to be some sort of funky-junky, hip-hop, rinky-tinky, ragtime madrigal.

If that sounds like a mish-mash of mumbo jumbo, good, because so is the show.


Shales later sniffs, "Whedon, who directed the pilot, certainly dressed it up stylishly, but I'll take simple coherence over fancy-pants trappings any day. After all, this is television, not an art-house cinema in Greenwich Village."

Buried in the steaming dung-pile of Shales' anti-intellectualism is an interesting point about the show's fractured visual and narrative approach: he's not incorrect to call it a "mish-mash," but the question is, is that a good or a bad thing?

(I'm reminded of the famous story Roger Ebert has told many times about a woman calling him at his Sun-Times office 35 years ago and asking him what he thought of Bergman's Cries and Whispers. "I thought it was the best film of the year," Ebert told her, eliciting from the woman this wonderful response: "Oh, thanks! That doesn't sound like anything we'd want to see").

To put it another way: rather than thinking about Dollhouse as a "mish-mash," maybe it's better to read it as a mashup, a form of television that allows us to rethink artistic personality for a digital age? Shales even alludes to the musical definition of mashup in his description, with its explicit reference to hip-hop sampling, but chooses not to think through the implications of his insight (he's like the Chauncey Gardiner of TV critics).

Questions of memory and identity are built into Dollhouse's very concept. Echo (Eliza Dushku) first appears in the pre-credits sequence as a scared and hopped-up young woman (think Faith in her Season One appearance on Angel), and Dushku's line readings seem off, melodramatic, over-the-top; for a moment, it really made me appreciate how well Sarah Michelle Gellar anchored seven years of Buffy, and I wondered if maybe Dushku functioned better as a supporting actress. Echo is promised a mysterious "clean slate" by Olivia Williams' wonderfully oily Ms. DeWitt, and we flash-foward into her new life as a "doll," a marketable commodity rented out for various fantasies (or what DeWitt euphemistically refers to as "appointments"), and here seen seducing a man in a night-club. Dushku seems much more comfortable in the part from here on out, as if it took a different kind of role to bring her confidence back (the "doll" a lovely meta-vehicle for an actress). She flirts with the man and then skips out into the daylight (her transition from the dark club to the sunshine mediated by those neon pillars I mentioned earlier), where a van picks her up and returns her to the corporation. Her mind is wiped, and she becomes the blank vehicle for her next assignment, which turns out to be a hostage crisis.

All of this happens in the first ten minutes of the show, and I've only described about half the action. That's a lot to absorb, particularly given Whedon's almost New Wavish editing patterns, which are full of sharp breaks and ellipses (as even Shales had to note, the show looks fantastic, and is the clear beneficiary of both a larger Fox budget and Whedon's recent forays into cinema). Dollhouse had a famously difficult gestation (which has no doubt shaped some of the more gossipy responses to the show), and what aired last Friday was actually the show's second pilot. Reports suggested that Fox wanted something that more clearly outlined the show's direction and offered viewers clearer introduction and exposition (some of the best clips from last year's initial teaser were missing from last week's episode, but I hope they're repurposed for future eps).

They got that-- by the end of the first hour, we've been introduced to many of the major players and the overall concept-- but this is still a much denser visual and narrative weave than Buffy or Angel, which slowly built their mythologies on relatively linear mission statements ("Cheerleader Saves The World/High School Is Hell" and "Dark Knight Detective/Redemption Is Hell," respectively). Dollhouse feels a lot more like Whedon's last Fox show, Firefly, where we were dropped in medias res into a strange new world, and given a lot of puzzle pieces without a clear initial sense of the picture they formed.

Echo's abusive past; the psychotic drive of Tahmoh Penikett's government agent; the strained idealism of Harry Lennix's Dollhouse operative; and the opaquely sinister charm of Olivia Williams: all of this is thrown out at us and teased as something deeper and even more bizarre than what we've already seen (the shadows are narrative, then, as well as visual). There's a fascinating rhythm between long shot (often used as eerie punctuation, as when we see the doll beds from overhead) and tight close-up or medium shot: the wider view offers quick views of dense and fascinating spaces, while the close-up takes away our ability to see the space around the characters, enhances the sense of disorientation and claustrophobia that Echo feels.

Along with that, few of the performers here come to us as blank slates: the characters are both hemmed in and freed up by the personas of the people playing them. Dushku shot to cult fame as roughneck Slayer Faith on Buffy, and Dollhouse has a lot of fun both confirming and reconfiguring the image that role established. Tahmoh Penikett can still be seen on the final episodes of Battlestar Galactica immediately following Dollhouse, and its hard not to read some of Helo's intensity into Agent Paul Bremer. Most fascinating is Olivia Williams' DeWitt, whose controlling menace seems like such an inversion of the persona established in films like Rushmore and Miss Austen Regrets-- she's the steel fist in the lace glove, and all the more chilling for it.

Whedon knows all that, and also knows that the most notable past on the show is his; this is really the first time he's come to a new show with heightened expectations (and the possibility of not living up to them). To his credit, he seems to want to stretch into some new areas while maintaining familiar themes (the difficulty of self-knowledge, the paradoxes of desire, the idea of redemption as a process rather than a place). The "clean slate" concept lets Whedon run a fascinating mixture of ongoing arc/stand-alone anthology style show, and one of the vertiginous pleasures of Dollhouse for me was the rack-focus like movement between the immediate events of the episode (such as the hostage crisis) and what they meant for Echo's coming to self-awareness: the trick of the show only works if you remind yourself that everything we're seeing is a set-up, a role she is playing, and not a fully "authentic" character.

That role-playing was one of the points Ken Tucker pointed to as problematic (how can we invest in the character, he asked, if the character is always changing), but I find it thrilling. I think the challenge it poses is a fascinating one, because rather than taking us completely out of the narrative, it leaves us suspended: we don't have the investment we might in, say, Buffy, but there is an investment there. It's just that it comes to us in a deconstructive way, asking us to care about the characters while simultaneously reminding us that all TV is a set-up, a Wizard of Oz-like magic trick.

I find this more complex take on style and character heartening, not least because it seems to be forcing Whedon out of his usual love affair with the Nerd Paradigm. An example of this appears in every Whedon show, most famously the character of Willow Rosenberg (who was clearly Whedon's Mary Sue). Later iterations include such characters as Angel's Fred and Firefly's Kaylee, and their common traits include intense intelligence, social awkwardness, and a secret strength that ends up idealizing their dorkiness. It's a paradigm that has functioned as wish fulfillment for both Whedon's writing staff and a wide swath of his audience; but what initially feels like a fun break with stereotypes just ends up creating a new set of them along different prejudicial lines, as what once felt like a broad a textured set of characters has sometimes ended up feeling boiled down to more singular definitions of "heroism," definitions which end up pandering to their audience in depressingly familiar ways.

Examples of the Nerd Paradigm pop up in Dollhouse, too, and one of them is even played by Angel's Amy Acker. But where Willow or the odious Tom Lenk would be framed as heroic, the geeks here feel menacing, imbricated into the corruption of the Dollhouse with everyone else (Fran Kranz is quite wonderful as the 'house's resident genius-- he can seem by turns charming and arrogant, just a few steps away from complete psychosis). The scars on Amy Acker's face speak to something more textured, mysterious and damaging at the heart of the paradigm, at once sympathetic and a bit alienating. Like the set (and the show) they live on, these nerds are an uncertain mixture of different tropes, a series of concentric circles whose overlaps and fissures I look forward to exploring over the next twelve weeks.

3 comments:

Bob Westal said...

First off, I must complement you for your textural boldness in renaming me. Similar to Echo, it allows me to be reborn in an alternative context, as it were. To be liberated from the chains of "Bob" only to become refreshed by the more masculine paradigm provided by "Bill." The premise of the new show I'm pitching, "Bloggerhouse" will explore this more fully. Thanks, Bruno.

Typo aside, nicely done. Just a couple of things. Were you putting down Tom Lenk, the actor, as odious or his character (whose name I can't remember)? The character was, of course, really odious a lot of the time before Whedon did one of his patented moral switcheroos on him, but I thought Lenk did a fine job in trying to pull that off.

Re: Nerds. To me, "nerd" or "geek" wouldn't really apply so much to Amy Acker's character, as least as we've seen her so far. She strikes me as more of a straightforwad medical professional -- and that, for some reason, doesn't necessarily mean "nerd" to me, but don't ask me why. (To socially approved of an occupation to be truly nerdy??) In any case, I could easily imagine her walking onto the set of ER, Gray's Anatomy, etc. and not skipping a beat.

Topher, of course, is a different story. But what I really think is going on with him is that his job is pretty analogous to a TV writer who has to guide the doings of an essentially fictitious character through circumstances not entirely of his own making and often requiring a certain degree of compromise both moral and artistic. He's not a stand-in for Joss, but if he were to recast as, say, one of the gagwriters on the aforementioned "30 Rock," I don't think we'd be too far offbase.

Brian Doan said...

AARGH! "Bill??" Stupid typos! And no offense to my actual blog pal named Bill when I say that was an unfortunate error. It's since been corrected in the text. So sorry-- my only excuse was that I was writing the post pretty quickly, and just jumbled the names in my head. But of course I know who you are, Bib...Beeb? Boob? Rob? Bob! Bob, dammit! (:

OK, on to your actual remarks-- my "odious" reference was not to Mr. Lenk in any personal way- -for all I know, he's perfectly nice in real life. But his acting really grated for me, particularly in that seventh season "switcheroo" that you note. I actually found Andrew more interesting in the sixth season, when he was still evil-- there was something so fascinatingly extreme and off-putting in his fanboyishness, and he was very good at suggesting how quickly that social awkwardness could slip into something more psychotic. When Whedon was willing to interrogate that paradigm in that dark and brilliant year through the "Nerd Trio," I thought it was a really interesting meta-riff on what it meant to be invested in a fictional universe. When he just decided to turn Andrew into a punchline and a weird hero in the seventh season, it felt like a forced cop-out to me.

I like Amy Acker a lot-- of all of the Whedonverse nerds, she's the most interesting, I think. Fred is/was a wonderful character-- so textured and funny and sympathetic. I think Acker's loopiness (especially in that third season) makes Fred feel different than the passive-aggressive characters like WIllow or Andrew: her sense of humor is a sign of freedom and maturity that the other characters lack (and of course, Illyria is great). So I'm curious to see what she'll do on Dollhouse. Perhaps I was too quick to tag her in the paradigm, but I guess what I was trying to say is that here are some familiar types/actors we've seen before, but in this setting they feel different and much more sinister.

And I really like the idea of Topher as a stand-in for the writers (and perhaps the directors, too-- note how upset he gets when Echo's "performance" breaks down).

Bob Westal said...

Amy Acker is definitely a powerhouse. I thought she was poignant and adorable as Fred...but until the Illyeria plot line (probably the worst thing Whedon has ever done to a character and one of the best opportunities he could give to the actor playing the character), I had no idea of her range, which almost makes me sorry she's not playing an active here. Here's hoping she has plenty to do.