joss whedon is my master now

A quick take on The Avengers

“…and then the Marvel CEO says, ‘Joss, is it OK if we pay you in gum?'”

Lisa and I caught a Friday afternoon showing. We both felt like we got our popcorn money’s worth. I may have some deeper thoughts later, but for now here’s my initial take:

* New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott was onto something when he called The Avengers “a snappy little dialogue comedy dressed up as something else.” The verbal sparring among the main characters was far and away the best part of the film for us, and I’d have happily watched two and half hours of Bruce Banner and the rest of the gang just hanging out somewhere—My Dinner with Loki, anyone? Or to put it another way, screenwriter/director Joss Whedon was worth every penny that Marvel paid him, and I really hope he got a percentage of the gross. (Hah!)

* The special effects were predictably awesomeas in, simultaneously impressive and nothing I hadn’t seen before. More than once I caught myself thinking, “Wow, this scene is gorgeous, and if I didn’t care about the characters I’d be bored to death by it.” I really, really hope Marvel understands that, and that they offer Joss Whedon an even bigger percentage of the gross to get him to come back and do the sequel. (Double hah!)

* The action sequences were a mixed bag. The small-scale fights were great, because, again, characters! Snappy dialogue! The big battle aboard the flying aircraft carrier, with The Avengers in danger of literally tearing themselves apart, was way cool too. But the final battle felt anti-climactic to me. It was still fun, don’t get me wrong, but unlike the act two fight I was missing the sense that there was anything real at stake.

I mean, we know the seemingly unstoppable alien army is, in fact, going to be stopped. The only question is what it’s going to cost. And here we run into the problem that while this may be Joss Whedon’s movie, it’s Marvel’s property. You can try to head-fake me into thinking Tony Stark is going to sacrifice himself to save the earth, but we both know Marvel still needs him for Iron Man 3, so I’m not buying it. (OK, maybe I bought it for a microsecond. But not really.)

One other huge misstep in the finale is that the invading aliens are faceless drones who cannot be bantered with. That’s right, they’re made of Whedon Kryptonite! What genius executive thought that was a good idea?

* I guess we really are in a post-post-9/11 era. I remember going to see Spider-Man in the summer of ’02 and being spooked by the Green Goblin tossing pumpkin bombs at Manhattan crowds. Ten years later, Loki’s peeps completely trash midtown and I didn’t even blink.

* Shawarma!

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Dollhouse, fini

So, it’s over. Some thoughts:

* During the fall hiatus, Lisa and I rented the last disc from the first season and watched the original pilot and Epitaph One. We both loved the OP and agreed that that Dollhouse would have been an awesome show. Pity the network decided to go a different way. Epitaph One is less stellar, but does give you a good sense of what the alt-universe Dollhouse would have been all about. If I were going to make a recommendation to Joss Whedon fans who’d somehow avoided the series until now, it’d be to watch these two episodes, and maybe a few select bits of the latter half of season two, and leave the rest to your imagination.

* The first four episodes following the fall hiatus were also quite good, partly because they seemed to belong to the alt-universe Dollhouse series and partly because Summer Glau Makes Everything Better. (I also dug the Senator Wesley arc). After that the quality of the scripts seemed to drop off, and while I was never bored I also wasn’t nearly as anxious to find out what happened next as I should have been.

* Mellie’s death felt gratuitous, and I also saw it coming a mile away. Bennett’s (Summer Glau’s) death was a shock, but it also puzzled me. My immediate reaction was, “OK, I get that you’re trying to lay the groundwork for Topher’s mental breakdown, but you just killed off your most interesting character with several episodes left to go yet. Was that wise?”

* As for the Amazing Truth About Boyd, probably the less said the better. This is the kind of absurd plot twist that was obviously pulled out of someone’s butt at the eleventh hour, and which doesn’t fit at all with the previous development of the character.

* Epitaph Two didn’t really work for me. There were a couple things I liked: Alpha’s transformation into a good guy was an interesting choice, although the thing I liked most about it—the fact that it’s left completely unexplained—probably bugged the crap out of a lot of other viewers. I also liked the bit about Ballard ending up as a ghost in Echo’s head, although I suspect it works better if you don’t think too hard about the implications.

But as a cap on the series, overall I prefer the melancholy uncertainty of Epitaph One. Sometimes it’s better to be left hoping for the best. Topher’s Magic Reset Button just seems like wish-fulfillment, of a kind that trivializes the apocalypse (We didn’t really mean it about the world going to hell, guys! Here, have a happy ending!).

In summary, I’m disappointed but I’m glad that they got to play it out. And here’s hoping next time Joss goes with a network that trusts him to follow his first instincts.

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Dollhouse season two

Two episodes in, I’m really not enjoying it. Lisa says, “It’s like they painted themselves into a Stupid Corner.”

Thoughts:

* Ballard’s character has become totally unbelievable to me. I don’t know what his motivation is supposed to be anymore. They say he still wants to bring down the Dollhouse, but there’s nothing stopping him from doing that. He knows where it is now, and he’s got the run of the place—if he’s free to wander into sensitive areas like Topher’s lab and push random buttons, it should be the simplest thing in the world for him to gather incriminating evidence. If the feds won’t listen to him, he can post video on YouTube.

* Last week’s mission made no sense. There must be a million easier ways to bust an illegal arms dealer than to have Echo marry him. I mean, come on—if you know the guy is guilty and you aren’t particular about obeying the law yourself, why not just plant some rocket launchers in his car and then phone the ATF tip line? Surely that would be a lesser evil, from Ballard’s perspective, than programming Echo to seduce the guy. And it would work.

* This week’s mission made no sense. Lisa wonders, “Assuming she hadn’t developed postpartum psychosis, how long was Echo supposed to pretend to be the baby’s mother?” Also, maternal hormones protect you against memory erasure? Did somebody rent The Forgotten during the summer hiatus?

* Cute baby, though.

* Topher’s douche factor has been turned up to eleven. I like him with Amy Acker (more on that in a moment), but when he’s on his own, he seems to have lost much of his endearing nerdiness.

* The Amy Acker bride-of-Frankenstein subplot feels like the one remaining shred of the cool show that could have been. But she’s still billed as a guest star, so there probably isn’t going to be enough of her to make me want to keep watching. I missed her this week.

* Here and there are some other neat flourishes that make me wish they were in service of a better show. For instance, there was the bit of business last week where Sierra had been imprinted with a racist personality who was vocal about her dislike of Asians. This isn’t original—Dave Chappelle did a superior version of the same schtick—but I did like Ivy’s reaction.

* This week’s episode had the lowest ratings ever. I wonder how much longer before FOX pulls the plug.

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Dollhouse shocker: Joss Whedon says FOX execs were nervous about that whole “prostitute” thing

Probably my biggest complaint about first season Dollhouse was that the creators of the show seemed to be so uncomfortable with their own premise that they spent more time avoiding implications than exploring them—leading me, as a viewer, to constantly say, “Joss, if you didn’t want to go there, why did you go there?”

Turns out I was right about the discomfort but wrong about the source, which is an occupational hazard when you’re a solo novelist judging the team sport that is TV production. The Buffyfest blog has a Q&A with Whedon in which he explains that it was—surprise!—the FOX executives who freaked out:

[Dollhouse] became just a scoach too whore-y. Never had a better meeting, everything was great, then they [FOX] said “so they’re kinda like prostitutes and that’s not ok” Word came down that it wasn’t ok. I wanted to make a show thats about feeling bad about feeling good or good about feeling bad. Fantasy is just that, fantasy. FOX wanted to back away from these implications. Every episode is ridiculously hard because the central core has been ripped out just enough, that we’re constantly dancing around our own premise.

Second season Dollhouse starts tomorrow night, and as far as I know it’s still on FOX. Can’t wait for the Glee crossover episode!

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Dollhouse renewed (!)

Via james_nicoll, Dollhouse has been renewed for a second 13-episode season. Wow, I did not see that coming.

I caught the last half-hour of Serenity on cable yesterday, so my first thought on hearing this news was, too bad this miracle couldn’t have happened to Firefly instead. But I have to say that for all my criticism of Dollhouse, I’m still enjoying it—even if much of the fun is in saying, “Hmm, Joss, I don’t think I’d have made that choice”—so I’ll still be watching next fall.

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Dollhouse, weeks 11 & 12

“Why do you have to go back in the wedge? Why don’t you come home?”

“I did sign a contract…”

“I have thirty-eight brains. Not one of them thinks you can sign a contract to be a slave… Especially now that we have a black president.”

“We have a black president?”

…that’s assuming, of course, that a show can jump the shark without ever first standing on solid ground. Thoughts:

* From last week: The idea of using a psychologically healed version of a trauma victim’s own personality to act as the trauma victim’s therapist is conceptually clever, the kind of interesting exploration of the Dollhouse technology’s implications that I wish the show had done more of. Of course there are some logical problems with the concept: in order to get a recording of the trauma victim’s personality to work with, you have to put them in Topher’s chair, a pretty traumatic experience in its own right. Also, if you can edit someone’s personality this way, why bother with traditional therapy at all? Why not just imprint the trauma victim directly with the “fixed” version of themselves?

There are bigger problems here. One of the risks you run doing a show about the victimization of women is that you can end up perpetuating the very stereotype that you’re trying to undermine—that all women are natural victims (past, present, or potential). So the fact that the trauma the girl had suffered was that her stepfather pimped her out felt like a tired cliche. How about a non-sexual trauma instead? How about a traumatized boy (who still sees Echo as his ideal adult self—now that’d be interesting!)? Or if you’re going to make the kid a rape victim, how about a little more character development so that’s not all she is?

I also thought it was odd that the Dollhouse—you know, the Evil! Sex! Trafficking! organization—would be using its powers to help a rape victim. I’m sure they’d do it for a client, and never mind the irony, but this girl is an orphan, so who’s paying? Topher’s dialogue with Ivy suggests that it might be a charitable gesture on the part of Dollhouse management, which seems… incoherent.

* Wash from Firefly is Alpha: Hmm. I like Alan Tudyk, but because I associate him so strongly with Wash, I had a hard time buying him as a sociopathic killer. I think I was also a bit thrown by my own faulty expectation that Alpha would turn out to be someone we’d already met.

The big disappointment is that Alpha just isn’t that interesting, once you get to know him. Turns out the Dollhouse didn’t make him into a monster—he was always a monster, a garden-variety Male Predator who tortures and kills women because, well, that’s what Male Predators do. All the lab accident in the Dollhouse did was give him some computer skills. (It also demonstrated, yet again, that Mad Scientists are Idiots. When are you people going to learn not to use the brain marked “Abby Normal”?)

* Amy Acker is a doll—and a gray-haired old man. This I liked.

* Agent Ballard decides to join the Dollhouse staff: Excuse me? This makes NO sense. This is a guy who’s destroyed his career and risked his life in order to bring down the Dollhouse, but now, roughly ten minutes after finding the place, he does a 180 and agrees to join up with the Evil! Sex! Traffickers! in exchange for freeing one of the sex slaves (and it’s not Caroline, so I guess he’s over his obsession with her). Sorry, don’t buy it.

What he should have done—what a real person would have done—was lead those FBI agents who’d surrounded the Dollhouse inside, and show them the facility. Yes, his old coworkers think he’s nuts, but the proof is right there, and surely he could have convinced them to indulge him one more time, especially given the fact that they’ve already been called out on a bomb scare. Heck, he wouldn’t even have to tell them he’d found the Dollhouse—he could just tell them he knew where the bomb was, take them inside, and once they were there, surrounded by the evidence, say “OK, actually, there’s not a bomb—but here’s the Dollhouse!” At which point, I kinda think Adelle and Boyd could have been convinced to cooperate, so he’d still be able to save Caroline from Alpha.

* “I have thirty-eight brains. Not one of them thinks you can sign a contract to be a slave…”: Oy. I only have one brain, and I know you can’t sign a contract to be a slave. Before my morning coffee, I might need a Google search to remind myself which Constitutional amendment formally abolished slavery (it’s lucky number 13), but the basic fact that slavery has been abolished, that it’s illegal—that I don’t forget. So rather than being the Feminist A-Ha! Moment that it apparently was intended as, all this scene does for me is drive home what a dim bulb Caroline is.

Even leaving aside the American History 101 stuff, consider the circumstances here. Caroline wakes up in someone else’s body, tied to a chair, with Alpha encouraging Echo to kill her. Having narrowly escaped death, Caroline’s response is not “Put me back in my real body and get me the hell out of here, now!” but “Put me back in the wedge and return me to the folks at the Dollhouse. Even though they clearly can’t be trusted to keep me out of the hands of psychopaths, I did sign a contract…” Oh, Caroline—I see a Darwin Award in somebody’s future.

A better answer to the question “Why go back to the Dollhouse?”—the same answer a real-life victim of Evil! Sex! Trafficking! might give—is “Because I’m terrified that if I try to run, they’ll track me down and kill me.” Of course I would hope that Caroline would find the courage to run anyway, but I could still respect her as a character if she gave into the fear. I might give in, too. But to even consider going back, because you actually think you owe the Dollhouse? Nah, sorry—not even if Sarah Palin was president.

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Dollhouse, week 10

An OK episode. Thoughts:

* The idea of using Dollhouse technology to copy whole personalities into other bodies is potentially very interesting. Not only can you use it to grant a pseudo-eternal life (pseudo because a copy of me over there doesn’t really help me with my imminent death over here), you can use it to allow people to (sort-of) be in multiple places at once. The use they made of it in this episode was pretty trivial though, and Adelle’s claim that it was a special, one-time deal struck me as absurd. If they could do this, it would be the Dollhouse’s most popular and lucrative service.

* The murder mystery was kinda meh. Lisa guessed who the real killer was; I didn’t care enough to try. My reaction may have been biased by the fact that I reread Haunting of Hill House this week. I can’t help thinking that it would have been a more interesting choice to make Margaret (the woman inhabiting Echo’s body) into a Shirley Jacksonesque unsentimental misanthrope, the kind of woman who, if she was upset that her relatives didn’t love her, would think about mentally torturing them before pushing them down the stairs.

* Agent Ballard’s guilt trip over his rough sex with Mellie just fell flat for me. I get what they’re trying to do there, and it could work, but so far it doesn’t.

* Topher’s “birthday present,” on the other hand, was the best part of the episode.

I’m looking forward to next week. Alpha! Death! The looming threat of series cancellation! Woo-hoo!

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Dollhouse, week 9

At last, the Dollhouse I’d been hoping for: complex story structure, actual character development, interesting and unselfconscious exploration of the basic premise, and moral conflict without the moralizing. It’s like a whole different series, which I’m OK with.

First thing I did when the show ended was check IMDB to see who wrote the episode, and what do you know, the lead writing credit belongs to Jane Espenson, the woman responsible for “Band Candy,” “Conversations with Dead People,” and a dozen other of my favorite Buffy episodes. Co-writers include Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon of Dr. Horrible fame. (I’d love to know how they divvied up the actual writing.)

Naturally, there are rumors that the show is going to be cancelled. FOX is so awesome.

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Dollhouse, week 8

Better this week.

For the first time, I was genuinely surprised by the ending, in a way that was satisfying. Part of that was clever misdirection—I jumped to the wrong conclusion about the scenario Adelle was running, as I no doubt was intended to—but part of it was that I still don’t entirely trust the writers, so when Echo and co. started making ridiculous choices (“We have no idea who or where we are, so let’s split up!”), I took it for bad storytelling rather than a clue to what was really going on.

Dominic’s line about why it’s better to think of the dolls as pets was my favorite bit of business, but it also underscores one of my ongoing issues with the show, which is that there seems to be a mismatch between the nature of the Dollhouse and the character of the people (especially the handlers) who work for it.

The nearest real-world analogy to what the Dollhouse is, seems to me, is a brothel staffed by slave labor, one of those deals where women are lured into traveling overseas for what they think is a modeling career, only to discover, too late, that they’re actually going to be unpaid prostitutes. The Dollhouse uses sci-fi mind-control in place of threats and physical abuse, but morally and practically, it’s the same sort of enterprise.

The attitudes and behavior of the Dollhouse staff, on the other hand—Amy Acker’s objection to Dominic’s use of a dehumanizing metaphor; Topher’s belief that the terms of the dolls’ contracts will be honored; the distinction everyone seems to draw between Sierra’s rape by her handler and the equally non-consensual sex acts she and the other dolls regularly perform with clients—all of that seems more appropriate to a legal but corrupt business, like a state-licensed Nevada brothel being run by mobsters. I could see average-Joe (and -Jane) doctors, tech people, and security guards signing up to work at a place like that and maintaining a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable exploitation of the dolls. I could also see them turning a blind eye to evidence that the management regularly breaks the law and abuses the dolls—but the more of that evidence they see, the more important it becomes that they be able to maintain the fiction that what they’re doing is OK.

One way to create and preserve such a fiction in the context of what is clearly a criminal enterprise would be to convince employees that the Dollhouse is a technically illegal but still legitimate business, e.g., a scientific research facility that uses volunteer subjects to conduct important research that has been unreasonably suppressed by the government. Even if you could convince people that this sexual fantasy factory is serving a higher good, though, I’m not sure why you’d want to. Wouldn’t it make more sense to just admit you’re engaged in a felony enterprise, and hire people who don’t have a problem with that?

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Dollhouse, week 7

Thoughts on this week’s episode:

* Topher’s “drawer of inappropriate starches” is a keeper, but otherwise I thought it was awfully early in the series to be doing the Everybody Must Get Stoned episode. I still don’t have a very strong sense of who these people are when they aren’t under the influence. I also thought there was tonal dissonance between the drug-induced goofiness and the more serious elements, particularly Sierra’s rape flashback.

* About that flashback. Beyond seeming like a cheap and ill-advised attempt at emotional manipulation, I thought it was a missed opportunity for… well, not character development exactly, but at least a gesture in that direction. We know nothing about most of the dolls’ real lives. When Victor had his drug-induced meltdown, we got a glimpse of who he used to be (a soldier in Iraq? or Yugoslavia maybe?). With Sierra we got a more graphic version of a scene from last week’s episode. Why waste time telling us what we already know?

* Lisa and I both kept commenting on Echo’s outfit. It was the kind of thing you’d expect her to wear for a date with Red Motorcycle Boy, and it made a good sight gag after she went off program, but again, there was a tonal mismatch once the episode turned to more serious matters. (Echo: I have to save my old boyfriend! Lisa: What the hell is holding those stockings up?)

* In the Things That Do Not Bode Well Department: this was our first extended look at Echo/Caroline’s real persona, and unfortunately I don’t think I like her that much. I don’t hate her, it’s just, she doesn’t strike me as someone I’d want to hang out with, even if it were age-appropriate for me to do so. Contrast first-season Veronica Mars, a high-school student who I’d readily invite to an adult dinner party with the expectation that she’d make a star conversationalist.

Nor would Caroline top my list of people I’d want to sneak into an Evil Corporate Lab with. While her boyfriend has the common sense to be scared about doing this (and the genre savvy to throw out a 28 Days Later reference), Caroline is all, “It’s the right thing to do, how could it possibly result in dire consequences for all concerned?” Once they get inside, it’s the boyfriend who zeroes in on (and starts filming) the human fetuses, while Caroline is distracted by thoughts of bringing a mutant Labrador home as a pet. (“He’s too cute to be a deadly biohazard! Let me open his cage!”) Again, contrast Veronica Mars in this same situation.

* Of course the boyfriend is the one who gets shot, but we don’t see him die, which means he’s destined to turn up again later. I’ve seen speculation on other blogs that he’s Alpha. This seems unlikely to me—if a glimpse of her old campus is enough to trigger a memory glitch, I doubt they’d keep a person she knew in the same dollhouse with her. Also, he doesn’t strike me as someone likely to evolve into a deadly, super-smart killing machine.

* I don’t understand the point of having inductees into the Dollhouse sign contracts, unless it’s a psychological device to help them accept the surrender of their free will. I’m bugged that no one thinks to ask, “How could this agreement to work for your criminal enterprise be legally binding? Why would I trust you to hold up your end of the bargain?”

All in all, a disappointing episode. Too many logic holes and questionable choices.

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