One thing that has occurred to me while watching Dollhouse — and I’ve seen others mention this — is that apart from the show’s confusion about what it wants to be (last Friday’s two episodes mostly fell into the “conspiracy thriller” camp, which I’m not that wild about, though they were good episodes) there’s a serious built-in conceptual problem that the show could never overcome.
The foundational premise of the show is that women (and sometimes men too) have their personalities erased and are programmed to be other people. The heroine becomes a different person every week. The conceptual problem is this: the way they’ve set it up, there is absolutely nothing fun about being a Doll. The Dolls exist to work for others; they personally don’t get pleasure out of being other people, since they’re programmed to forget the whole thing. The overwhelming impression is that it’s really awful to live like this; there is no upside to it.
But without an upside, there is no temptation for us to get drawn into wanting that kind of life for ourselves. We can relate to it in a sort of intellectual way, asking ourselves whether we really know if we are who we think we are, or whether our personalities and memories are in some sense constructed by others. But emotionally, we never think: “gee, that might be cool.” When a story presents a lifestyle that is evil or wrong, it works best by letting us envy it a little; there’s a part of us that wants to be free of conscience like the villain, and we know God should beat the Devil but the Devil needs to be given a chance to make his case. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and many other vampire stories have done exactly this; we don’t want the vampires to win, but we can see what’s tempting about living without responsibility or guilt.
Dollhouse can’t do this, because the premise of the show suggests that whoever is having these experiences, it’s not really Caroline, and she’s not getting much of anything except a lot of headaches out of being all these other people. (Buffy had something vaguely similar baked into the premise; you’ll remember it was established early on that a vampire isn’t really the person he used to be, just a demon inhabiting a dead body. This idea was basically abandoned because it was so much more interesting that a person might want to be a vampire, and enjoy some things about becoming one. But who would want to be a Doll?) That means that the only real temptations and ethical dilemmas are given to people who aren’t Dolls (or think they aren’t).
(Update: I should clarify that when I say “who would want to be a Doll?” I’m not questioning the motivations of the characters within the show, who are given a plausible reason to take this deal. I’m saying that the way they’ve set it up, nobody could enjoy being a Doll.)
Not only does this limit our potential emotional involvement with the show, but it limits the real-world relevance the show can have. Fantasy shows work best when the situations can be related to something that is common in the real world: the idea of a guy hiring Echo in her guise as an expert hostage negotiator, absurd as it is, parallels the way we (in real life) trust “experts” about whom we know nothing except their titles. But the Doll situation has very little relevance to its equivalent situations in the real world, because in the real world, it’s sometimes fun to be other people. We’re all forced into certain roles in life, but sometimes it can be a relief — because we can fall back on pre-set roles instead of trying to find out exactly who we are. And if you compare being a Doll to being an actor, an analogy the show has encouraged, it’s pretty obvious that the parallel doesn’t work at all (actors become other people because they like it). Every real-world counterpart of the show’s premise includes some element of free will, some potential for enjoyment of being other people. So real life is basically more interesting than the show is. That’s not a good thing.
I don’t know how Dollhouse could have solved this problem, short of re-jiggering its premise entirely, and I tend to stay away from suggesting such things (I’m sure I’ve done it on occasion, but I just don’t care for “this show would be better if it were some other show” posts). The problem may just be inherent in the premise of erasing people’s memories; if they can’t remember, they can’t enjoy it, and the show wouldn’t have made any sense if they could remember. But it really is a problem. If evil is never tempting, then we’re free to sit back and disapprove without ever getting involved or questioning our own reactions.