Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, hasn’t done a TV show in several years. After the failure of his show Firefly, which was widely seen as having been mishandled by the Fox network (which gave it a bad time slot and ran the episodes out of order), he tried to make the move to feature films. But now he’s back with Dollhouse, premiering Feb. 13 and starring Eliza Dushku (who played Faith on Buffy) as a woman who gets scientifically implanted with other personalities depending on what her employers need—sort of a metaphor for the life of an actress. So why are Whedon’s many fans more nervous than celebratory? Because the way things have been going for Dollhouse suggest that the Fox network hasn’t really come up with a strategy for making it a hit. Here are some of the warning signs that have caused mean-spirited bloggers (like me) to worry that Dollhouse might be in trouble:
1. A development process interrupted by the writers’ strike. Whedon announced that he had signed to do the project in early 2008, just before the big Writers’ Guild strike. The strike delayed the writing and development of the show, and left Whedon with, in his own words, only “two months to write and prep the whole thing.”
2. The network makes a big investment, then gets cold feet. Fox loved the idea of Dollhouse so much that they ordered 13 episodes without even making a pilot. The money that would otherwise have been spent on a pilot was instead used to make the episodes on a higher budget, with a gigantic, massively expensive central set. (A far cry from the days of Buffy, where Whedon had to do the first 13 episodes on a tiny budget, with the characters constantly walking down the same school hall.) But after the episodes had been shooting for some time, the network noticed that the show’s premise was kind of confusing and that Whedon “didn’t bring the visceral pop the network had expected.” That’s the sort of thing a network usually wants to notice before they’ve spent millions of dollars making episodes. Which explains why networks don’t usually pick up a show without asking for a pilot.
3. A new series premiere. When Fox decided that Firefly’s first episode was too slow and confusing, they demanded that Whedon write a new episode that would have more action and more clearly introduce the premise. With Dollhouse, Fox decided that the planned first episode was too slow and confusing, so Whedon wrote a new episode that had more action and more clearly introduced the premise. But of course the situation is totally different, because Whedon claims that shooting a new episode was his idea this time.
4. The Time Slot of Death. Fox then announced that they would be scheduling Dollhouse on Friday nights—known as “the death slot” because the network hasn’t had a hit on that night in many years. The show’s time slot companion will be Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a low-rated science-fiction series. The potential good news is that since Fox always gets low ratings on Friday, Dollhouse can survive with less-than-great ratings, or, as Variety’s Brian Lowry put it, “the low-risk time slot is an expectations-lowering godsend.” But the same things were said about many other cultish shows that aired on Friday nights. Remember Wonderfalls? Or, for that matter, Firefly?
And yet with all that, fans should remember one thing: there was a show back in 1997 that had to re-shoot the pilot, re-cast a major role, replace a director, had an unpromising title and was on a network that almost nobody watched. It was called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Just because things don’t look good for a show before it starts doesn’t mean things will look bad afterward.