That’s my inappropriately-snarky subject line to introduce a link to the big TV-related piece of the day: Maureen Ryan’s long interview with Joss Whedon on Dollhouse. (The full transcript is printed below the article.) The major news from the interview is that Fox’s problem with the show wasn’t really with the format or the amount of mythology/backstory it included, but with the sexual themes: “Fox sort of has that reputation for ‘sexy’ or ‘edgy’ or blah blah blah, but they don’t actually want that and it frustrates me. It’s the classic American double standard: torture — great. Sex — oh, that’s so bad!”
Granted, though, that while U.S. network television has gotten even more squeamish about sexuality than previously thought possible — even as the amount of gore you can show in prime time is now seemingly unlimited — there is an inherent problem with exploring the sexual themes in the premise of Dollhouse: some of those themes are pretty horrifying, and impossible to do in the context of a 40-minute genre entertainment show without trivializing them. I don’t think Whedon ever really figured out how to deal with this problem. In the interview, he sounds confused (or at least confusing) when he tries to explain that the show is about something more than the theme of exploitation.
It does seem, though, that this is a show that demonstrates the hazards of not knowing exactly what the show is: Whedon thought he was selling something different from what the network thought it was buying, and nobody could explain exactly what they wanted the show to be. Maybe a clearer concept wouldn’t have made the show more successful. And I think part of the reason the show had such a fan following — apart from the fact that it is a Joss Whedon show — is that its growing pains were so visible, and it didn’t always seem to know exactly what it was about; it couldn’t spell everything out for us like more confident, conceptually-strong shows.
I also wanted to highlight this quote because it fits in with something I’ve been saying about stand-alones vs. serials, how doing stand-alone episodes can allow a show to have more variety of tone and style:
When the show turned into a thriller every week [in the second half of season 1], it took something out of it that was kind of basic to what we were trying to do. And then also the fact that it was a thriller every week meant that we couldn’t go from genre to genre, which is really what I wanted to do.