Tuesday, October 6, 2009

An open letter to Joss Whedon

Dear Mr. Whedon,

I'm not refraining from calling you "Joss" because I'm angry, I just think it's tacky that all your fans refer to you as if you were friends in real life.

But I am a little angry, I won't lie. I watched Friday's Dollhouse, and I have a few questions for you.
1. What kinds of promises did you have to make to Fox in order to get signed for another season? After renting the show on DVD and watching the unaired pilot and mythic "thirteenth episode," it became clear to me that the show had the potential to be something much more interesting than it had been up to that point. You obviously had a clear sense of the overall story arc, and some really exciting ideas not just about where the show might go, but how a more long-term story arc might pay off more than an episodic "Who's Echo This Week?" structure. However, once the season started off again, all that movement toward big-picture questions and serial structure seemed for nothing. Echo's an undercover FBI agent! Echo's a mother! Who Will She Be Next? I know that major networks are more and more skittish by the day, afraid of getting even more handily outpaced by cable, and that those shows which fall on the "episodic" side of the divide tend to get better ratings week-to-week, but all your other shows (and your history in comics) make it clear that your heart's in the serial format. So why is Dollhouse on Fox and not FX? Or the odiously renamed SyFy? I'd bet that even though you didn't get many viewers by network standards, you could be a BSG or Damages-style tentpole for a good cable station.

But, okay, maybe you don't have much control over where this show airs. Judging by Eliza Dushku's Executive Producer credit, she was key to making the show happen at all, and she was in all likelihood locked in with Fox proper. Fair enough. And Buffy worked the balance between episodic and serial fairly well, so I know it can be done.

2. This brings me to my second point--because, know what Buffy did really, really well? Girl-power-style liberal feminism. It was sometimes incredibly stupid about race, but at least its heart was in the right place, and you did make up for at least some of those issues in Firefly, with all its anti-imperialism and the mind-blowing beauty of Gina Torres. And you know what neither Buffy nor Firefly had? Ridiculous Hand-That-Rocks-The-Cradle storylines that make mothers out to be somehow better and worse than all other women, but definitely some kind of crazy lactating love mutant. In case you forgot, here's what happened on Friday: Echo gets put on an assignment where she's a mother to an infant, and Topher has changed her "on a glandular level" so she'll be up for the job. Apparently, what this means is that she turns into a shrill, demanding wife who doesn't think twice about breaking into her husband's office as soon as he leaves for work. As always, something goes Terribly Wrong (this is also no longer working for me as a plot device--the Dollhouse is supposed to be a functioning business, after all!), and Echo first escapes her handlers and then the wipe she's given is insufficient so she goes back to steal the baby she knows is hers. For you see, "the mothering instinct is the strongest instinct of all."

Is it? Tell that to the post-partum mom who struggles with breastfeeding, or the one who has to be hospitalized for depression. I mean--I'm all on board for celebrating the unique power that comes with motherhood, but by making it into this binary thing (once you have a baby, you morph into super-mom--and that change can even happen just from the Baby Hormones!), it keeps up the idea that women are just hormone-driven machines, and makes the transformation into SuperMom an expectation for all women (it is, after all, "instinct").

I can still see how there are possibilities here--maybe you're also commenting on the constructed nature of the Ideal Mother, and showing how the myth of SuperMom blocks the possibility for men to fully explore emotional bonds with their kids (once Echo leaves the scene, Daddy is suddenly able to canoodle with his baby without his previously immobilizing grief), but I'm not buying it this time. The force of this "instinctual" argument is too strong, and the show's not strong enough to bear the flaw.

So we're not breaking up, exactly, but I need some space. Don't get me wrong, I'm still writing that chapter of my dissertation on Buffy, and I still want to be friends, but the new episode of the Buffy comic is going to linger a while longer on the shelf of my local comics store. I'm not removing Dollhouse from my TiVo, but I'm not going out of my way to watch it any more, until you show me that you're really trying to get this relationship back on track.

Take care,

Friday, August 7, 2009

Caution: Spoilers Ahead?

So I'm again inspired by Joss Whedon and the frustrating pleasures of Dollhouse to return to this blog. I've just watched the famous unaired final episode, and I'm unsure what to make of it. I'll do the standard caveat against spoilers here, but I'm not sure if it's even valid, since the episode both is and isn't part of the show's “official” arc. Whedon himself was, unsurprisingly perhaps, given his history in comics and tendency to play with canonical backstory, a little cagey about the canonical value of the episode in the Dollhouse panel at Comic-Con. His full response boils down to this: “Everything that happens is real, but they're memories, so not reliable.” In other words, the writers can change things if the story demands it or if they feel like it--everything is open to a possible reboot.

If I sound churlish, I don't mean to--I'm excited at the prospect of a changing definition of continuity, or at least I am if it's happening in the hands of Joss Whedon, who's particularly good at this kind of narrative innovation. I think the introduction of Dawn, for instance, was one of the most interesting and ballsiest moves he could have made, particularly considering that Buffy was on the air well before the massive popularity of LOST's twisty logic.

Anyway, here's what happens in the episode: it takes place in 2019, ten years after the events of the first season, and LA is a postapocalyptic nightmare. The dollhouse technology has spun out of control (surprise!), and it's impossible to tell if people are “actually” who they seem or if they've been wiped. On top of that, there are armies of “butchers”: people who seem to have been wiped and turned into mindless killers (shades of the long-term themes of Firefly). A group of Scrappy Survivors (featuring awesome girl geek Felicia Day) discovers the abandoned dollhouse, and goes there to take cover from the war above. So already, the show's ultimate endgame is revealed. Any reader who is familiar with the genre at all could see the catastrophic effects of the dollhouse technology coming, but the thing that became increasingly surprising to me as the show went on was the level of detail we get as to how everything fell apart.

Because it turns out that the postapocalyptic story is just the frame for a Cliff-Notes-style summary of how the world exploded. Whenever the shit came down, Dushku and Co. left a trail of bread crumbs in the form of stored memories that will tell any remaining survivors how to get to a mythic “Safe Haven” (and, more importantly, fill the reader in on all the important bits that we missed in getting from Here to There). So we learn, in five-minute bursts, that Echo/Caroline has learned to maintain a coherent personality, that Rossum expands the Dollhouse's services to giving “anatomical upgrades” to people, that Rossum has been secretly uploading memories every time anyone gets in an MRI, and that someone (Rossum, presumably) weaponizes the Dollhouse tech so that picking up a phone puts you at risk of becoming a mindless zombie.

It's all awesome SF, and cobbled together to make something new in a way that showcases Whedon's talent for generic pastiche. But here's the thing that gets me--what happens now to the kinds of pleasure that we assume serial reading is meant to provide? Why warn about spoilers when the show itself has already laid out its next five years of plot in a single hour? And will that information about the show's future be available to everyone, or just to people who care enough about the show to buy the DVDs? After watching it, I figured that the next season might even begin without any allusion to “Epitaph One” at all--it would be like an easter egg, only available to the devoted fan. Apparently, though, three of the characters from the apocalyptic future show up in the season two premiere, so casual viewers will at least have a taste of what the future of Dollhouse holds, but not the broad overview that the “real” fan now knows.

It's interesting to me, because the standing model so far for the distinction between the casual and devoted reader (at least with a show like Dollhouse) has been how committed that reader is to sorting out the show's central mystery. The one who's looking teleologically forward, obsessed with who killed Laura Palmer or what the numbers mean or who shot JR. But with Dollhouse, there's this assumption that readers are looking for a different kind of payoff--filling in the gaps, maybe? I'd say getting a deeper understanding of character, but that doesn't quite work with Dollhouse since the characters are by definition so empty...

Based on the little bit of internet stalking I've done so far around message boards and the like, it seems that people are mostly adopting this “we're in it for the journey, not the destination” angle. I'm curious as to how this will effect the show's direction in the coming year--but more importantly, if Joss Whedon has started another sea change in television like the one that began with Buffy. This time, though, instead of trusting readers to pay attention to longer and more complicated serial arcs, he's trusting readers to look for aesthetic rewards beyond What Happens Next--to think differently about their relationship with plot. Here's hoping.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

That old, strange, sentimental feeling

So I watched what was probably the final episode of Dollhouse last night, refusing to go to the movies in my desire to be part of what felt like--to me at least--a watershed Nerd Moment. Critical opinion on this show seems to be divided, with a lot of the complaints revolving around the difficulty of becoming affectively attached to the central characters. Since their personalities have been wiped, the complaint goes, we can't relate to the characters enough to really care about the Big Reveals that are so central to the structure of any good serial. There are extradiegetic problems, too, in Fox's focus-group retooling of the show's first five episodes as well as Eliza Dushku's ... um ... “limited range” is the going euphemism.

I know this might sound like I'm doing that annoying academic trick of over-investing a narrative's mistake or flaw with too much meaning, but I think Dushku's limits as an actress actually play right into what makes Dollhouse most interesting--namely its engagement with the sentimental. In a lot of ways, all Whedon's work up to this point seems to be part of the tradition of Sentimental Social Change (especially the kind that's achieved through an affective link with sentimental characters). I'm thinking, for instance, of how Jo's death in Bleak House is meant to make bourgeois readers care about the plight of the urban underclass, or how Eliza's spectacular flight across the Ohio River in Uncle Tom's Cabin tries to convince white antebellum readers to oppose slavery. Since we spend so much time with these characters just in the process of reading serially, we feel like they're our friends, or at least people we know, and then their suffering as a result of social codes strikes mainstream readers (perhaps for the first time) as unfair. Willow's coming-out narrative over the course of Buffy is a great example of this strategy. By the season 4 episode “Family,” we side completely with the anti-homophobic stance of the Scooby Gang against the scary religiosity of Tara's family, not least because four years of faithful viewing have made us so attached to Willow as a character. Through sentimental identification, the reader is placed in a reading position that stands in contrast (but not too radically) with the dominant culture.

The thing about Dollhouse, and the key to its success and failure both, is how it plays with that process. The Dolls are obviously meant to be the object of our sentimental identification in the show--pity, desire, whatever--and the stand-alone episodes follow the spectacular logic of sentimental narratives to a T. As we see Echo put into dangerous situation after dangerous situation, we want to protect her (or at least I think we're meant to want this), and at the same time we're set up to desire her sexually. (Echo could get a few tips on how to deal with this gross child-bride situation from pretty much any 19th-century sentimental heroine: Little Nell, Little Eva, Little Dorrit, Anne Catherick) The thing that's interesting to me about all this is how Echo's wiping process makes us see the problems of sentimental identification so much more clearly. If we care about Echo, if we get pleasure from watching her in her different engagements, we're immediately in the position of a Dollhouse client. That's why I actually like the scenes with all the zombified dolls wandering around the Dollhouse--the connection you make to the characters in that state feels so much creepier, since it's so obviously about projecting my own narrative desires onto them. The “reader stand-in,” Ballard, is the grossest character of them all, hate-fucking his Doll girlfriend when he finds out that she works for the Dollhouse and smirking self-righteously at all the other characters the rest of the time. Echo's “handler” (read: pimp), on the other hand, is the show's Good Dad in the Giles mold, which (again) is ultimately profoundly unsettling.

Dushku's “limited” acting, then, works for the show rather than against it, in that it makes you have to try harder to care about her character, which in turn makes the sentimental machinery visible in a way it wouldn't be with a more talented actor at the show's core. When Dushku's good, though, she's really good, which is also fun--I find myself oscillating back and forth between caring about her character and seeing the machinery of “caring” about fictional characters laid bare. To complicate things even further, Olivia Williams, who plays the Dollhouse's icy manager Adele, is fantastic (as she's been in everything since Rushmore), giving the kind of nuanced performance that makes her a much more “real” (and thus identifiable) character than any of the others.

I doubt, sadly, that Whedon is going for anything as Brechtian as all this--the season (series?) finale was disappointingly straightforward, with Echo being captured by Alpha and getting seventeen personalities loaded into her at the same time. Because Echo's original personality is inherently good (she's a social activist, vegetarian, etc.), getting overfilled with multiple consciousness makes her endlessly empathetic, and this empathy is what marks her as different from the psychotic Alpha. She “is everyone,” as she tells Alpha. Combined with the (frankly unbelievable) inclusion of Ballard as one of the Dollhouse staff, the whole finale seemed to me to pretty definitively back off from this overarching critique of sentimental identification. I still haven't totally decided, and there's always the possibility that the mythic Final Unaired Episode will shift the show's focus yet again, but I do think there's possibility here for something exciting in the long run, and maybe a new way of thinking about how narratives try to gesture toward social change.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sherlock Holmes as Iron Man?

I'll admit it--my Special Lady and I walked out of Iron Man. I love superhero movies, and I have a special place in my heart for Robert Downey, Jr., as I do for pretty much all celebrities who struggle with addiction (even Lindsay and Britney get a level of immunity), but I just couldn't take Iron Man. We went to see it at a big theater, and the crowd was so jingoistic and creepy, I had this moment when I found myself suddenly unable to approach the film as a Big Dumb Action Movie--and if I had to sit there while people cheered as another Afghan village exploded, I would start to cry. And don't even get me started on Gwyneth frakkin' Paltrow.

So I met this news that Guy Ritchie is making an "updated" Sherlock Holmes movie with trepadation, to say the least. Like Iron Man, most Guy Ritchie movies seem to try for irony around their masculine posturing, but ultimately find themselves way too invested in that posture for the irony to really take. The fast editing and ass-kicking are over the top, but the characters never reach the self-aware (or even accidental) self-parody of a Nathan Fillion or Shatner or Mark Wahlberg.

The figure of Sherlock Holmes offers a chance to present a different vision of masculinity--he's always struck me as sad and vulnerable, with his obsessions (the OCD stuff, obviously, but also his obsession with Watson) blocking him from the world of male privilege where he would otherwise be able to succeed. This strikes me as a particularly feminine conundrum--where your skills prevent you from getting what you want, rather than bringing you toward it. I think of it as the Lisa Simpson Syndrome: intelligence and skills mark you as weirdo instead of a Success.

And part of this feeling must come with the historic physical characterization of Holmes, which it's impossible not to think of (the coat, the hat, the big pipe, etc). He just doesn't look like an action hero, which is why I think he works as a hero for braniacs, misfits, and nebbishes. Guy Ritchie just seems like another guy who'd beat you up for your lunch money--or at least idolize the guy who could.

So here's hoping this turns into gay camp, à la my favorite gay male love story ever. I doubt it, but anything's possible.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Felix "Gay-dis" Gaeta

I was bonding recently with a professor in my department over the awesomeness that is Battlestar Galactica. We agreed (as anyone does who's seen the show) that it's awesome, but she complained that its homophobia drove her crazy. Ever eager to defend my baby, I replied that I had heard they were outing Gaeta in the new set of webisodes, “Face of the Enemy” --to which she mumbled something and changed the subject. I felt a little dumb after this, like I'd boiled a complex issue down to a question of representation--if they have queer characters (finally!), then the show must be queer-friendly, right?

Obviously, there's more to it than that, but I don't want to downplay how shocking it still is to see two guys kiss as part of a mainstream TV narrative (even if they only get to be gay on the internet, like closeted rural teenagers). The show goes out of its way to demonstrate how okay everyone is with Gaeta's gay-i-tude, from Racetrack gently ribbing Hoshi (that's the BF) for how long it took them to get together, to Tigh's accepting their relationship as a reason to give Hoshi a raptor to go find Gaeta's lost ship. Furthermore, I really appreciated how Gaeta's sexuality was presented as more nuanced than the straight/gay binary--his romantic/sexual connection with the Eight seems real enough, but isn't used as a way to delegitimize his desire for Hoshi or his queerness in general. At the end of the day, though, I had much the same feeling that I did after watching “Razor”--the moments when the show explicitly addresses questions of sexual diversity just highlight the narrative's structural homophobia.

“Razor's” retrograde politics are pretty obvious--Cain's lesbianism is a sign of her over-the-top masculinity, and thus her failure to be a successful “parent” for the Pegasus. This fear of a queer familial structure is particularly striking when you consider the insistent comparisons made between Pegasus as the failed family (that has to sacrifice itself if the future is to survive) and the stabilizing force of Galactica's heterosexual parental dyad of Adama and Roslin. But even more than that, I think there's something really important in how the thing that the Cylons most desire in/from the humans is the ability to heterosexually reproduce. What makes the Cylons monstrous is their attraction across sameness and their ability to regenerate by means other than reproduction. “Love” is what makes Hera's and (maybe...) Nicky's conceptions possible, and it seems the show implies the same origin with the fetus conceived by Six and Tigh. If love = reproduction, what does that mean for queer characters? Especially when reproduction is the activity that marks you not just as straight, but as human?

I don't know--maybe I'm oversimplifying things. The way the Final Five are obviously in between human and Cylon shows a breakdown of boundaries between categories of identity that serves as a counterpoint to all this obsession with reproduction and family structure. And Baltar's effeminacy certainly isn't linked to any lack of virility on his part. And even if his desires are marked as perverse (which I think they pretty definitely are), I don't think the show pathologizes his investment in sexual pleasure for its own sake. We'll see--but I'm excited for Friday, and to see where all this goes in the next season, particularly w/r/t the relationship between Tigh and the Six.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Feeling dissed...

So I'm deep in the zone right now, working on my dissertation, and frozen by terror in a way that surpasses all my school-related freakouts in recent memory. For those of you among my five readers who have done this before, any tips for pushing through the terror that comes with the first piece of writing you give your advisor?

On top of my general malaise, I've somehow misplaced the central theoretical text I'm using. I can only take comfort in the fact that the same thing happened to my blushing bride, and she managed to finish her prospectus. Thank god we don't have a baby, we'd probably just leave it on the T.

So here's my hope, put out into the wide, wide worldwide web:
I will be motivated by my love of serial reading, not my fear of failure;
I will commit myself wholeheartedly to the play of language;
I will refrain from making Grand Pronouncements;
I will treat my fellow writers and readers with respect;
I will remember always that the object of all interpretation is the process.

Wish me luck, friends.