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.


Poppy Red said...

This is SOOO interesting! But sadly, as you seem to say at the end of the post, I think you might be giving the show more credit than it's due.

One of the problems with seeing this as a critique of sentimentalism is that the characters that you have more likelihood to connect with affectively ARE the dollhouse clients. Ballard, well-noted, is totally gross. But aren't you, my dear, the very one that was saying that of all the characters, it is Olivia Williams's character -- who runs the dollhouse and whom we see partaking of the services at least once -- who made you cry/feel pity? And as unlikeable as Topher is, wasn't the show recently trying to make us feel sorry for him because he has to program himself a perfect doll to play with once a year on his birthday? If we are in the position of client and the clients are the ones we begin to feel pity for, aren't we just feeling sorry for ourselves?

What I do think the show does well is to show that a person is a person even if all signs show them not to be. The less human ones are certainly people like Ballard, not people like Echo, right?

I have more on this but I can't talk right now. LOVE THIS POST!!!

Ben said...

This is an awesome post. I haven't seen the final episode yet, so I'm shoring myself up for disappointment. But no matter. I agree with you totally that it is the creepiness of the show that is its strength, and that that creepiness comes about partly by sentimental identification that is continually under stress. This is either because the characters we like are behaving in profoundly unethical ways (Olivia Williams, and the other staff of the Dollhouse), or because they suddenly cease to be the characters we like (Eliza and the dolls). And while I was initially resistant to the idea, I think Dushku's "limited range" adds to the effect very much, because it at once provides me with a consistent presence to attach my feelings to (because she's not that good at pretending to be anyone), while also giving things an unintentional Brechtian twirl by periodically, annoyingly bringing back disbelief through bad acting. And regarding what Poppy Red said, I think that yes, we are meant to be feeling sorry for ourselves, but also for the people we hurt (in this case our victims/creations)--which I figure is one of the hallmarks of a mainstream sentimental critique of anything. And that's the great creepiness at the heart of Dollhouse, that it asks us to watch Eliza regularly, but also suggests that the watching of young women (and not just women, but mostly), and the expectations placed on them, are a form of abuse. That it does this so explicitly is kind of amazing, even if the network/Joss/whoever end up fluffing it.