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,

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