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How 'Dollhouse' explains Joss Whedon and 'Avengers'

Entertainment Geekly: It’s hard to be original when everyone’s a copy.

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There isn’t much to say about Avengers: Age of Ultron. The movie grossed $187.7 million in a few days, but by Monday morning, there were two talking points: Black Widow and Joss Whedon. “Was Black Widow’s role in the movie sexist?” is a question I don’t think really has an answer, except maybe just “No.” Age of Ultron is too incoherent a document to read seriously: Tony Stark is Dr. Frankenstein, except that his monster is a metaphor for security, except that his monster was made by an Infinity Stone, so the only solution is Paul Bettany. (Keep in mind: This is yet another movie that mostly just needs Chris Hemsworth onscreen so he can take off his shirt.)

I didn’t like Black Widow in the movie, but I also can’t abide the idea that Whedon somehow ruined her. Keep in mind: Joss Whedon is the guy who took Black Widow in Iron Man 2—a two-dimensional knockout reduced to eye candy and ambient Johansson-Brand sultry cool—and transformed her into the third lead of Avengers. But there is a vocal minority of people who do blame Whedon. This is an interesting turn, in the context of geek culture. A decade ago, Joss Whedon was a particular kind of outsider. He worked in Hollywood, but only on the WB/UPN fringes; every attempt to work within the system was met with frustration (Firefly‘s cancelation by Fox) piled atop frustration (Warner Bros’ inability to make a Wonder Woman movie).

He was one of the pioneers of a new era of fan access. Whedon was one of the first modern showrunners to become a star among fandom. Buffy arrived two years before David Chase made The Sopranos; Whedon was circling internet forums a decade before David Simon grudgingly noticed the internet. Whedon helped write the playbook for the Showrunner at Comic-Con, the nerdy writer-producer who gets louder cheers than the beautiful actors. A couple years ago, I was in Ballroom 20 at Comic-Con, watching Joss Whedon pace around onstage and accept questions from the crowd. It lasted about an hour; it could’ve lasted three more.

Now, Joss Whedon is a particular kind of insider. He directed Avengers and now Avengers 2, two of the very biggest movies ever made. What used to make him accessible also makes him an easy target. This was also true a few years ago, when Damon Lindelof accepted the vast majority of internet rage over the general incoherence of Prometheus. In both cases, the people doing the attacking can only seem naive. They imagine that Hollywood is a place where writers bring a screenplay to a studio, refuse to make a single change, and then receive $200 million.

Both Lindelof and Whedon retreated from Twitter. Lindelof has returned to television. Whedon’s next move is unclear. His frustration with Marvel Studios has become the only other talking point worth discussing. A certain section of fandom keeps bringing up his name in connection with other Hollywood franchises: Star Wars, say. It feels unlikely. He’s been working with Marvel for half a decade; maybe he’ll return. But as he told BuzzFeed‘s Adam B. Vary a few months ago, he’d like to start creating his own universes again.

The last time Whedon created a universe was 2009, with Dollhouse. Based on my anecdotal evidence, Dollhouse is one of the least beloved projects by an extremely beloved creative mind. There are whole corners of the internet built on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Firefly fandom will probably survive longer than our planet. An unusual Venn diagram of teen romantics and film snoots loves Much Ado About Nothing. Hell, in the last seven years, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog has risen to become one of the standout iconographic projects in the Whedonography. In the same time, Dollhouse has faded into history.

This is a shame. On one hand, it’s impossible for me to properly recommend Dollhouse. The show’s setup, in a nutshell: Attractive people work for a futuristic organization that sends them off on various elaborate missions; each mission requires wiping the agents’ memories and implanting entirely new personalities therein. Dollhouse is already a period-piece for certain fascinations of its decade: Like Memento and The Bourne Identity, it treats amnesia like a defining modern metaphor; like The Matrix saga and The Dark Knight trilogy, it treats comic-book logic like a freshman-year philosophy class.

It is also an impossible mess—famously, explicitly. Fox demanded that Whedon reshoot the pilot—maybe because it was confusing, maybe because “demanding Joss Whedon reshoot a pilot” is just so very Fox of Fox. In this fascinating contemporary interview with Maureen Ryan, Whedon claims that he originally wanted to use the show to explore human sexuality: “What we get from each other in our most intimate relationships…It’s supposed to be about the sides of us that we don’t want people to see.” If the prospect of a network-television sci-fi reboot of Belle De Jour sounds like fun, then marry me.

It didn’t sound fun to Fox, who apparently got skittish about one of the central obvious problems with Dollhouse: This is a show about people who are, with some frequency, “programmed” to love (and have sex with!) complete strangers, before a futuristic contraption wipes their memory clean. To be fair, this setup is supposed to be problematic. The show lasted 26 episodes—all currently on Netflix—and you can spot this version of Dollhouse occasionally, a show about the vagaries of sex and love, about the fantasies we think we want.

Occasionally. Dollhouse is a mess, there’s no denying. The show requires a lead performer who can, in no particular order: Play a completely different character every week, each with their own bespoke emotional-psychological makeups; play a character defined by complete emotional-psychological vacancy; incrementally evolve from psychological vacancy into self-awareness, portraying the rise of human consciousness in a single character; and, ultimately, play all of those characters at once, during fight scenes. I’m not sure any actor could play that; Eliza Dushku, bless her, definitely cannot.

(ASIDE: Conversely, Whedon regulars Amy Acker and Alan Tudyk pop up in recurring roles and have a scenery-chewing blast playing every possible kind of genre-type character—Hero, Villain, Bystander, Psychopath, Brainless Nothing, Normal Human. It is impossible to watch Dollhouse now without imagining Tatiana Maslany in the lead role. Somewhere—between the mess that Dollhouse was and the mess that Orphan Black is becoming—lies one of the great unmade shows of our TV era. END OF ASIDE.)

But Dollhouse is also unquestionably fascinating. This is one of those shows that starts out as “procedural” and ultimately gets “serialized,” although even those words don’t quite capture the strangeness of a show that constantly transforms its lead players and the whole nature of the game itself. The thirteenth episode, “Epitaph One,” is one of the single great weird episodes of modern television. To that point, Dollhouse is a reasonably interesting science-fiction action series: Pamela Anderson’s V.I.P. reimagined by Gene Roddenberry. “Epitaph One” suddenly leaps a decade into the future, revealing that the relatively low-key events of the TV show will result in one of the weirdest apocalypses ever: A world where anyone can take leap into someone else’s brain, achieving a kind of post-physical immortality.

You watch Dollhouse and you wish all TV shows were so bold; you watch “Epitaph One” and you wish that every TV show was required to have one standalone episode featuring a bespoke apocalypse. Imagine if Breaking Bad season one ended with a 10-year flash-forward to an America entirely hooked on blue meth, or if The Americans suddenly leapt forward forty years to President Paige Jennings handing over America’s nuclear arsenal to Vladimir Putin.

The art of TV drama has gotten less adventurous since Dollhouse‘s time. This week, Todd VanDerWerff at Vox praised the willful weirdness of Mad Men while bemoaning the general decline of willful weirdness in today’s TV dramas. To me, that decline is explained simply: Joss Whedon has stopped making TV shows. During his first creative peak, Whedon’s work was defined by rampant stylistic exploration: Musical episodes, puppet episodes, episodes without dialogue. That’s the spirit behind Much Ado About Nothing, too: “What if I shot a Shakespeare movie in my house?”

That spirit is mostly gone from TV drama. (TV comedy has picked up the ball. The genre shifting of Community and baked-in surreality of Louie has segued into a sketch revolution, with the unshackled-by-narrative Inside Amy Schumer and Key & Peele.) And that spirit is also weirdly absent from Avengers: Age of Ultron. Last week—following a three-year break—I finally watched the last few episodes of Dollhouse. My timing was coincidental, but helpful. Viewed from this long distance, Dollhouse is the story of an individual—an outsider activist—who starts working for a powerful corporation. Working for the Dollhouse isn’t such a bad gig. You sign up for a few years. When you’re finished, you walk away with a huge sum of cash. You have to do a lot of things—bad things, maybe. Things that run counter to your whole philosophy, probably. But the Dollhouse will wipe your memory anyhow. If you don’t know that you’re doing something, are you doing it at all? Maybe it’s a thankless job; maybe people will try to attack you.

“That’s what the money’s for!” in the words of Don Draper. Who would fit right in at the Dollhouse: He’s a man living with a false identity; he’s an individual working for a big company. “I’m Don Draper, from McCann Erickson,” he said this past Sunday—just like, until this weekend, Joss Whedon was “Joss Whedon, from Marvel.”

Whedon’s path forward is tricky. In the first act of his career, he managed the weird trick of being the outsider on the inside. In the middle act of his career, he was just an outsider; one of the weird quirks of TV history is that one of the first great showrunners of the modern TV era stopped making great television twelve years ago.

(ASIDE: It’s an open question just how much Whedon even cared about Dollhouse. After the second season premiere, he didn’t direct an episode and has no script credits. The most interesting episodes were written by Tim Minear and the writing team of Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen. Minear’s ensuing work on American Horror Story suggests a crazier Dollhouse; Whedon/Tancharoen’s stewardship of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. flecks occasionally at Dollhouse-esque ideas, albeit in a safe-for-normos restraint—talk to me when Agent Coulson turns bad, then good, then bad, then causes the apocalypse, then becomes good again. END OF ASIDE.)

Then Whedon joined Marvel, in a capacity that we still only barely understand. He wrote and directed Avengers, a movie which everyone loved and which seemed like a triumph of Whedon’s capacity for combining five different tones into a massive character ensemble. He wrote and directed Avengers: Age of Ultron, a failure of that same capacity, or maybe just a demonstration that no single creative force can triumph over Marvel’s ascendant decadence. He worked on various films in between, doing a bit of script work on Thor: The Dark World—pause to imagine Whedon, walking into the Marvel offices, putting his head in a futuristic device, while Feige programs him with an Asgardian personality.

Now Whedon is… free? He’s directed two of the highest grossing movies ever; that’s the kind of thing that used to create Spielbergs. But on Dollhouse, escaping isn’t even half the battle. Where can you go, when everyone’s a copy of a copy? Can Whedon still create an original universe? Can anyone? Marvel needs a new Spider-Man. Maybe it’s all just Spider-Men, all the way down. Dollhouse isn’t perfect, but it’s an essential window into the mind and career of Whedon: A portrait of the individual battling the The Machinery from within.

On Dollhouse, it was a losing battle. We’ll see about Whedon.

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Love Dollhouse? Hate Whedon? You’re both wrong! Email me at darren_franich@ew.com, and I’ll respond in next week’s Geekly mailbag. 

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