It's been a long ride for fans of Dollhouse, Joss Whedon's sci-fi series about an underground organization that makes its trade in imprinting people with other personalities and selling them out to various high-class clientele.
When the show was first announced on November 1, 2007, squeals of geeky joy could be heard all across the Internet. I mean, when the mastermind behind such cult phenomena as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly announces that he's returning to television, people stand up and take notice. But when production finally started in fall 2008, after the Writers Guild of America strike ended, and after Whedon had an online smash with his supervillain musical Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, controversy began to arise.
Reports began circulating that the FOX network had problems with the series' creative direction, and production was even shut down for a couple of weeks to do some retooling. Whedon himself scrapped the original pilot episode to film another that he deemed more accessible and in tune with what the network wanted. This started a particularly nasty spell of doomsaying, with many positing that Dollhouse was dead before it had even gotten off the ground. Couple that with the lukewarm buzz surrounding the first few episodes, and everyone began expecting that the mighty Whedon might have his first real failure on his hands.
And to be honest, the show did not get off to a great start. I was in the minority that really enjoyed the debut episode, but then the second episode wasn't as good as the first and the third episode wasn't as good as the second. All TV shows deserve room for growing pains, but Dollhouse, being the first Whedon television venture in five years, was under an exceptional amount of scrutiny.
Things began to pick up quality-wise, but by time the much ballyhooed (and deservedly so) sixth episode, "Man on the Street," aired, most viewers had already checked out of the Dollhouse. The show gained critical traction, and by the sterling finale, "Omega," it was just as fascinating and mind-blowing as you'd expect a Joss Whedon show to be. Unfortunately, "Omega" was the lowest-rated episode of the entire season. The prospect of a second season seemed almost comical.
But today, the television gods are smiling favorably upon Whedon and company. In a stunning move, FOX has renewed Dollhouse for a second season. No official announcement has yet been made by the network, but as Whedon posted on fan site Whedonesque, "It looks like no summer vacation after all."
Though FOX has been vilified, both rightly and wrongly, for its treatment of Dollhouse, they have now undoubtedly shown their support for the series. FOX has been known for being cancel happy (Whedon should know; Firefly was axed after half a season), but few networks would've brought back such an unconventional niche show with such abysmal ratings. There are going to be budget cuts, and a reported "shift in creative direction," but the show is returning this fall with 13 more episodes and the possibility of a full 22-episode order.
So how should Whedon and his wonderfully disturbed staff move forward? As the second half of the season proved, Dollhouse is at its strongest when dealing with its overarching mythology and the Dollhouse's terrifying ethical implications. Whedon is a self-proclaimed feminist, and one of the strongest themes in his work is that of violation, be it physical or psychological. In Dollhouse, it's been about both, and also about another, even richer concept: Can a person's identity be stripped away? Is there such a thing as a soul, and if so, can it be removed? Is a person still a person when they're other people? Just watch "Omega" to see how intellectually stimulating, and emotionally involving, these existential conundrums can be.
The show is less interesting when dealing with Echo's (Eliza Dushku) routine engagements, when she's sent out as a biker chick fantasy girlfriend or a back-up singer (the latter of which was later mocked within the show). What viewers respond to is the story of Caroline, the person Echo was before she gave herself up to the Dollhouse, slowly emerging to take her life back, as well as FBI Agent Paul Ballard's (Tahmoh Penikett) obsession with rescuing her. The Dollhouse's staff is also excellent. Icy headmistress Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), likeable head of security Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix), smugly arrogant techno-whiz Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), and the mysterious Dr. Claire Saunders (Amy Acker) are all peaches. With villainous rogue Doll Alpha (Alan Tudyk) set to come back, Whedon's got a lot to play with.
Luckily for viewers, it looks like he knows it. Ending his Whedonesque post, Whedon says, "But oh, the terrible things my brain is brewing… Just wait. We'll make it worth it. Thanks for hanging in."
That long ride to renewal has been a rocky one, and the show hasn't always been perfect, but I've got no reason to doubt him now. Considering how strong this season became, it'll be interesting when the DVD set hits on July 28 to see how diminished its weaker spots will seem when judged in a larger context. Regardless, I've only got one question: Is it fall yet?