In his Entertainment Weekly column on Monday, Marc Bernardin asks the question "Where did 'Dollhouse' go wrong?" His article, in short, is an expression of his concern that the show will soon be canceled because its ratings (that's the number of people who watch the show) are on the decline. He mentions a number of contributing factors to the show's decline: Whedon's tendency to have strong finales and week starts, the "Friday Night Death Slot," poor advertising, and bad lead in programming.
I have another explanation, one that Bernardin overlooked. I think it is odd that Bernardin overlooked it, as we generally have very similar tastes when it comes to the pop culture/mass media menu, but he overlooked it none the less.
In a nutshell, it's because "Dollhouse" never gave me a reason to CARE about what was going on. Certainly, there were entertaining episodes that were filled with Whedonesque action and humor. And it would be unfair to say that I didn't care about any of the characters on the show. I worried about Echo's (Eliza Dushku) safety. I also enjoyed the portrayal of the FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) and Echo's handler Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix). In fact, Lennix's portrayal of his character's conflicts are one of the strongest elements on the show. As a fan of 'Angel,' I was pleased to see Amy Acker working again in the roles of Dr. Saunders/Whiskey.
In fact -- I'll just put it out there -- I liked all the characters and actors on the show. Their performances were strong, especially the aforementioned Lennix and the unmentioned Alan Tudyk (who is always awesome), and I always felt like I was watching "real" people in a "real" universe.
Yet I still didn't care.
Because Whedon and crew never made it clear to me whether I should support or hate the human trafficking organization at the root of the show. Is the "Dollhouse" supporting some amazing philanthropic work that is threatened by the outside world, or are they just an organization that wipes people's minds in a kind of "forgotten" indentured servitude? Are they just an immoral human trafficking company that happens to have employees that I find pleasant?
If that's the case, and it seems to be, then there is little stake for me as a viewer in the narratives that Whedon and crew offered as a story arc. If Echo is trying to bring down the techno-brothel (where the doll's have no say in what they can/will do and won't remember anyway), I have a stake. Given the presentation of the Dollhouse so far, the only character I could really root for is Alpha (Alan Tudyk), but he's dead now having failed in his mission to defeat the Dollhouse and attain apotheosis. Sure he was crazy for the desire to become a living deity, but he was perfectly right in seeking to bring down the Dollhouse -- as it has been presented to us.
I could write at length about Whedon's seeming obsession with brothels/prostitutes as manifest in this show and Firefly. But at least the "courtesans" of Firefly seemed genre appropriate, possibly even inspired by C.L. Moore's Minga maids from her Northwest Smith story Black Thirst. Given that Malcolm Reynolds is the closest approximation of Northwest Smith to appear on any screen, I wouldn't find it surprising if NW were the entire inspiration behind Firefly, but you can read more about Firefly and Northwest Smith in a future "Blogging Northwest Smith" post (you can read the first one here). The dolls of Whedon's "Dollhouse" universe don't seem to be deeply rooted in the needs of the universe Whedon has presented in the series. In Firefly the courtesans also doubled as spies and were an integral part of the social dynamics of the 'verse. Last I checked, there was no equal need in the modern world unless your last name is Mitterrand.
Why should I desire the continued existence of the Dollhouse in the "Dollhouse" universe? There are a couple of hints, like with the Mellie character, but never any concrete reasons given. Unless I'm just supposed to think that human trafficking to fulfill sexual (and other) fantasies is unquestionably a moral virtue. Which I don't.
The reason the show is failing is because while Whedon has given us an emotional stake in the dolls, he has failed to give us a positive emotional stake in the Dollhouse.