Tonight is the premier of Dollhouse, Joss Whedon's new sci-fi TV series. While I've been excited about seeing the latest creation from the genius who brought us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Dr. Horrible, I admit I'm a little nervous about it, too.
The premise is that a secret, highly illegal operation brain-wipes its "Actives" and programs them with whatever personality their clients' require. Ok, interesting sci-fi premise . . . I can run with that. Joss has done the whole switching-bodies/meet-your-alternate-universe-self trope several times in previous series, and it usually winds up to be an interesting acting challenge for the stars. But in all those previous set-ups, the character was still a constant. The audience needs someone it can get to know, identify with, be friends with . . . and I'm not sure people will be able to bond with a revolving-door personality. It's going to be a high-wire act for Eliza Dushku and the show's writers. As surreal psycho-dramas go, I've seen weirder (The Prisoner comes to mind) . . . and if anyone can pull it off, it would be Joss.
Joss seems to want to continually push his luck with the moral ambiguity of his characters. He started with Buffy, who was about as clean-cut and wholesome as they get – any character referred to as "The Chosen One" is clearly wearing a white hat. Over seven years Joss started delving into the darker aspects of that character, investigating the demonic roots of her power, and, of course, sex. He played with characters who walked on the dark side – vampires with souls, "bad" slayers, etc. – but usually to set up a compelling redemption theme. With his next spin-off series, Angel, he pushed a little farther, explicitly trying to see how bad he could make his good guy, though still with the explicit purpose of seeking ultimate redemption. With Firefly, Joss ditches the explicit good-guy-bad-guy distinction and embraces a loveable rogue space pirate in the mold of Star Wars' Han Solo. Some human values prevail – loyalty, freedom – but we also have main characters who are openly, undeniably thieves and prostitutes. In Dr. Horrible, Joss has moved from morally questionable to outright darkness – a basically good guy who is trying to be a bad guy, and ultimately succeeding. So, Dollhouse is one more data point – a human being trapped in the existential mystery while operating as a prostitute/assassin. How far can we follow Joss down this hole?
Then there's the sex thing. Joss has long been lauded by feminists for his strong female characters, and now he's putting that reputation on the line by explicitly tackling themes of prostitution and sexual fantasy. NPR's Jacki Lyden conducted one of the most hostile interviews I've heard in a while with Joss on the questionable themes of the show. To his credit, Joss was unapologetic and candid. My favorite quote: "You can't be a story-teller and a speech writer at the same time." I just hope the pop culture will give Joss enough time to let his story unfold, and for the larger themes to emerge in the story arc.