Where DOLLHOUSE Went Wrong


From its scrapped pilot to its hotly contested portrayal of female characters, controversy has followed DOLLHOUSE from virtually the moment the project was announced. Which is why, on the eve of its series finale, we thought it would be only fitting to throw one last log onto the fire by sharing our theory on where DOLLHOUSE went wrong.

While on paper, a Joss Whedon series revolving around beautiful operatives that can be programmed with unique personas for various missions sounded like a surefire hit, the reality was anything but. For as it would turn out — like the Rossum Corporation’s not-so-well-thought-out plan to transform humans into programmable guinea pigs —  the series itself had one fatal flaw: No character. And characters, be they good, bad, or somewhere in between, are the lifeblood of any successful television series.

Characters are what we, as viewers, latch on to. Their trials and tribulations are what get us emotionally involved. And unfortunately in the case of DOLLHOUSE, they were also what was sorely lacking for the first six episodes of the series. After-all, how do you ‘feel’ for the likes of Echo, Sierra, and Victor, when at their core they’re nothing more than empty shells waiting to be jump-started by Topher?

That’s why once Team Whedon allowed the fleshbots to develop the messy, sticky, oh-so-relatable nastiness we humans call emotions, we began to fall in love with the show. Not only did knowing the circumstances surrounding Sierra, Millie and Victor’s entrance into the Dollhouse change everything, the horrific and often heartbreaking nature of their arrival had a profound affect on both the way we watched the show and the way we viewed the characters. Yes, hindsight is 20/20. But the question we’ll never know the answer to is this: Had the writers fleshed out their characters from the beginning as opposed to playing up the sexy-fembot-for-hire-without-consequences angle, might we be anxiously anticipating a season-ending cliffhanger as opposed to sadly awaiting a series-ending finale?

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  • John

    Reading the Tribune interview with Whedon was enlightening; apparently Whedon himself wanted, originally, even SLEAZIER engagements and clients, but the main focus of each episode would be the client as fallable human, desperate, and grasping desperately for what they need and are willing to shell big bucks for. That would have been a hella intriguing show, but one probably even less marketable than the current plot-arch heavy makeshift product. “Man on the Street” was Joss figuring out the compromise, while the street interviews winked at what his originally vision was meant to be and never was.

  • theo

    I wish they would have at least tried putting it after 24 or Idol, but it was doomed from the start. The Friday night Fox death slot killed it.

  • dygitalninja

    Its more complicated than that. Fox never really seemed to take this show and, that lack of faith not only led to it getting a crap timeslot but it getting forced to air 5 “stand alone” episodes. Given the quality of those (only the second episode was watchable) its clear that the creators hand’s were tied long before they even figured out what they wanted to do with the series. Combine that with the tendency of “monster-of-the-week” episodes to bore this shows target audience and you’ve got a recipe for a commercial and critical bomb. This series picked up once it was clear it was on its last legs. But now its just gone from stagnation to warp speed. Somewhere a metaphorical transmission is busting.

  • http://www.twitter.com/znavit Znavit

    I fear a critical point has been missed.

    While characters may be what we’re USED to latch onto, who’s to say it’s the only thing we CAN latch on to?

    Au contraire my friends, we should embrace the attempts to change the apparent by-laws and meet them with patience and excitement, because thanks to them the medium expands and our world becomes richer.

    I don’t think Dollhouse failed at all.
    I think the viewers failed, and the network failed.

  • http://none KC

    I for one really liked the stand alone episodes. Sure I like Dollhouse for the big episodes where we find out more about Echo/Caroline etc. But I thought delving into the clients would be interesting too (it would almost be like CSI, where the show revolves around the murder of the day, instead of always focusing on the lives of the CSI team.) I’m not sure if Fox was the best way to go for the show – for such an edgy, uncomfortable idea, I think Dollhouse would have been great on HBO/Showtime etc. If it was even “sleezier” (well…more controversial and more reflective of what JW orginally wanted) I think it would have been better – cause then at least you have the shock value behind what is truly a great idea. Just my two cents: Man on the Street was one of the best things I’ve ever seen on tv – just loved seeing how people reacted to the concept – loved that duality between people who admitted that they would be clients if they could, and people who were horrified at the idea.

  • http://umberhaven.blogspot.com Todd W in NC

    I just watched the series finale entitled “Epitaph Two” which, I assume, is a direct continuation of the un-aired season one episode “Epitaph One.” It would have made a little more sense if Fox had actually aired Epitaph One at 8:00 and Epitaph Two at 9:00 — but, they didn’t.

    Because both take place in the future (no spoilers ahead), and are therefore a slight departure from the rest of the series, it wouldn’t have mattered that Epitaph One was intended to be a s1 episode and is sold on the s1 DVD. They could have made a bigger deal out of it, advertising it as a two-hour finale, but at this point, they probably just want Dollhouse to be over (me too, actually).

    Instead, we get a finale that feels disjointed and sometimes focuses on characters that I assume are introduced in E1, but here, we don’t really know why these people are important.

    Despite the nitpicks, a little confusion, and having to piece together info the episode leaves out, it actually wasn’t too bad. Moderately entertaining with a couple redeeming qualities. But, those last few seconds, I don’t understand.

  • bws

    Blame can only be placed on Whedon for Dollhouse. Not the viewers. Not Fox. He cast Eliza Dushku and she absolutely was not ready to be a lead. That is the #1 fault of the show. Also, the show was set up as a “girl-for-hire” right from the get go which was really off-putting to many viewers. The bottom line is that the mythology failed – not the characters. Now, that might of been because of a lack of budget, I’m not sure. But the show was wildly inconsistent in season 1 before having a much stronger final 7 episodes. And this may anger some people, but it really is time to take Whedon down from the pedestal. The last 10 years have not been that great (Dr. Horrible the only exception).

    I will watch EP2 tomorrow morning. I can only hope it’s entertaining.

  • http://deliciousambiguous.blogspot.com shanna

    I think Eliza was a great lead when the show was about Echo or Caroline not the engagement. Unfortunately she wasn’t as good as Dihen or enver at slipping from character to character during engagements but you felt for her as the Doll fighting to take down Rossum.

    I think the network failed (again). But I also don’t see Dollhouse as a failure. I think it’ll be remembered for it’s amazing mythology. Although it’s too bad it couldn’t be stretched out over a few years and revealed bit by bit, it was still excting and jaw-dropping.

  • BJ

    It aired on Friday on a network that isn’t CBS. That’s why it failed.

  • Kirkari

    Eliza not ready to lead, Joss to come down from the pedestal! Definetly not a fan then bws! Sayin Eliza isn’t ready to lead is crap, she is one of the best genre actresses around at the moment. From Buffy to the sadly short lived Tru Calling, her range of acting and ability is excellent! Your comment about Joss is just well out of order, his work whether with tv or the internent excels in quality. His last cancelled show Firefly has went onto become one of the most loved sci-fi shows ever and rightfully so. So the real reason why it failed, stupid network execs and gorram haters like you!

  • Keith Hamlin

    Truthfully, the plot dragged a lot from episode to episode, and seemed to lack a real direction of where it was going long term.

    Also, it had great potential in getting involved in using the tech to get into the greatest minds we know. Imagine Stephen Hawkins in a body that could actually vocalize and move about freely for a day! Ressurect some of the recently past minds that had seemed to have passed before their time, and have them complete their final tasks, their last epic, the goodbyes that could not be said.

    Stay away from Fox in the future Joss, and best of luck in all future endeavors! -kh

  • bws

    No, I’m not a Whedon super-fan. I’m very objective about it. I watched every episode and discussed it weekly on a bunch of blogs. It definitely didn’t fail because of me. FOX gave Dollhouse plenty of chances, including a second season that it probably didn’t deserve. FOX screwed over Firefly 7 years ago but the same can’t be said this time.

  • jess

    the probably is that the trends of the story the stuff that hooks you didn’t really start till around episode 5 in both seasons. And I’ll agree and disagree about Eliza she wasn’t a very good DOLL but as the compilation of several personalities working to bring down Rossum she was excellent. While the other actors were excellent as DOLLS and freedom fighters… So when you compare their “DOLL” status yeah she comes out lacking and you find that you like the episodes with them as DOLLs much better. But I think Whedon should never have partnered up with FOX again. Didn’t he learn from Firefly clearly FOX only wants instant gratification and also was too big brotherish in directing the theme of the show. I knew it was a bad sign when they insisted Joss rewrite the plot ya know… this can be seen by when ever they stepped back and let Joss do what he wanted the show shined these last episodes prior to the series finale have been amazing… its said but at least we are getting a conclusion. And Yeah big Fail over at Fox for not airing Epitaph 1 prior to 2 its a good think i saw it at Comic-Con!

  • bws

    I saw both pilots, unaired and aired, and neither was very good. Just like Jess said, both seasons did not have strong starts.

    “Victor” was the super bright spot of the series. I hope to see great things from in the very near future. It’s new pilot season, right? Someone pick him up, please.

  • ggny

    Where Dollhouse went wrong was that it didnt have the Wit that Joss Whedon products have

  • jess

    i definitely hope that the actors who play Victor, Sierra, Mellie all get picked up during pilot season they were awesome and definitely deserve a successful series

  • Mel

    Well — I watched Epitaph Two or whatever it was called and I wish it had been unaired right along with Epitaph One. What a mess.
    I watched Dollhouse – I won’t miss it.
    I agree – it took too long for Echo to be a character that I cared about. I realize that Joss was trying to explore the whole idea of identity, but so many of the engagements were nothing more than sex for hire that it was hard to take that exploration seriously. Ultimately I didn’t find either the characters or the situation compelling. And apparently – most people didn’t either because they chose not to watch.

  • http://trashvault.blogspot.com Lindsey Morrison

    I will miss this! I love everything that Joss Whedon creates, it would have been great if another network picked up the series and maybe then Joss can flesh out his storylines and character histories more better. Maybe then we would have seen an actual storyline that will grab the audience’s attention better. :(

  • http://umberhaven.blogspot.com Todd W in NC

    I pretty much agree with everything BWS said, except I didn’t see the unaired pilot. At this point, I wouldn’t care to bother.

  • bws

    The unaired pilot was not all that different. I can’t remember exactly since it’s been a while. I think it incorporated much of the aired pilot and then some of episode 2. I don’t feel the need to look it up and no one should feel like they have to watch it.

    I have now watched Epitaph Part2. For a finale, it was all over the place. I loved Epitaph Part 1 on DVD. Now that packed a punch. I *think* we were supposed to feel a lot of emotion for the Topher stuff but it wasn’t there for me. I loved him throughout season 2 and hated him in the finale. That is a TERRIBLE sign.

  • fudge

    The first few weeks where eyes should have been grabbed, were wasted in a prostitute story-line which was, to many people, just nasty. I understood the horror of the Dollhouse – two episodes would have sufficed – then get to the personal stories. That’s where it began to grip those who remained. Too, too late.

  • Snowy

    I totally disagree with the majority here . . . I loved the first season, but got less interested when Echo developed a personality. In the beginning, there were interesting storylines and characters, but I found the Echo character later on lifeless and unconvincing – the relationship between her and Ballard was obvious and boring. To be honest, the multiple “imprint” idea was a bit much to swallow. At least there was a bit of intrigue when Echo, Victor and Sierra were mysteriously becoming more and more human and less “doll”. Like others though, I think Epitaph Two was a disastrous ending . . . the main features of the show were missing . . . the characters weren’t themselves and, worst of all, the idea of ending in the future didn’t work at all. Who wants new characters, concepts and settings in a finale??

  • Eugenio_hz

    Does anybody remember Veronica Mars?????

    One thing for sure, the audience is getting completely stupid day by day, and I agree with you completely.

    OK the 1st episodes had its flaws, but how can you say that when we got 11 episodes of CHASE and nothing ever happened other than Annie Frost chasing the bandit?

    Networks are concerned that the audience is stupid, so they mess things up in order to make a product fit this lack of “content” from people.

    What elements were needed to make room for a show like the Kardashians, or Jersey Shore?

    Need any other proof?

    Agree with you Znavit, viwers and neetwork failed.