Dollhouse: “Stage Fright”

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Fridays on Fox at 9/10 E/C

“Stage Fright”

Written by Maurissa Tancharoen & Jed Whedon

Directed by David Solomon

“I can have the twins freed up if you need to unwind.” —Adelle

At this line, I reached for the remote to click to another show—forever. What stopped me were the persistent rumors on the Internet that this show won’t really start to shine until Joss Whedon’s episodes start with Number 6. And we have yet to see any episodes from the very talented Tim Minear, listed as a consulting producer for the show. I have a lot of faith in Whedon and Minear, so I will hang on until the sixth episode, but if it doesn’t show any more promise, any more heart than the first few episodes of Dollhouse, I am done with this mess.

I can understand that the producers need to establish that the puppet masters who run the Dollhouse are Evil™. I understand that drama sometimes requires a high contrast between good and evil; to make the ultimate triumph of good more spectacular, sometimes evil has to be exaggerated. I get that, but this is overkill with a capital “O”. The bad guys are so corrupt, so contemptible, so manipulative that I’m not really entertained by them. Adelle not only cynically pimps her toy people out, she knowingly sends them into danger without warning or adequate preparation. In this particular scenario, she rents out Echo and Sierra to protect a spoiled diva from a stalker. This stalker has already caused two “accidents” that injured people close to Rayna Russell (Jamie Lee Kirchner, Definitely, Maybe), a singer whose resembles a stripper more than a serious artist, and who has fits when someone near her eats a breath mint. Echo is inserted into Rayna’s inner circle by having her audition as a backup singer (and I give full credit to Eliza Dushku’s pipes in all her singing moments). Sierra (Dichen Lachman, Neighbours) comes on board as the winner of a fan contest privileged to “hang out” with the object of her adoration. The kicker on both of these assignments is that neither one knows she’s there as a bodyguard. The idea is that both women are imprinted with such an overwhelming love of Rayna that they will “take a bullet for her”. Oh, please.

First, this is just stupid. Someone who is fixated on another person in this manner is not going to be paying attention to her surroundings. The idea that Echo is so enamored of this self-involved little pop tart that she will “unconsciously” be more alert than professional security guards is ridiculous. Secondly, the idea of fan = stalker is such a cliche that it undercuts the entire story. There’s no juice left in this plot at all. The “stalker fan” is such a standard plot device in Hollywood that if a writer were ever to present a fan as a mature, intelligent person, she’d probably get an Emmy for sheer creativity. Seriously, does Hollywood not understand the concept of “biting the hand that feeds you”? The pervasive contempt it routinely shows for its own audience is one of the most baffling things about Tinseltown, which has never, as far as I know, treated its viewers as anything but mindless, easily manipulated morons. Which brings us right back to the Dollhouse.

Maybe there is a subtle metaphor being worked out in this show, about a modern lack of privacy, lack of legitimacy (in the existential sense), lack of control in a world dominated by huge, faceless monolithic groups. Maybe. If so, I’d like to see it made more explicit, and I don’t mean more nudity. Forcing Echo to change her clothes in public might be a metaphor for a doll’s lack of self, lack of personhood, but it’s also a mighty convenient way to pander even further to the lowest common denominator of Dollhouse‘s audience. Having Rayna shake her nearly naked booty relentlessly at the camera might or might not be a sophisticated message about the commercialization of sex and the moral bankruptcy of show business—or just a way to keep the boys glued to the screen.

Worst of all is a scene between Rayna and Echo, after Echo discovers that Rayna is actually encouraging her stalker to kill her. Am I seriously supposed to believe that this shallow sexpot lives in such despair that she wants to commit suicide? That she actually believes she owes her fans (the very same fans she speaks of with contempt) a public death as a final spectacle? Echo challenges her on this and gets treated to a “poor me” speech so unbelievable I was actually laughing. It’s supposed to be ironic that this egotistical diva feels she’s been “grown in a lab”, that she has no genuine life or authentic existence. But instead it comes across as pathetic self-pity. There is nothing in this character to make me admire her, root for her, or want Echo (and Sierra) to save her. I was rooting for Echo to drop her to the stage from the catwalk at the end.

Which highlights the fundamental problem with this show: I don’t like any of these people. Much as I’d like to admire Boyd Langton for his concern for Echo, the truth is that he’s abandoned any pretense to moral high ground merely by being part of this operation. He’s bent on saving her—to be pimped out again. FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tamoh Penikett, Battlestar Galactica) is hardly more than a cipher in this show so far, but at least he’s the only uncorrupted character in it. Even he turns out to be a weak reed, however, when we learn that his snitch, “Lubov” (Enver Gjokaj, Taking Chance) is actually a doll himself. That means that the Dollhouse is running Ballard’s investigation; he’s as much at their mercy as Echo herself. Topher is an egotistical mad scientist in training, Dr. Saunders is a whipped dog, and Dominic is, as Topher so aptly describes him, a security guard in a really nice suit, the most mercenary of the bunch. Please, give me somebody I can like!

There was some forward movement in this episode, but not much. At the very end, as the now-erased Sierra and Echo pass one another in the Dollhouse, Sierra’s expression brightens and she approaches her erstwhile “friend”. Echo gives her a tiny head shake “no”. The implication is that one or both of them has retained some memories from their assignment. It would be nice to see Echo start to really wake up to what’s going on around her (and being done to her), and I get it that that is probably the premise of the show. But geez Louise, can we move it along?

“Stage Fright” came in at 4.8 million viewers, even lower than the shaky Chuck. Still, that’s more viewers than it had last week. I know Fox has ordered 13 episodes, so there’s some chance it might not be canceled during a commercial break. But there is no guarantee I’ll be here ’til the end, not with this bunch of losers eating an hour of my time every Friday night. Like many of Whedon’s fans, I’m willing to cut him a lot of slack, but right now I’m running out of rope. This is a bad show.