Didn’t Ibsen Write a Play, The Doll’s House? (or, More Wittgenstein Week 2010)

So I have most assuredly reached those annual halcyon days of summer when I turn into a zombified eating, sleeping, drinking, smoking, writing, media-consuming machine.  The evidence for this is that I just watched both seasons of Dollhouse (Joss Whedon, 2009-10).

It happens every summer like the monsoons,[1] and when it hits, the force is equal and the downpour as brief.  For instance, I quite literally had the following thoughts today: “well, if I go get food, and I walk at a fairly brisk rate while reading Wittgenstein’s The Blue and Brown Books, I not only can get multiple functional activities done at once—1) eating, b/c that will help me go back to work refreshed (maybe I’ll even take a nap), 2) reading, b/c that is what I’m doing right now and I would actually waste more reading time getting in and out of the car than if I just walked and read at the same time—but (less) importantly, I can get 3) exercise.  Though exercise probably should have been one of the first thoughts about my walking/reading/eating, or at least just leaving my fucking house for pretty much any reason whatsoever should have occurred to me as a “good thing,” it not only came in as a firm third in my thinking, it was an incidental thing, an added bonus for my over-caffeinated robot-body.

But the tragedy is actually not my becoming-machine, for that is surely something to aspire to at times,[2] but that this moment of summer also always entails (desperately) finding something I can spend mind-numbingly countless hours doing.  Many things, of course, have served this function, and surely not all bad, but more-often-than-not I read too many comic books, or play too many video games, or watch too many sports, or watch too much internet tv.  I tell myself: I’m still consuming media, so how could it possibly be detrimental to do these activities, but the fact of the matter is, in what sick-and-twisted world does one come to the point, after seriously, rigorously, and carefully consuming media all day, where “wind downing” or “relaxing” is accomplished by consuming more media?Well, I’ll tell you.  The kind of world where I feel guilty for doing anything else, like, the crippling question: “why am I wasting so much time not working?” but simultaneously experiencing the full awareness of guilty-type media-consuming (I’m like a really bad media-vegan [or vegetarian, like I eat media eggs, fish, and cheese]), as in, “why am I wasting all this time watching [insert crappy shit here.]”  Most of the time this doesn’t bother me, b/c a 2 hour (at most) crappy SF movie is at least only 2 hours, but all of Dollhouse in a week?  That is many, many more hours spent.  Damn summer.

But anyway, so I of course have something to say about it.  Dollhouse, that is.  (Gotta get something out of it [for my troubles and anxieties, and esp. as a way of celebrating these halcyon days—in other words, make guilt work[3]]).

The first thing to say is that Dollhouse is overwhelmingly a “tale of archival crisis.”  No two bones about it, and though of course much of what I say here will be informed by this insight, I would not like to make it the meat of the matter.[4] But to bring us up to speed. . . .

Dollhouse is a Josh Whedon affair (Buffy the Vampire Slayer [1997-2003] & Firefly [2002]), and I must admit two things: 1) his affairs are not one’s I find all that appealing, and 2) I’ve never seen Buffy.[5] It’s set more-or-less in the present in a panopticon for dolls—i.e. humans who are able to be imprinted w/ any personality whatsoever.  The protagonist, Echo, is able to incorporate many personalities at once by the end (for “good,” as opposed to her male counterpart Alpha, for “evil”), and she ultimately kills the head of the evil corporation.  Two episodes show us 10 years in the future, where the technology to imprint humans has made pretty-much-everyone into mindless killing machines, and postapocalyptic-savior-type-stuff occurs.  Yeah, that’s about it.

The narrative aside, the place I think Joss Whedon excels is that he makes clear some possibilities for the future of serial television w/ this show.  For the past few years all the really good television, though somewhat serial, resembled really ambitious comic-books more than they did the A-Team.[6] (Plots where you pretty much had to see every show to keep up, epic world building, etc.  You can picture it.)  What is interesting about Dollhouse is that it is the very fact that it is a tale of archival crisis that permits it to be semi-successful in heavily serialized form.  Whedon has allowed himself the opportunity for his main actress, the surprisingly good Eliza Dushku, to play a different role in each episode.  Couple this w/ a clear eschatology to the show, and you’ve effectively made it possible for anyone to tune in to any episode, even knowing that the series is moving toward some clearly defined end,[7] and not only understand more-or-less what is going on, but even be entertained (and perhaps think a bit).  There are, of course, some really striking episodes that wholly stand out on their own, and for something that is as, well, I’ll say it, archival as Dollhouse, this feels like quite an achievement to me.

To extend my discussion, I’m tempted to talk about: identity as archival in the show, which it surely is and it’s freaking obvious; the panopticon they put the dolls in, where they’re imprinted as infantile, passive, and accepting, i.e. all sorts of (whomever) undertones; having someone yet again messianically save the world who is a multiplicity; and . . . well, I guess there really aren’t really an books[8]—but anyway, these are all surely there and deserve to be commented upon.  But I will refrain, and really for one reason.

No matter how many interesting things Dollhouse may be doing, I never get the sense that Whedon even remotely intends them.  Not even to get into any New Critical territory, but (and this is something I rarely say) Whedon is just bad.  His actors are terrible.  The writing is horrible.  The cinematography under-realized.  And, sad to say, he has very low production value b/c of his low budget.[9] Firefly was the same.  And I say this fully realizing that there are drone-cells of fans out there who worship the guy, and I think ultimately for good reason, but, b/c I feel no reason to even justify this remark w/ pretty much anything, I know he’s in the realm of Adult Swim or Bob Dylan for me.[10]

Whedon is popular b/c he’s the only person who’s shown how one might still do a serial, Law & Order-type show w/ an over-arching, compelling, long (SF) narrative.  He’s bad b/c he’s the first(-ish).[11] His television sometimes feels like a naseous mix of Bionic Woman, Bewitched, Kafka and General Hospital, w/ enough Star-[something] thrown in for good measure.  Don’t get me wrong, I was fucking entertained.  (I mean, I watched the whole series in a week for chrissakes.)  And this will be the ultimate success of this type of serial, for, deep down, our true desire is for a Knightrider remake (w/ David Hasselhof) or else a new Lynch tv show where they give him, like, billions of dollars to make a ten-season show.[12] Someone is gonna come along who learned from Whedon and perhaps give us a good mix of this.  No reason to watch Dollhouse in the meantime, unless you’re interested in the intersection(s) of archives and the Apocalypse.


[1] At least since I’ve been in grad school.

[2] And I mean this w/ no sense of irony, esp. not the irony of the footnote.

[3] It used to be, “make anxiety fun,” what has happened to me!

[4] If you want my take, definition, or defense of this term (as a sub-genre of SF), email me at bradfest@gmail.com for a copy of a conference paper I recently delivered.

[5] So whatever I have to say, keep this in mind.  (This is also to suggest I’ve perhaps found my major summer time-suck.)

[6] I.e. a show w/ a high production value.  A challenge: what year do you think they’ll remake Lost?

[7] Much clearer and more satisfying than Lost btw (but of course also not).

[8] Though learning to read is certainly an important step for Echo.

[9] I would love to see what he would do if he was given a blank check.  C’mon Guggenheim.

[10] Things I simply don’t like at all that many people I very much respect enjoy w/ seeming (over-)enthusiasm.

[11] Okay, not even close to being the first.  Just go w/ me.

[12] Do I hear: Television Event of the Decade?  I mean, as the title?

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2 thoughts on “Didn’t Ibsen Write a Play, The Doll’s House? (or, More Wittgenstein Week 2010)

  1. I know you’re not a Whedon fan, but what do you think of Firefly, overall? As someone who’s seen all three of his shows — Buffy, Firefly, and Dollhouse — I know Firefly was by far the best of the bunch, and it only had fourteen episodes, which is saying something. If you dislike Firefly, how come?

    By the way, great blog. I was reading the Tractatus in the spring and I finally got a copy of Broom of the System I’ll jump into once I finish this Dostoevsky I’m reading. I’ll definitely be around here, though. Cheers.

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