Thursday, November 12, 2009

Why the Dollhouse cancellation doesn't make me suicidal

Of course, plenty of other things do, but strangely, the cancellation of my beloved, frustrating, challenging and almost always entertaining Dollhouse, doesn't.

Obviously, I'm a huge fan of Joss and his work. I've posted hundreds of times about the whedonverse (Angel, Buffy, Firefly, Dr. Horrible and Dollhouse included). Friday nights were appointment television as far as I was concerned. Amazon shipped the season one Dollhouse DVD the day it released, and of course, I'll be ordering the season two DVD the second it's announced. However, I'm not gnashing my teeth and rending my garments over the axe falling on Dollhouse (like I was over Firefly and Angel). Maybe it's because:

  • We all knew it was coming. Even if you're not a hysterical Nielsen watcher (and I am), you knew the show was tanking in the ratings. I believe it was the lowest rated network show ever renewed for a second season, and in this day and age, you have to build on the numbers (or at least hold on to the meager audience you have) or you're getting the heave ho. Simple as that. Dollhouse didn't get the numbers it needed to survive, and the writing was on the wall after the first few episodes of S1.
  • The second season feels like a bonus. It probably shouldn't have seen a second season, and the fact that we got one -- one that will be produced and (they're assuring us) aired -- is a pleasant surprise. Plus, Joss knows the situation as well as anyone (having planned the "end of the story" with the elegant and harrowing "Epitaph One") and is being given time to bring the show to a close knowing the renewal won't happen.
  • At the end of the day, let's face it. Joss (and Dollhouse in particular) just wasn't well suited for traditional network TV. His gifts for challenging characters and long form storytelling weren't going to work in CSI: Dollhouse or NCIS: Rossum Corp. For 12 combined seasons, he was able to work his magic with Angel and Buffy on smaller "netlets" that didn't get the intense and soul-crushing ratings pressure that even a Friday night slot on a Big 4 (well, 3 if exclude on life support NBC) network engendered. It's much easier for a big network to throw up cheaply produced reality pap or slot a House rerun and draw a bigger number.
  • There's no "bad guy." Joss (and to a certain degree, SMG) ended Buffy on its own terms. But the WB canceled Angel while the ratings were stable and it was in the middle of a creative resurgence. And lord knows we all realize how FOX fucked Firefly over from the very beginning. But this time? Despite the incompetence with which FOX handled the crew of Serenity, it was a completely different regime. Joss only put Dollhouse together, and on FOX, because of Eliza and her overall deal with the network. And despite some initial tinkering and requests for more procedural case of the weeks, they really, honestly were supportive. They put it one place and left it there. They promoted the hell out of it leading up launch. They said the right things even when the ratings were lackluster. They happily (though inexplicably, from a Nielsen standpoint) renewed it for a second season. They completely left Joss alone to do "his" show creatively for the balance of S1 and all of S2. And even though it was pulled for sweeps (and the numbers thus far bear out the business wisdom of that decision), they've financially committed to producing all 13 S2 eps, AND to airing all 13 eps, which is something many, many canceled shows just aren't afforded. So even though many are still bitter at FOX over Firefly (and justifiably so), you really can't hurl any invective at FOX this time. You can't blame them that people didn't show up to watch on Friday nights.
Will I miss Dollhouse? Yes, of course I will. It had its growing pains and foibles, but it was always "must see TV" for me. However, I understand the realities of the business and if you weren't expecting this result, you probably haven't been paying attention. We got two terrific seasons of a thought-provoking, interesting and unlike-anything-else-on-TV show and for that, we can be grateful. And from what I've read, there's a stream of unbridled awesomeness coming up as it draws to a close (Ray Wise! Summer! Alpha and Saunders return!) So congrats to Joss, Eliza, Dichen, Miracle, Enver, Olivia, Harry, Franz, Amy and rest of the wonderfully talented cast and crew for giving us such a terrific little show for as long as they did.


  1. I feel the same way. I knew it was coming sometime so it was not a shock. As you say, Fox did its best with it. I was kinda pissed off that an article I read annoucing the cancellation, I think from AP, referred to it as a show about prostitutes who were imprinted with different personalities. I think this highlights one of the probelms for Dollhouse; it was hard to describe simply to somebody who never watched it. I think the general viewing audience did think it was a show about prostitutes and of course it was much more that that.

  2. I think your point about the perception was a good one. Take Joss's previous work:

    Teenager chosen to be slayer of vampires (and why do I hear Andrew in my head, saying "Vamp-PYRES?")

    Vampire with a soul turns detective in LA.

    Reconstructionist western, in space.

    Wannabe supervillian wants respect, and the girl. It's a musical.

    All of those can be described in 25 words or less. However, Dollhouse is a complicated set up, and it's easy to gravitate to the "hooker" concept, which immediately turns people off. Plus, using lots of sexy Eliza promos makes it more difficult to sell an angle of empowerment vs. exploitation. I guess at the end of the day, there were just too many things (concept, Friday, any Joss work perceived as "cult," lead in, rumors of production problems, etc) working against it. It's a shame, as I'll miss it. Sigh.