Everyone always calls the monster “Frankenstein,” but of course, the name belongs to the doctor, not the creature. That slip of mental conflation is at the heart of Dollhouse, the new anthology thriller from Buffy-creator Joss Whedon, premiering this Friday at 9/8 CT on Fox.
Eliza Dushku (who played baddie Slayer Faith on Buffy) is Echo, a young woman who willingly becomes a blank slate capable of being imprinted with any memories, skills or personality you want, provided you have the bank for such an exclusive service. Need the perfect lover? The perfect spy? An assassin? Echo can be whatever you want—and when you’re done, her mind is wiped of all memories. Or so the theory goes, but as a parade of mad doctors throughout history will attest, the quest to create a “perfect” human, usually leads to things blowing up in your face. Or, at the very least, a mob of angry villagers with pitchforks.
Whedon’s held a special place in the gay community’s heart ever since Buffy came along with its feminist underpinnings and lesbian-empowerment witches, but Dollhouse, with its metaphorical prostitution and human-trafficking, goes to the dark side of feminism. If Buffy was the ultimate empowered Valley girl, Echo is powerless, a childlike blank slate when not imprinted with someone else’s memories.
But as Dushku’s character opines in the pilot, “Have you ever really looked at a blank slate? It’s never really clean. You can always see what’s there before.”
Still, the “Buy a girl who will be anything you want” angle opens up some serious gay angles for the show. At Comic-Con last week, Whedon addressed the potential for “actives” to be turned into lesbians and told the audience that, while on Buffy, the writers had a policy of not allowing magic to change a person’s sexuality as a means of punishment:
“On this show [Dollhouse], people’s personalities are being completely overwritten. When someone hires an active, what they’re basically doing is hiring somebody for an experience that absolutely nobody in the world will ever know about including the person that you went through it with…If you don’t think that at least a third of the people who hire Actives are not bi-curious, you’re naive.”
Of course, all this sexuality mumbo-jumbo will take time to sell to skeptical Fox viewers, who prefer their hot chicks to blow things up more than explore the nature of free will and sexuality. Whedon has already gone to some length to appease Fox and create a show that won’t wind up a critical darling that’s canceled before its time, but with a Friday night slot, Dollhouse faces an uphill challenge.
The show has received comparisons to Quantum Leap, but if there’s one thing Dollhouse reminds us of, it’s Alfred Hitcock’s Vertigo. In one of the early episodes, FBI Agent Paul Ballard (BSG‘s Tahmoh Penikett) is tracking down the Dollhouse, where the actives are made, and meets Echo, only she’s been programmed to throw him off the case, which is exactly the same thing Kim Novak is sent to do to Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, only without the sci-fi flux capacitor thingamajigs.
Vertigo, of course, is famous for bringing Hitchcock’s own misogynistic desires to life and confronting them in a way that was both compelling and brutally honest. It remains to be seen if Whedon’s allegorical Dollhouse will allow him to reveal his own sexuality. Whedon has a thing for girls who have been empowered and abused by men (see: Buffy and the Watchers, River Tam and the men in blue gloves on Firefly) and Dollhouse looks to be the fullest expression of Whedon’s inner desire to be the nerd capable of making the perfect woman.
It’s a tricky tight-rope to walk. Can a show whose central premise from week-to-week is that a bunch of dudes wipe over a girl’s memory to make her think, feel and do as they please actually help deconstruct and tear-down the central misogyny of its premise, or does it merely perpetuate it? That is to say, will the king of enlightened sexuality TV wind up exposing the monster, or becoming one himself?