Dollhouse episode 1... errr, 6: Man on the Street
This was certainly an improvement over the past episodes. In fact, except for needing to see the Ballard storyline at a slightly earlier point, this almost could be the pilot episode. It says to the viewer – this is our world and here’s what the show is all about. As Stoney said, it’s a bit on the nose.
I think a lot of the “on the nose” aspect betrays this episode’s central function as “mission statement” and “course correction”. As Stoney and Aurora have said, it’s well done because Joss Whedon is a great writer. But still this is about repositioning the show for better episodes to come (hopefully).
The “man on the street” idea is enjoyable. There’s a memorable 1976 episode of the TV series M*A*S*H called “The Interview” which is structured entirely as a period documentary, interviewing the show’s regularly characters. TV shows have often turned to this format – especially the sitcom The Office. (Both British and American versions.) And I’ve seen cutaways to man-on-the-street interviews in many TV shows and movies. Xena’s Lucy Lawless makes a cameo appearance in 2002’s Spider-Man where she offers her opinion of the arachnid hero. (The film was directed by Xena executive producer Sam Raimi.)
Neil Gaiman (writer of comic books, novels, short stories, television and movies) used a similar man-on-the-street device for the framing arc of a 1989 special of the Secret Origins comic book that spotlighted Batman’s weird villains.
It’s a fun device for world-building, but I agree with Aurora that it makes little sense for the level of tech scene in the Dollhouse to be so far ahead of normal society. But then that’s the dichotomy we see in superhero comics, movies and TV shows. The heroes, villains and spy agencies have access to technology far beyond those of mortal men, but elsewhere things appear just as now. We see this probably a bit in Buffy with season four’s Initiative and even more so in the comics once vampires become public knowledge.
But it’s not quite as effective – either as comedy or drama – as some of the Buffyverse’s world building. I think of that moment in “School Hard” between Principal Snyder and the police chief:
Principal Snyder and the police knew the truth. The sense of denial in Sunnydale wasn’t as strong as we had been led to believe. And this was the first hint that would lead to such adversaries as the Mayor and even the Initiative. On first viewing, it felt like layers were being pulled back and there was something deeper underneath.Chief: So? You want the usual story? Gang-related? PCP?
Snyder: What'd you have in mind? The truth?
Chief: (considers) Right. Gang-related. PCP.
On a more comic note, we have Larry’s remark in “Anne” that shows the other students are aware of the town’s weirdness. “It's all about egg whites. If we can focus, keep discipline, and not have quite as many mysterious deaths, Sunnydale is gonna rule!” This throwaway line would bear fruit in “The Prom”.
Another “On the Nose” element is Joel Mynor’s speech to Ballard. This is a guy who had his very special memorial fantasy ruined and yet he finds the time to psychoanalyze the “hero cop”. I suppose it might be statement about the rich – that Mynor to get past his private pain to pull someone down. But more importantly, is there anyone in the audience who didn’t already think that Ballard’s quest was a doll-like fantasy?
Like Aurora said, Paul Ballard doesn’t even seem to belong to a 21st century agency. Replace the computer for a visit to a locked filing cabinet while holding a flashlight, and his investigations are straight out of 1950s TV. I imagine we’ll see even more X-Files machinations from his agency masters, but Ballard doesn’t have the smarts or charm of either Mulder or Scully.
I’m glad that they appear to finally be moving away from the monster of the week format. Angel vastly improved when they moved past the Saturday Morning TV version of film noir cases and brought in the powerful Darla arc. Echo’s missions up until now have been a bit too commonplace. The plot with Sierra’s rape and the looming threat of Alpha is more intriguing than what we’ve seen from the outside world.
Now that Dollhouse has had a good scrub-up and polish, I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next.