TV Review: Dollhouse, Part 2

Be sure to check out Part 1 of this review before reading this.

SPOILER ALERT: No part of the show and it’s story is off limits to the discussion. You’ve been warned.

The first scene of “Dollhouse” ends with a profound climax. Through a hazy, monitor-like screen, we see Dollhouse manager Adelle DeWitt try to convince a college student named Caroline to join the Dollhouse (Caroline becomes Echo). At first she refuses, but the pressure is so great that she has no other choice.

“I know, I know,” Caroline says, “Actions have consequences.”

“What if they didn’t?” Adelle says.

Therein lies the Dollhouse’s fundamental appeal: escape. For those that enlist to become dolls, it offers freedom from the pain and consequences of a past life. For the clients, it offers people that are as real and genuine as anyone else but also perfectly suited to any relationship or task one could want–but minus the long-term consequences. Everyone’s happy; what could go wrong?

A lot, as it turns out. As in any good story, that’s only how people want things to go.

Adelle DeWitt argues for the morality of the Dollhouse by claiming that it gives people what they need. I won’t delve too deep into the psychology of the issue, but in the show, many of the engagements ring hollow or become downright vile. It seemed that few, if any, of the Dollhouse’s clients for romantic or relational engagements give us the sense that they are really satisfied. Most of the time it involves indulging their own vain, selfish desires or living hopelessly in the past.

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TV Review: Dollhouse, Part 1

I’m not a big television watcher. I refuse to take up the gauntlet of 24 or Lost, catch a few game shows every night, or follow any of the great sagas like Star Trek. Simply put, I try to avoid starting anything that will dominate my life for an extended period of time. The lack of creativity and story that comes with formulaic shows tends to turn me off. Yes, I love Psych as much as the next guy, but after three or four seasons it gets a little old, okay?

That said, the TV medium has it’s uses and can be done well. Two summers ago, I made it through Joss Whedon’s woefully short “Firefly” series. It quickly rose to the top of my list of favorite TV shows. Over the course of this past summer, I’ve worked my way through another of Whedon’s creations: “Dollhouse”.

You could start by describing “Dollhouse” as a sort of science fiction drama, though the genre hardly begins to explain anything about the show’s uniqueness. “Dollhouse” is set in modern times with one fictional factor: people have invented a top secret computer technology capable of manipulating the human brain. It can add and subtract memories, personalities, skills–even allergies and other sensory functions. In other words, you can wipe away someone mind and replace it with whatever you want, thus creating any person you want in any given body. You can even take a full “imprint” of one person’s mind and put it in another person’s body.

The show gets its name from an underground institution called the Dollhouse. In a Dollhouse, people sign their lives away for a number of years to become a “doll.” In doll state, heir minds have been wiped and restored to the “tabula rasa,” or blank slate, where they live in a state of absolute innocence and ignorance. Dollhouses rent out their dolls, or “actives”, as they’re called, to clients. Whatever a client wants is programmed into an active for a genuine experience, or “engagement,” with another person. These range from romantic engagements, where the active is basically a programmed lover, to undercover spy operations. Within their database of mind “imprints”, the Dollhouse supplies its clients with anything from the perfect wife to a master thief.

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Is 3D too real?

Dr. Grant Horner discusses the recent “fad” of 3D films and says why they’re bound to fail.

I’m not a huge fan of 3D. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen any films in their 3D form aside from attractions at amusement parks, so perhaps I’m not qualified to judge whether 3D is better or not.

But when I think about the thrust of Horner’s argument, it makes sense. We listen to stories to escape from reality. Film lets us to step into another universe as a “fly on the wall.” Do we really want to enter a world with as much depth and realism as our own? My first thought is “yes, of course,” but art is imitation, not reproduction. Maybe if we try to imitate too much, we lose the appeal.

Of course, you also have folks like James Cameron who think 3D is the future of the industry. No matter how you feel about Cameron, you have to admit that he knows something about making appealing films too.

A Pair of Unrelated Q&As

A little flair of my personal interests today.

One, I’ve shared my love for AMC’s The Walking Dead. Here’s an interview with the editor of the series. He talks about what it takes to make “exploding zombie heads emotional.”

Two, ultimate Frisbee is my favorite sport to play, hands down. So here’s a basic Q&A about the great game of ultimate with Kevil Seiler. Yes, I know we ultimate players are a little strange, but we’re still awesome.

Film Response: The Adjustment Bureau

This post by religion writer Terry Mattingly first piqued my interested in Matt Damon’s most recent film The Adjustment Bureau. Mattingly titles his piece “Angels and Damon (and free will),” an apt description, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that talks so much about the great philosophical conundrum of fate versus free will. It raises the inevitable questions that arise from the study of theology and human nature. Do we have free will to choose for ourselves, or are there deeper powers of fate guiding our path? If fate, predestination, providence–whatever you want to call it–does control at least a part of our lives, can we do anything to escape it? Should we even want to escape it?

If anyone is qualified to tackle the question of fate and free will, one would think it would be writer and director George Nolfi. He majored in philosophy at Princeton and went on to study at Oxford. According to Damon, “He’ll talk your ear off about that stuff.” And I’ve no doubt he can, because he mixes and matches all kinds of ideas about how predestination works into an almost believable model.

I doubt that anyone believes The Adjustment Bureau’s portrayal of fate and free will. At least, no one in Christianity or the secular western world–that I’m aware of–would hold such a position, though perhaps there are belief systems out there that do. In the world of the Adjustment Bureau, people are free to do whatever they want, but they are subtly manipulated by modern day angels in fedoras and trench coats so that everyone’s life goes “according to plan.”

“Manipulation” isn’t quite as sinister as it sounds, though. These agents don’t change your emotions or feelings–that would be too direct and invasive. Rather, they only tinker with your reasoning or change external circumstances like a lost pair of keys. These angels are ultimately accountable to a mysterious God-like figure called the Chairman, who must approve of larger adjustments and, we suspect, authors every person’s plan in the first place.  The agents seem to be just like ordinary people, only they have a supernatural system that allows them to travel anywhere in New York within minutes, and they can work the occasional miracle–a Jedi-like ability to make someone spill his coffee or trip on the floor.

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Thoughts on The Walking Dead

Warning: a few minor spoilers (but it won’t completely ruin the show for you).

The Walking Dead is one of the few TV shows that I actually had the chance to follow in real time, as it aired last Fall while I was in Washington, DC and had ready access to cable TV. I witnessed part of AMC’s  advertising campaign for the show that involved a “zombie invasion” in 26 cities around the world (people dressed up as zombies took over one of the metro stops on the route to my internship). The Walking Dead is based on a monthly comic book series created by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore. I have not read any of the comics, but apparently the show takes a few critical diversions from the original story.

I’m not a big television guy. I’ve found a few that I like and will watch from time to time, but I’ve consciously made a point not to get sucked in to shows like LOST or 24. There’s something about zombie stories, though, that has always fascinated me, and the Walking Dead sucked me in. Seriously, the first season may have only had six episodes, but I have meditated on them to a degree that is probably unhealthy (I’ve had dreams about zombie invasions, for starters). It’s not a blood and gore slaughter fest like many zombie films. Sure, there’s plenty of violence–enough for a high PG-13 or probably an R rating in film–but that’s beside the point in this case. The violence is not an end in itself. The thing that’s compelling about the show is that it studies the zombie-apocalypse scenario. It throws us straight into the shoes of Sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) as he wakes up from a coma in a hospital. He calls for the nurse. No one responds. He stumbles into the hall. It’s torn apart. Only a few lights are flickering. We are with him as he stumbles outside to find rows and rows of dead bodies. We know, from the title of the show if nothing else, what is going on, but we can imagine what must be going through is head, and we sympathize with him as he comes to grips with the new world that he lives in and launches himself on a reckless quest into the heart of Atlanta to find his family. Continue reading →