Dollhouse season 1 cast promo photo

The jury is still out for Joss Whedon’s latest endeavour, the Friday night spy-drama Dollhouse. If you’re unfamiliar, it features Buffy the Vampire Slayer alumna Eliza Dushku as one of a group of “dolls”, young people whose minds have been wiped clean so they can take imprints for different personalities and skills. Effectively the instant-skill-set ability of characters in the Matrix movies combined with an Alias-like drama. The dolls are run by a vaguely sinister organization, and while it is implied that much of the work the “dolls” are put to are of the sexual wish-fulfilment variety, the missions we see them on generally include the archetypes routine to this type of spy-drama; hostage negotiation, bank heists, undercover infiltration, and so on. Running parallel to the weekly Dollhouse mission plot line is that of a Mulder-like FBI agent doggedly determined to seek out the organization, which is generally considered an urban legend.

Many Whedon fans, such as our own bloginhood, gave up on the show in short order, finding it formulaic and undistinguished television, bereft of the features treasured by Whedonites. Those who stuck with it were eventually rewarded; beginning with episode 6, “Man on the Street”, the show completely turned on a dime. The structure moved away from case-of-the-week and became much more about the internal politics and struggles of the Dollhouse organization, and the dolls’ real personalities are becoming much of the focus. The story arcs are beginning to stretch across multiple episodes, and most importantly, large doses of trademark Whedon humour have crept in.

It may be too late, as many feared when Felicia Day posted to her Twitter that the 13th episode of the season, in which both Day and Firefly favourite Alan Tudyk appear, will only be available on the DVD. Despite this, the official statements continue to maintain that the show is not in danger, though ratings continue to decline. With Dollhouse facing an uncertain future and a fresh re-watching of Buffy under my belt, I want to take some time for a nostalgic look back at Buffy, to look at what makes Whedon such a respected and talented writer, and why his shows perpetually struggle despite his critical successes. Much more after the break.

Looking back at Buffy over the last several weeks has struck home to me again why Whedon is such a remarkable writer, and why it was such a remarkable show. The number of things he set in motion have resonated across network television ever since. Before Buffy, network dramas followed a consistent structure: “story-of-the-week” plots with long character arcs. Occasionally a multi-episode arc would be introduced, usually during a sweeps month. House, MD is probably the most successful current drama that follows this conventional structure. Most medical cases are introduced and resolved within one episode. Main cast character arcs play out over multiple episodes, but have an internal one-episode dramatic arc as well, with conflict and resolution by the end of the episode. Sometimes a medical case arc plays out over a couple of episodes, though House does this less than older medical dramas such as ER.

Most conventional dramas on the air – shows like the three CSI series – use this formula, which is entirely engineered on one principle; to make it easy for new viewers to start watching or old viewers to miss an episode without losing interest in the show. There’s always some playing with the formula – for instance, a recurring killer on a show like CSI who makes 3 or 4 appearances spaced throughout a season, usually during sweeps – or the short-arc characters ER was fond of, such as Don Cheadle or Alan Alda’s half-dozen-episode arcs – but these are done to try to loosely hook people into coming back every week, without making a serious commitment. And romantic subplots between characters usually feature heavily.

While Buffy took some time to build into it, Whedon decided to pretty much toss this out the window, and in so doing, set the stage for many of the major successes of this millennium. Lost, Heroes, Battlestar Galactica, 24, Veronica Mars and Doctor Who all have major debts to Whedon for trying to break out of this conventional television structure.

Buffy started out very conventionally, with the introduction of the Slayer to a new school located over a Hellmouth (providing a convenient ever-present threat and explanation for strange events), and a binning of everything that happened in the mediocre film predecessor. A supporting cast was introduced, the core of which was always her two best friends, Willow and Xander, and her Watcher, the school librarian Giles. Mysterious vampire-with-a-soul Angel makes recurring appearances as a romantic interest for Buffy.

Partially riding a wave of horror and vampire resurgence that was happening in Hollywood and treading similar ground to Chris Carter’s X-Files, the show found an audience among the teens watching the WB, and some older viewers. The mystical event of the week – disappearing students, vampire attacks, giant predatory insects, and other Kolchak-like horrors – played out in single-episode arcs, while the characters of the Slayer and her Scooby Gang were fleshed out over the course of the season. In keeping with its contemporaries on the WB, teen romance between the various cast members was a major component of the character arcs. Mystical metaphors were usually applied in a clever way to real-life struggles viewers could empathize with – the girl so unpopular she turns invisible, the girl who appears to be pushed by her mother to follow in her prom-queen footsteps who turns out to be literally possessed by her mother, and so on. And the concept of the “Big Bad”, the core of what Buffy would become, was introduced.

The Master, an ancient vampire prophesied to kill the Slayer, was introduced in the pilot. While he rarely had anything to do with the week-to-week plots, the threat of the prophesy hung over the show until the season 1 finale, when it was fulfilled with Buffy’s death at the hands of the Master. Unfortunately for him, it was a drowning death, Xander was a Baywatch fan, the Slayer was revived, and the Master was dead soon thereafter. It was easily the least remarkable of the show’s many remarkable finales, but the structure and the way Buffy’s death would change the role of the Slayer as defined within the show’s mythology would have far-reaching implications.

The second season was the final building season, establishing the mythology and internal structure of seasons 3-7, in which Buffy became the unique show beloved by critics and featured in post-graduate dissertations. The Big Bad in season 2 starts off as Spike and Drusilla, two vampires from Angel’s past, but makes a surprising turn midway through the season when Buffy and Angel have sex for the first time. He loses his soul as a result, and becomes the season’s Big Bad in partnership with Spike and Dru. While Angel was certainly established as a formidable fighter, the real conflict through the latter half of the season is Buffy’s internal conflict over having to kill the man she loves to save the world.

This established the pattern of the series, where each season’s Big Bad alternated between an external, large-scale demonic threat (The Master, The Mayor, Glory, and The First) and a more psychological, from-within threat (Angel, The First Slayer, and Willow). Note that the latter type always involved a “red-herring” Big Bad (Spike & Dru, Adam, and the Trio, respectively) who was more of a catalyst for the true threat than a threat unto itself.

The second season, while generally following a conventional structure, introduced many of the elements which would be used to great success in later seasons. The shocking death of Jenny Calendar at the hands of Angel midway through the season was the first time we saw Whedon’s willingness to kill major or beloved characters suddenly and unexpectedly, which has been a part of his trademark ever since, and a major hook for subsequent dramas like Lost and Heroes. The actors and writers fully got in sync in season 2 as well, with each character delivering their witty, fast-paced banter in completely unique voices.

The second season also introduced a major change in the mythology of the series when it is revealed that Buffy’s death triggered the activation of a new Slayer, Kendra. This threw out the old idea hanging on from the movie that each generation only had one Slayer, and established the concept that there were many potential Slayers around the world, which would eventually have a major impact on the final season.

What is most striking about season 2 is that you can see the seeds of plot elements being sown which would not bear fruit for several seasons, and it became clear that he was laying a foundation for seasons to come. The concept of the Potentials is the clearest seed laid this season, but Willow’s eventual struggles were clearly telegraphed in her very first forays into the world of witchcraft and its dangers.

Whedon was not the first writer to bring a television series to air with a long-arc plan in mind, but he was probably the first to do it with such a flexible one. In the next installment, we’ll look at the glory years of Buffy, beginning with season 3.

Joss Whedon’s past and the future of “Dollhouse”: