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"Dollhouse" Tv Series in Jonathan Bernstein aerial view of America

Sunday 1 March 2009, by Webmaster

The good news about Joss Whedon’s rabid online fan base is that their enthusiastic support for his Dr Terrible’s Sing-Along Blog established a market for web-based entertainment that will, one day, see the broadcast networks crumble into dust. The bad news about Whedon’s internet following is that they were making funeral arrangements for his new show Dollhouse while he was still writing it. Dollhouse was going to be on Fox, the very same network that defiled his previous Firefly by scrapping his pilot episode, making him cobble together a dumbed-down first show, relegating the series to the Friday night graveyard slot, screening episodes out of order, underpromoting the show and finally, giving it the axe. The Whedonites’ worst-case-scenario then got increasingly worse: Fox scrapped the Dollhouse pilot, instructing its creator to cobble together something more coherent, then they relegated the series to the Friday night graveyard slot. When the show debuted to anaemic ratings, the outpouring of online woe and anti-network venting was inescapable. There’s no question that Fox treated Firefly like a red-headed stepchild and that the ire of the fans was justified. Dollhouse is a different story. Whedon’s asking us to buy that there are members of society so desperate and without hope that they voluntarily sign up to a Secret Organisation where all traces of their memories and personalities are wiped. Henceforth, they become empty vessels woken from dreamless slumbers when the Secret Organisation imprints them with brand-new personalities. These blank slates - known inhouse as "Actives" - then assume new identities. Assassins, safe-crackers, gangsters, girlfriends: you name it. But why does the SO go to such lengths? So they can make a buck by satisfying the jaded palates of the obscenely rich. Here’s where we, as viewers, utter a collective "Wait a minute..."

Whedon’s rejigged pilot starts with rookie active Echo (Eliza Dushku) assuming the identity of a rich birthday boy’s hot date. Wait a minute... So the SO, with its open-plan unisex showers and secret Frankensteinian enclaves, is basically an escort agency? Later, Echo is given the skills and memories of a hostage negotiator so she can retrieve the abducted child. Once again, wait a minute... I suspect Whedon and his crack staff are aware that Dollhouse is a premise that seems more flawed the closer it is examined. The writers set a series of plot strands in motion: will Echo’s former personality reassert itself? Will the cop on the trail of the mythical Dollhouse prove its existence, to up the suspense and steer the show away from being a showcase for Eliza Dushku’s array of accents? But, as appealing as the prospect is of a weekly appointment watching Dushku discard costumes and enjoy showers, she’s the star of a paranoid, science-fiction Secret Diary Of A Call Girl.

The real-life dollhouse that is the Disney Channel now has its own 30 Rock. That it stars Demi Lovato, the latest multitalent to emerge from the Mouse Incubator, is hardly a surprise. That she’s actually funny in it is more of a shocker. No matter your age, income or degree of emotional distress, there was no way you could have lasted through more than a minute of Ms Lovato’s Disney debut, the musical Camp Rock, without finding yourself thinking, "This is the most awkward, self-conscious performance I have ever seen from a paid professional." Even though I’ve worked for Disney in the past, I can’t claim any insider knowledge. I don’t know for certain that, before every scene, a highly strung director hissed at Ms Lovato, "Smile and don’t stop smiling. Otherwise your little puppy will be asphyxiated." Like I say, I don’t know that for certain. I’m just saying, it’s possible. And I’m saying that because the Demi Lovato on Sonny With A Chance doesn’t have two bright buttons of terror where her eyes should be. There isn’t a Joker-like rictus carved across her face. She’s not shaking with fear of failure. As the midwest YouTube star who wins a place on a tween sketch show, she’s funny, appealing and possessed of comic timing that lands just the right side of precocious. Which is to say, she’s about as natural as a child performer who’s had Disney’s all-singing, all-dancing, all-smiling all-the-time commands drilled in to them is ever going to be. Even more surprising is the way the show takes for granted that its target audience of six to 12-year-olds have a working knowledge of the way TV operates. Sonny revolves around the rivalry between the shrieky misfits who work on Lovato’s low-budget comedy show and the teen VIPs who populate the glossy drama Mackenzie Falls, which is basically every adolescent soap from Dawson’s Creek to Gossip Girl shoved into a blender.

In another age, Danny McBride would have enjoyed a long and fulfilling career as a character actor specialising in belligerent assholes. But we’re living in a time when anyone with even the most tenuous of connections to Judd Apatow gets to be a star. In the last year or so the beefy, bemulleted McBride has stolen large chunks of screen time in the likes of Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder and his own indie vehicle The Foot Fist Way, where he plays a delusional karate teacher. Now he’s got his own HBO sitcom, Eastbound & Down. If Will Ferrell, who produces and guest stars, hadn’t made 463 consecutive sports comedies, it would have been easy to picture him as the down-and-out, steroid-abusing, xenophobic former baseball star who winds up teaching gym in his old high school in Florida. And if Ferrell had played the part of disgraced pitcher Kenny Powers, there would have been a hint of sweetness in his lack of awareness. There is no sweetness anywhere in the vicinity of Danny McBride. He plays Powers as an unrepentant prick, sneering about "Jew York", abusing the headmaster who worships him, openly bullying the asthmatics and the unathletic in his gym class and making endless clumsy passes at his former high school girlfriend. There’s no way a character this relentlessly unpleasant won’t end up learning more than a few life lessons along the way but let’s hope they leave the redemption until the very end of the series.