For several weeks leading up to the Feb. 13 premiere of FOX's "Dollhouse," series creator Joss Whedon and pre ss-friendly stars like Eliza Dushku and Tahmoh Penikett walked a consistent party line when talking up the show.
If you like the early episodes? That's great, they all said. If you don't like those episodes, just wait for Episode Six, they all agreed. That's when things get really good, went the consensus.
Episode Six, "Man on the Street," airs on Friday (March 20) and Whedon did a conference call with reporters to celebrate the occasion.
This gave me the opportunity to ask the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Firefly" mastermind if, in retrospect, maybe it wasn't such a good idea to tell anybody listening that they didn't really need to watch "Dollhouse" until this point. While the show gets a ratings boost from DVR viewership and while last week's audience took a surprise bump, "Dollhouse" had been regularly losing viewers from a premiere audience that was already below FOX's hopes and expectations.
"You know, there may have been a negative side to it because we may have said, 'The first five episodes are crap,' which I don’t believe," Whedon acknowledges. "But I do believe, and there’s also the negativity of somebody saying, 'Well, now he's blaming the network for the other episodes.' Like, no, no, no, no, we did our best to try and figure out how to put the show over with a new paradigm under the gun while we were in production or occasionally out of production. And then what happened with 'Man on the Street,' was really, it just came to me as a concept really quickly. I pitched it to the network and for the first time, there was a real simpatico. They went, 'Oh, yes, we get that,' and it was a very simple thing."
Whedon continues, "And then I wrote it faster than anything I’d every written. It just poured out of me. It was like all of that brewing that we’ve been doing became the soup of that episode and so it really was a game changer for us on set and in production. The staff and the cast read it and a lot of tumblers fell into place. That’s how we felt about the episode. There may be a negativity associated with hyping it, but for all of us, episodes like Episode Eight and a lot of the following episodes really work on the model on 'Man on the Street' more than anything else. So it was a big moment for us. It was a moment that we felt like we found a level and we were really proud of it. So I figure that other people may feel differently, but we walked away from shooting that episode going, okay, we just added a layer and we feel pretty excited about it."
So what was that new paradigm? Why the excitement over "Man on the Street"?
"I think it was doing an episode that somebody who had never seen the show could walk in on because it explains very clearly the premise. In fact, it's kind of about explaining the premise and at the same time really getting under the skin of the dollhouse and of Paul’s character and of what’s going on with everybody and the workings of the place and coming at it sideways rather than just showing an engagement and flipping in some information around that engagement. This was one where we really got to look at the cogs of the clock and that’s what gave it such momentum for us."
Work was mostly completed on "Dollhouse" before the show premiered, so Whedon is in the position to admit that certain things that never caused concerns in the writers' room might have been considered if he'd had the chance to see how viewers would react.
Like, for example, why would somebody go to the Dollhouse to hire somebody imprinted to be a great midwife rather than just, you know, hiring a great midwife? Why would they want an imprinted Kidnap & Rescue expert rather than an actual K&R expert?
"[I]t's one of those things where because it makes sense to us on some levels, we look back and go, 'Are they with us?' But we finished shooting it before any of it aired, so it’s a little dicey there," Whedon says. "There were times we talked about why some of the engagements it seemed a little bit like, you could find somebody who might be that person. That a lot of the rich people have just become a status thing. It’s just this become, it’s just the way we do it. But we never spent too much time with that because we were never sure how much of an issue that was going to be. It’s the one thing that’s difficult about making a show when it’s not airing is you don’t have that feedback yet and you don’t know what is the thing they need to hear? So it gets addressed, but probably not as much as people would like."
One thing Whedon doesn't feel the need to justify is the lack of Whedonesque wittiness in the early episodes. While "Man on the Street" is absolutely the series' funniest episode to date -- in no small part due to the presence of guest star Patton Oswalt -- it's hardly chockfull of one-liners and sparkling repartee.
"[T]he fact of the matter is this is not a comedy," Whedon notes. "This is not the typical, well, if there is a typical Whedon show, this is not it. It's not the lighthearted romp that the other shows were. The fact of the matter is there’s definitely funny stuff coming up. There’s always moments of funny, but it doesn’t build like a comedy. It wasn’t designed to be a comedy. It’s not going to play that instrument. You have to do different things at different times. If people are feeling like it’s too serious, then either their expectation has to be changed, or we need to lighten up a little. But, yes, I don’t think they’re ever going to see the same sort of long, six page runs of just pure humor. This is not that show."
On the call, many of the questions became variations on the "Are we going to learn more about [Insert the name of your favorite character here]?"
A few of Whedon's responses:
Are we going to learn more about Amy Acker's scarred Dr. Claire Saunders: "Yes, we sure are. I love that character, not just because it’s Amy Aker, but because she wears misery and torture on her face literally. We will definitely learn how she came to this fabulous career. In the last few episodes, we get to turn the Aker up pretty hot and it’s very exciting."
Are we going to learn more about what brought Harry Lennix's Boyd into the Handler business: "I will tell you without reservation that in this season, we don’t answer it. ... [W]ay before we had it cast or even written, I had a feeling, I knew what had happened with Boyd. There was a line from an episode that was—it ultimately even filmed, but was tossed, where he talks to Saunders, 'None of us in here were next in line for pope. Everybody has a reason,' and rolling out how people came to this place is part of something we wanted to do. A little bit later on when we had people invested in the characters enough to be asking just as you have, but we still have to wait on that. We’ll see."
Are we going to learn more about Penikett's Ballad and his obsession with the Dollhouse: "[W]e feel like there’s a thorn in his side and we feel that we can push it further and twist it and possibly hit a vital organ. His obsession with Echo is rather than circling back to find its origin, we want to sort and the dollhouse, we want to just make it really challenge him in it and make it as hard for him as possible to explain himself, why he’s doing what he’s doing."
The "Man on the Street" episode of "Dollhouse" airs Friday, March 20 at 9 p.m. ET on FOX.