From the best shows to the worst, almost every program on TV goes through growing pains trying to find itself. But with most shows, it's a process that goes undiscussed, as both networks and producers are hesitant to admit if they're putting out anything less than the finest work imaginable.
But denial isn't Joss Whedon's way.
He was candid when "Dollhouse" scrapped its original pilot and shot a new one. He was candid when "Dollhouse" shut down production in the early going to give the writers the chance to regain their footing. As the show premiered, he was candid that the first five episodes were basically variations on the pilot and that things didn't really get good until "Man on the Street." While most shows launch amidst a news cycle built around puffery and bluster, Whedon made the decision to tell the world that he was plugging away on this project that he wasn't really comfortable with.
As a reporter, Whedon's attitude was endlessly interesting and refreshing, but I could imaging that for some casual viewers, operating outside of Whedon's sphere of influence, it was a bit off-putting to be told that they should keep tuning in to "Dollhouse," even with the not-so-tacit acknowledgement that the man responsible for the show wasn't exactly a cheerleader.
On Friday (July 31) afternoon, members of the Television Critics Association gathered on the "Dollhouse" set (still one of the most beautiful and detailed I've ever seen) and I asked Whedon if, in retrospect, he felt that maybe he'd been a bit too candid in the show's early going. I asked if maybe some viewers had chose to wait until he said he'd gotten it right.
That seems fair, right?
[Whedon's answer and his enthusiastic gushing about Season Two after the break...]
"Ooops. That's awkward," Whedon said (at least half-kidding and half-stalling to think).
"Too candid? Well, the thing is, I can't help it," he admitted. "The struggle we were going through was monumental. The struggle these guys went through was reflected in the fact we never shot one single episode in order. And so we literally had to give them memos about what they knew or didn't know yet for every show, because we were scrambling so much."
Whedon continued, "I may, in fact, be too candid. I'm wearing women's underwear. For example, there. But the fact is, we were under a microscope. Every time we got shut down, people wanted answers, they wanted some explanation. And if an episode was nothing more than diverting and we hadn't quite gotten inside the experience as much as I wanted, I wanted people to know that I knew that, that I felt like we were trying to get something out and the struggle we had defining the show was causing it to stumble a little bit. I can't put something out there that is less than what it could be, without some kind of explanation and again, it was just a question of what stories can we tell and how can we please the network and all of those things we were going through. People were talking about them anyway and if I didn't say anything, they tended to panic. Also, I can't help myself. I want people to know the truth."
Seconds later, series co-star Olivia Williams laughed and said, "This is the first time I've heard a journalist ask someone to give them less information."
To this, Whedon added, "From now on, I'm gonna clam up. And the person responsible is..."
Well, me. I'm not sure that I actually told Whedon to be less candid or give me less information. I'm also not sure that Whedon really answered my question.
Either way, Whedon and company are approaching "Dollhouse" from a totally different perspective as they finish work on the premiere of Season Two this weekend.
"Welcome back to the biggest surprise of my career," Whedon told reporters as we entered the bright, wood-paneled atrium of the Dollhouse.
Whether he's taking a new promotional tack or still being candid, Whedon is excited about where "Dollhouse" is now, following 12 aired episodes, an unaired pilot and "Epitaph One," a season-ending bonus episode filmed for 20th Century Fox TV, but never aired on FOX.
"We're in it now," Whedon raved. "Before it was an idea and it was an idea that we had a lot of trouble defining and America got to watch that and now we feel like it is defined. The network understand what it is. We understand what it is. We understand what our cast is capable of, which is wonders. So we came in just with the most excitement and we've been having a great deal of fun ever since."
While never seen on the network, "Epitaph One" is available on the "Dollhouse" DVD and was screened for fans at Comic-Con. While some people who have seen the hour insist that it's essential for the ongoing direction of the show, Whedon dismissed the idea that viewers who left off at "Omega" (the Season One finale) would be lost without the future-flashing "Epitaph."
"We're fascinated by that world and its connection to this world, that future and all of the things that we saw there, we will basically be making the show for both audiences," Whedon said. "We will see the future again. In fact, you'll see it first thing. We go back to that time as a sort of bookend structure for this episode, but if you haven't seen that, it will explain itself. It will say what that episode said, which is all of this will result in disaster, but this is the story of what happened then. So the actual bulk of the show takes place three months after the events of 'Omega,' but we will be visiting that future every now and then. It will not be something where you can change it or we send people back in time or anybody has metal under their flesh. I love that stuff, but apparently that gets you cancelled."
In short, pity poor "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles."
So what's on the agenda for Season Two?
"From go, the mandate has been: How far can we take this? How much can we twist the knife? Where can we find alliances that we did not have? Where can we pull people apart who seem to be together? And, most importantly, how can we build Echo up from nothing, which was basically where she started last year, and really give her a sense of momentum and purpose that will ground the show in a way that it couldn't be last year?" Whedon said. "And that has been our mission statement, to make things harder for everybody and to bring back all of the extraordinary recurring actors we had and, most importantly, let things begin to cohere. And the good news about that is that once they do, once Echo starts really realizing that as a person she not only exists, but that she has a mission, that she has something that she wants, this year we're going to see the results of everything she went through last year, particularly the event with Alpha, where she was downloaded with all the personalities, we're going to see the effect that's had on her and we're going to find her to be a great deal less passive and a great deal more directed in what she wants."
That last bit sounds encouraging for critics who complained that as interesting as "Dollhouse" often was, Eliza Dushku's Echo was both the series focus and it's least interesting facet.
"She has gone to a new level in this season and you'll see that she has a cohesiveness and a mission that will make every engagement mean a good deal more to her and she has, as Echo, her own agenda, which is something she didn't quite have," Whedon promised. "We did sort of build to that in 'Omega' where she had been dumped with all the personalities, we heard her say her name. At the end of this episode, we're going to see how far she's come. It's a little further than people around here know."
Whedon thanked the "Dollhouse" fans for their devotion to the show, pointing out that the series returned in part because audiences were passionate and enthusiastic without resorting to elaborate campaigns. They weren't necessarily appearing in Nielsen figures, but fans were out there in different venues and FOX noticed.
"All of the revue streams are taken into account," Whedon said. "It used to be who tuned in that night. Now with DVR, our DVR numbers were about the highest, while our on-Friday-night numbers were hilarious. So they're taking all this into account. Also, my other shows' DVDs, they're being bought now, 10 years after the fact, so they're thinking long-term, which is not something you actually expect from these people, so we're grateful for that."
Of course, under-the-traditional-radar fans are great, but one reporter asked Whedon if he'll be worried about renewal again next spring if none of the numbers change.
"I don't think I have any worry left left in me," Whedon said. "I think I have reached a Zen place. The fact is, I got to tell stories with these people and had they taken all that away from me, I felt like 'Epitaph One' was a hell of a way to go out, even though it was made for very strange reasons. But I'm so grateful to be back here now, I'm kinda taking it one day at a time and always preparing for the storm. That's how we used to live with 'Buffy,' we ended every season knowing if that was the last episode, we'd feel some sort of closure and we're trying to do the same thing without ever closing the door. As long as I'm getting to play with these people? The numbers have never been my concern. I've never gotten huge numbers. I'm not a big hit guy. What I do is find the best ensembles on television and then I make them work their asses off and as long as I do that, I'm in clover."
"Dollhouse" returns to FOX on Friday, September 25. And again, if Whedon somehow seems less candid over the next two months, I'm sorry.