Joss Whedon is America’s most misunderstood maker of TV shows.
To quantify: Whedon’s crowning glory, the seven season ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’ was probably the best television series ever made about teenagers – yet far fewer people tuned in than should have because they thought it was just about vampires and blood and stuff. His 2002 follow up ‘Firefly’ was one of the most uniquely thought-provoking science fiction series ever conceived – yet it was cancelled after eleven episodes due to both viewers and studio heads alike not being able to get beyond it being a Western as well as a show about spaceships.
And what of ‘Angel’? Imagine pitching that one to the TV execs – “well, it’s kinda like a horror, but it’s funny, and it’s a bit like Miss Marple, really. Oh yeah, and there are vampires in it again…” I swear to God – if David Boreanaz didn’t have such an attractive forehead that show would never have been made.
So does Joss Whedon write sci-fi? Or comedy? Or drama? Or is it insulting to the very stretch of a person’s imagination to ask such a question? I would argue it is. See, as well as being its most misunderstood, I’d also argue that Josh Whedon is America’s most consistently brilliant maker of TV shows – I mentioned he used to write for ‘Rosanne’ right? This guy can do anything…
As if to provide further proof, fresh from revitalising the X-Men via his and artist John Cassaday’s six issue ‘Gifted’ story arc in the Astonishing X-Men series, Whedon returns with ‘Dollhouse’, which thirteen episode Season One collection sits before me as I write this (“13 episodes? But they only aired 12 on TV?” – ah, but they’ve included the 13th but never screened episode they filmed in the Dollhouses far off future in the boxset. Be excited: it’s really great).
Staring Whedon alumni Eliza Dushku (who you might remember as Buffy nemesis Faith) in the lead as Echo, one of the Dollhouse’s ‘Actives’, Echo heads up an unspecified number of people – who, depending on your point of view, are either volunteers or conscripts – whose personalities and pasts have been wiped clean to be imprinted with new personas to be used on ‘engagements’ by the highly illegal yet far reaching Dollhouse.
Never experienced true love? Want someone to play Quasar with? Need someone to negotiate the release of your kidnapped child? If you’ve got the money and the character references, Topher Brink (Fran Kranz in a brilliant turn as the facilities boffin mind imprinter) can fix that for you. Which throws up all manner of interesting questions; about the moral nature of such a practice, the existence of a person’s soul, the motives of multi-national corporations (I’m looking forward to learning more about the shadowy Rossum corporation in series 2 and beyond) as well as giving Dushku the opportunity to develop her acting skills beyond the weekly strop she’d throw each week as Faith in Buffy.
Yet if Whedon’s work has one constant watermark – from ‘Buffy’ and ‘Angels’’ Spike to Dollhouses’ Paul Ballard (the pesky FBI agent on a mission to liberate Echo and pals) and Adelle DeWitt (the well intentioned British born Dollhouse matriarch) – it’s his ability to create great characters; full bodied personalities you actually care about. All of which must be quite a challenge when you’re writing a show and half of the cast have personalities which shift from week to week.
Yet somehow Whedon, who you sense has a unique ability to understand and convey all that humans great, has created a show which has an ensemble of players worthy of investing your time in. Sure – maybe the show takes a while to get going – it was only by episode four that I got that boxset junkie thing where I felt compelled to keep going until the end – and perhaps some of the themes thrown up by the show are a little too philosophical for a primetime TV show – especially in a climate where people who work in supermarkets mumble through a Celine Dion song before getting marched out back and shot in the head by Simon Cowell (maybe) is the worlds most popular TV programme.
But I’d argue – and you might have realised from this post that I’ll argue pretty much anything – that imagination is king; and that if you consistently strive to put interesting themes and ideas in front of people, then maybe we’ll get to the place where pop culture has some emotional/intellectual/humanist worth beyond giggling at plumbers having dreams. There’s more imagination in ten minutes of ‘Dollhouse’ than pretty much any episodical sci-fi around right now that isn’t ‘Doctor Who’. And I guess that’s the reason Wheldon truly deserves all the plaudits that come his way.
Because more than anyone currently making TV right now, Joss Whedon’s programmes are principally defined by the importance he gives to his own imagination. Why can’t you make a show that deals with genuine heartbreak when a girl catches her werewolf boyfriend in bed with another wolf? Why can’t you have a show whose over arching story arc might just be that all the people who are running the Dollhouse are actually ‘Dolls’ themselves? And why can’t you have a bloody saloon shoot-out in a show set in space. And that in essence is the reason to respect Joss Whedon – he always says “why not”.
You can’t help wishing there were more like him.
’Dollhouse: Season One’ is available to buy on DVD now