Joss Whedon has an Academy Award nomination, several Emmy nods, a feature film and now four TV series to which he can claim ownership.
He’s developed a rabidly loyal fanbase, a reputation for clever dialogue and the ability to turn an unreliable medium like online video into a cash cow. There are no official numbers on how much Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog, his WGA
strike-enabled Web series experiment, has grossed, but between ad revenue and sales of iTunes downloads, the official soundtrack and DVDs, it’s more than likely that Whedon has made back his initial six-figure investment</a>.
So why is Whedon’s new TV series, the Eliza Dushku-starring Dollhouse, currently floundering?
Granted, Fox did Dollhouse no favors by pairing the show’s launch with Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which has failed to prove itself as a ratings powerhouse.
In fact, Dollhouse is currently outperforming Sarah Connor in its new Friday night spot. But despite an attractive young star and a respected pedigree, the series is still getting beaten by CBS’ Ghost Whisperer and ABC’s 20/20 in its time slot.
And while there may be many causes, one of them has to be a core misunderstanding of what mainstream audiences are prepared to handle on initial viewing. Most reviewers sited the show’s extremely complicated premise as its downfall:
"Overcrowded with plotlines, high-tech gimmicks and ambition yet empty of emotional connection and purpose, Dollhouse tries so hard to be so many things it winds up being nothing much at all," writes Robert Lloyd of the L.A. Times, and Tom Shales of the Washington Post calls it "a mish-mash of mumbo-jumbo."
Anyone who has had to explain the series to friends or family knows where these reviewers are coming from.
Loglines — the one-sentence description of a story idea used casually in the industry to discuss new projects — have a reputation for encouraging the dumbing-down of films and TV. But they’re invaluable when it comes to getting people interested in a new story.
Over the past five years, Lost has emerged as one of TV’s most complex sci-fi dramas, but it’s important to remember that its core premise was incredibly simple: Plane crashes on mysterious island, leaving those who lived through the crash struggling to survive.
Meanwhile, Dollhouse‘s logline, at its most simplified, is this: A highly secretive agency run by a mysterious British woman (Olivia Williams) uses advanced technology to brainwash attractive young men and women for the most random tasks society’s elite can come up with. Thus, every week our heroine, Echo (Dushku), is a spy, a sex goddess, or an assassin — so long as there’s someone willing to pay.
(I look forward to the recession-themed storyline where the Dollhouse’s upper-class clients are no longer able to afford their rates and the Dollhouse is forced to offer a 50 percent-off sale.)
It’s a mouthful, and I haven’t even mentioned the FBI agent pursuing rumors of the Dollhouse, the suggestion that the normally-braindead "Actives" are growing awareness of their situation, or the rogue Active who might still be on a killing spree.
Unfortunately, Dollhouse addresses the dilemma of its extremely complicated premise by underestimating viewers in all the wrong ways, utilizing heavy-handed metaphor and exposition to drive its points home — simultaneously alienating those who get it and confusing those who don’t.
This was something that Whedon seemed to understand at the beginning of his career — the Buffy the Vampire Slayer franchise originated as Whedon’s first spec screenplay (written while he was a staff writer on Roseanne), and it sold easily thanks to an easily distilled logline: "cheerleader destined to fight the undead."
Online audiences are willing to give Whedon the support those who prefer their TV to be conventional will not; Dollhouse since its premiere has ranked in the top slots on both Hulu and iTunes downloads, while its ratings experience a 30 percent jump when DVR viewing is accounted for. But while those viewers are an attractive demographic, their preferred methods of consumption are unproven territory to advertisers.
And while a paradigm shift may be coming in the television industry, for right now advertisers are still the ones holding the purse strings.
Both Whedon and star Eliza Dushku have asked audiences to stick with the show during these growing pains — Dushku telling the Onion’s AV Club that the sixth episode, “Man on the Street," is when the show really gets started.
But if the show doesn’t make it that far, hopefully his next project will do better — and, right from the beginning, be describable in 20 words or less.